We have many ways we express hospitality these days, but one of the more interesting and entertaining is the welcome mat. There are the basic mats that say “Welcome” or “The Smith’s Live Here.” But some welcome mats are more expressive, giving a bit of insight into the house you are about to enter such as: “Grand Central Station: Get a ticket–Stand in line.” Or a bit more philosophical: “I Golf, Therefore I Am . . . [Not Here].” I’ve even seen the politically incorrect but easily understandable expression of parental frustration: “Children For Sale.”
You can also find un-welcoming welcome mats such as “Get Lost,” or its technological equivalent, “Please stay on the mat. Your visit is very important to us. Your knock will be answered in the order in which it was received.” Finally some of the best are those that warn you about animal life that is about to greet you: “The cat and its housekeeping staff live here.” Or for dog owners, “Beware: Dog can’t hold its licker,” or the more literary, “Ask not for whom the dog barks, it barks for thee.” At my house we’ve opted for a more sociological perspective: “Ring the doorbell and let me sing you the song of my people (— The dog).”
I only bring up welcome mats because “welcoming” is what our Gospel today is all about: we get “welcomed” six times in the space of just two verses! So now I want to give a test to see who was really listening to the Gospel:
When somebody welcomes one of Jesus’ disciples, whom are they really welcoming? – Jesus!
Jesus! And when they are welcoming Jesus, whom are they really welcoming? – God! (i.e., the one who sent Jesus)
For six chapters in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has been teaching his disciples about the mission he has in store for them. He tells them, “Remember, when you go out in my name, you are going as my ambassadors and my representatives. You are going as if I were going.” Jesus is letting his disciples know that when they go out in his name, it is just as if Jesus himself is going out. And when Jesus goes out to share God’s message of reconciliation, it is as if God is present in a new and real way, present for everyone who receives God’s word.
What’s clear here is that Jesus has a very high view of hospitality. In every act of Christian hospitality, as Jesus describes it, there is the one who is welcomed and the one who does the welcoming. But there is also Jesus, in whose name the welcoming takes place, and who, himself, is actually welcomed in the process.
So the act of welcoming is more than just a human affair, for when we welcome Jesus, we welcome God. Saying to someone in the spirit of Christ, “Welcome,” and then greeting them with true hospitality, is a human interaction which is also infused with the divine presence. In our words of welcome, it is ultimately God who engages in hospitality, welcoming humanity into God’s holy presence.
In the section of the Epistle to the Romans that we read as a part of our service today, Paul has a message of welcome from God that is truly incredible. The Good News is that all of us are no longer judged by the Law, but now are under God’s Grace. We are no longer in a position where our relationship with God is characterized by how well we have lived our lives. No, now our relationship with God is characterized by God’s crazy desire to welcome us, to invite us to share in the divine life. And the promise is that God will never stop wanting to care for us. Now that is a welcoming message!
We can find the same story in the Hebrew Scriptures because hospitality is central to the nature of God. Abraham and Sarah were blessed by God when they extended hospitality to those three strangers who visited them, and by so doing entertained angels unawares. The prophets continually called the people of Israel to welcome those who were outcast or in need—to care for them, to protect them. So from the beginning of the Bible, right through to the end, we encounter a God who acts with radical hospitality toward humanity.
And this God calls us to act with hospitality as well. Jesus assures us that in both giving and receiving hospitality, God is fully present and brings a blessing to all who are involved. So in this divine-human interaction, the act of welcoming itself becomes its own reward. Welcoming becomes a sacramental moment, an occasion for experiencing the divine. In every human act of genuine hospitality, we believe the living God is truly present.
And just as in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus sends out his disciples, today he is sends us out to offer hospitality in his name. God wants us to share the abundant life we know in Jesus Christ by serving Christ in others. That is our mission. Every week, we are commissioned to share the grace-filled, abundant life we know in Jesus. We are about letting people know that it is not keeping the rules that gets you there; it is about God’s love and God’s grace. We are about serving other people because when we serve them, we serve Christ—and God is made truly present.
The grace of God that invites everyone of us to this community of faith, to be welcomed to share in God’s own life—that grace still calls to us today. The ministry that we share, the mission that God has placed us here to do, is about keeping that radically inclusive welcome of God in our hearts, in our minds, and in the daily actions of our lives.
How do we welcome people whom we would not naturally want to welcome? How do we welcome people who are most in need? That is what we need to keep in the forefront of our minds. That is the mission to which God has called us. And if we want to be Jesus’ disciples, if we truly want to be Christians living out the promises we made at our baptism, that is the kind of vision that we need to have for living our lives in the world.
And, of course, this issue has implications for how we understand our nation and the world. In this time of political controversy about how we will deal with those who wish to come to the U.S. from other countries, whether as visitors or immigrants or asylum-seekers, we need to take Jesus’ words about welcoming others seriously. How do we balance our very real concern for security with our desire to welcome others with openness and hospitality?
Jesus has given us a very difficult challenge. As we struggle to practice hospitality in every circumstance and on every occasion, we are asked to be a source of God’s grace; we are called to be an embodiment of God’s reconciling love. This promise is not only to every Christian disciple and every congregation; it is also to every city, state and nation: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Now I want you to think for a moment, if there were a welcome mat at the doorstep of your life, what would it say? What message would it give to friend or to stranger? Even in the midst of this global health crisis, when many feel so isolated we can each still ask: Who is God calling you to welcome in Christ’s name? I urge you to open your heart to them so that God may be truly present in our lives.