When it came to choosing a theme for my first month at SBC, the first thing that came to mind was welcome. I knew it was something I would be reflecting on personally, as the church welcomed me and my family, but I also knew from the conversations we had when I first met with the church that there was a real heart for welcome here, and so it seemed good to reflect on that together. I hope it will lead us to reflect on what we already do, and start to imagine what we might do.
The verse that I want us to remember in all of our discussions about welcome is Romans 15:7, which calls us to welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us, and over the next few weeks we will be thinking about what it means to welcome as Christ welcomes. Some of this I have been mulling over for a while and some is relatively new to me, but of course I am only at the start of thinking about what it all means her and now, so if we seem to start with a bit of a jumble of thoughts, hopefully we will start to straighten them out as we go on.
We started on Sunday with a reading from John 15:9-17, in which Jesus calls his disciples to love one another as he has loved them. We began there because in many ways Romans 15 and John 15 are the same command. Welcome is about recognising the other and making room for them, and that itself is an act of love, while love leads us to act for the good of another, and that begins with welcome.
If loving one another and welcoming one another are synonymous, or at least inseparable, then Christ’s love becomes a pattern for our welcome. But what is that love like? Well it is a love that is open and indiscriminate, as we see in the way Jesus reached across boundaries to love those he was not meant to - the Samaritan woman at the well, the Roman centurion, the Syro-Phoenician woman he began by insulting...
It is a love that is compassionate and generous, as we see in the great abundance of Jesus' provision at the feeding of the five thousand and the wedding in Cana, although it is important to remember that sometimes our generosity will look like that same abundance and sometimes it will look like the widow’s mite, because it is the attitude and not the amount that really matters.
It is a love that is liberating and challenging, as we see in the case of the rich young ruler, who was given a task that would free him to follow Jesus, and in the story of the woman caught in adultery, who was released from death to live a better life.
And it is a love that is servanthearted and sacrificial, as we see most clearly in the Passion narrative, which begins with Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, and takes him to give his life on the cross.
We are loved openly and indiscriminately and compassionately and generously, with a love that liberates and challenges and serves and sacrifices. It is only because this is how we are loved that we are called to love others in the same way, so we must start with a sure knowledge of that love. If you have never not felt it, or if you have forgotten it, I encourage you to spend time in prayer and reflection and conversation, seeking to feel the full force of that love, that it may embolden and resource you to love others.
Taking a slightly different tack now, another thing I like about starting with this passage is that it comes from Supper Discourses, John’s record of the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples. I like that because Christ’s welcome so often happened around a meal, and I think that is because there is a sharing not only of food but of life that happens around table. I don't know what Jesus was like as a dinner guest, but I'm sure those who ate with him must have felt they knew him and what it meant to be loved by him better by the time dessert came round.
We gathered at the table to share in communion on Sunday. I have taken part in communion as a formal ritual act with space to reflect on the deep symbolism of the bread and wine, and I have taken part in it as a riotous sharing of food with no special liturgy but as a sense of gathering to share a meal with one another and with Christ. I have often wondered how we can bring together these two aspects of communion, the contemplation and the celebration. Perhaps that is something we might explore together.
I find it interesting that Christ spent so much of his ministry at a table, because he had no table of his own to offer, and yet still he was often the one offering welcome. He took the lead by inviting himself to dine with Zacchaeus, and he was the one who received the woman with oil even though it was another's house. He was both host and guest, reminding us of the need to both give and receive hospitality, even if the giving or receiving looks a little different than we expect.
And yet Jesus wasn't simply host and then guest, but both at once, suggesting a blurring of the usual lines. This softening of the edges may extend to our welcome in other ways too. I have wondered if church ought to be a place between the private and the public, a space where all are welcome without a specific invitation (although of course it is good to invite people) but where they feel like they are entering a home where a community lives.
That means it's really important that we give thought to our use of space. In fact that was one of the things that most drew me to Stoneygate when I first visited. I love that we have tables and chairs set out at the back, as that says straightaway that this is somewhere people sit and drink and chat together. And I love that there is a kitchen and a creche in the sanctuary, because that sends the message that we are ready to serve and to entertain, that it's just part of who we are and what we do.
'Who we are and what we do' brings me to one final thought on today's passage. I'm sure that some of the disciples were better hosts than others, but the command to love one another was given to all, and indeed the instruction to welcome one another was issued to the whole of the church in Rome, suggesting that we are all called to a life of welcome. Some folk will have a particular gift for hospitality, and that should be encouraged, but it doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook.
A life of welcome requires authenticity. First, because we can't be on our best behaviour all the time - we have to be real and honest, even if that means letting the cracks show. Second, because we need to know how we can best offer welcome - we will all do it differently, and we need to own that because it's a good thing. I say all of this as an introvert who used to be cripplingly shy, someone who wants to love and welcome others but has found that difficult at times, and is now learning ways of doing that gently and quietly.
That's a lot to start with, but we'll unpack it further over the coming weeks, when we will look at welcoming difference (because hospitality opens us to diversity and disagreement), welcome all ages (because my family's arrival has already widened our age range to nine decades), welcoming the outcast (because a wider welcome may make us sanctuary for those who have been excluded), and welcoming the stranger (because it is not just about those we meet here). I hope you'll come along with us as we explore this together.