Traditionally many houses have at their front door a mat for visitors to wipe their feet on. Invariably there is written on the mat “welcome”. Hence we get the term “Welcome Mat”. But then, just next to the doorbell is a different message to visitors arriving. It is a sign that says “Do Not Knock”. They come with a warning: Salespeople not welcome here. If you knock on my door you’re breaking the law.
So there is a conflicting message – one that says “welcome” and another that says to certain people “you’re not welcome”.
On many church signs there is an accompanying message on their signage that often has “All Welcome”. As a Christian community this is something that we need to keep looking at to see if we are being true to our message and making everyone feel welcome. I imagine that we would be saddened to hear from a visitor that they came here and didn’t feel welcomed. Not that we would ever intentionally make a person feel unwelcome but sometimes it is the unintentional things that we do that can make a person feel unwelcome. We do things in church in ways we have always done them. We call them traditions. We’ve done them over and over again that we can recite them without looking at the screen. We can sing the liturgy and the hymns without referring to the words. But how does a person coming for the first time participate. And what we find as inspiring because we know the tune so well that we can belt out the words at the top of our voice we might think that a visitor would be very impressed but in fact they can feel very unwelcome and out of place because they don’t know what we know so well.
That doesn’t mean we should change what we do to accommodate a visitor but it’s about identifying the visitor and maybe sitting with them to help them. Making them feel welcome even if they feel out of place. But then there are also our regulars who are here all the time. Sometimes our regulars can feel unwelcome even though we cannot understand why they would feel that way. Maybe there’s something different in their behaviour. Maybe they’ve missed a few weeks.
Maybe they’ve started sitting up the back so they can leave before the service has ended so they don’t have to talk to anyone. And maybe they begin to feel that they are not as welcome as they used to be.
But it’s not just in church where we are called to be a welcoming community. We don’t come to church and then switch off our godly presence when we leave. As we go from here to our daily lives we take the presence of God with us.
Remember what Jesus said in our baptism – I am with you always. Which means that wherever we go, Jesus is with us. So if we are disrespecting or hurting others then it is as if Jesus himself is disrespecting and hurting them. We are the body of Christ not just here but wherever we go. So in our work place, in our community groups, in our schools or social settings we continue to be the welcoming community of God. We continue to be the welcoming presence of God to others, living out the love of God. Loving our neighbour – loving our enemy – forgiving those who hurt us – confessing when we have hurt others. The welcoming community of the church is not just in here on Sundays but it goes with us as we are sent out into our wider communities.
Jesus said to the disciples – as the Father has sent me so I am sending you. We are a “sent” community. As we go out from here the world is not always welcoming of us. As Jesus had earlier said – I am sending you out as sheep among wolves (Matthew 10:16). And sometimes we can just feel like giving up – as if it’s not really worth the pain and rejection. But Jesus also assures us that there are people in our communities that will welcome us. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. (Matthew 10:40).
It’s not easy going out from here to be Christ’s presence. It’s safe here. We are all here because of our faith. But it is “out there” that God needs his message heard. And with almost half the population identifying as non-Christian in the latest census – it is becoming more and more important. It has never been easy to witness the Christian faith. As you read the Book of Acts and the first missionaries it was difficult. Some were put to death because of their message. Some were imprisoned. Some were brutally attacked. But many also heard the message and believed. It would have been easy for the first disciples to stay locked in the upper room but that’s not where God needed them. And God also needs you in your communities. It’s not easy to witness as our message is often rejected and ridiculed. But Jesus assures us that there will be people to welcome us. There will be people to receive us. There will be people to provide us with support. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple– truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
As daunting as it might seem, there are people out there that need to hear how much God loves them. They need to hear how much God wants to welcome them into his kingdom. There are so many people that are so disillusioned about life. The threats of terrorism. The threats of climate change. The threats of crime. The threats of drugs. It makes people want to lock themselves away, like the disciples who had locked themselves away in fear. But just as Jesus came into their midst to bring peace so we are sent to bring peace to troubled souls – as the Father has sent me so I am sending you. What a wonderful opportunity we have to invite and welcome them into a community of hope. And sometimes we can share that hope we have by living our lives in ways that people see a difference in us. They don’t see us getting involved in the hate and judgment of others. They don’t see us fearing what might happen next. They see us living lives of hope amidst the gloom and doom. And so St Peter says: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
We have a wonderful message. We have an amazing hope. But it won’t do the world any good if we keep it hidden to ourselves. So much of our culture is opposite to the welcoming community that Jesus asks us to live out. We hear of countries building walls – we hear of people held in detention – we hear of deportations. We are sent out to be witnesses of welcoming others, and thereby welcoming Jesus and the one who sent him. And when we don’t receive and welcome others then it is to them God who is not receiving and welcoming them. Jesus sends us out so others can share the hope and community we have.
May God give you the strength and assurance that you’re never alone but you have The Good Shepherd leading to create the welcoming community.