‘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.’
To welcome means to receive gladly. To receive a person, gladly. To receive the news they bring, the gifts they offer, gladly. Welcome is more than a word of greeting: welcome is a shared experience two or more people actively participate in.
Last week I said that there are two great themes that run, entwined, through the Bible from beginning to end. One is the theme of covenant: of God coming to us, in search of a welcome, in hope of relationship. In the words of Jesus, ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’ And the other great theme is that of kingdom: of God sending us out, in search of welcome, finding outposts and potential-outposts of the reign of God in a fearful and hostile world. In the words of Jesus, ‘Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.’ Covenant and kingdom, coming together and being sent out, go hand-in-hand. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
Whoever welcomes you welcomes your covenant-partner, Jesus. And whoever welcomes Jesus welcomes the one who has made him king.
Let us consider just a few examples of Jesus’ experience of welcome.
Consider his birth. Our English translations have not served us well here. You will recall that Joseph brought his wife to his hometown. The most natural interpretation of Luke’s account is that at the time of Jesus’ birth, they were staying with Joseph’s family, in an ordinary home. Immediately inside the door is the space where animals were kept at night; then, at a raised level with a hollow in the floor forming a manger, the one main room the family shared by day and night; and beyond that, furthest from the animals, a small guest room. The guest room Joseph and Mary are staying in is not big enough for Mary to give birth in—no room in the inn—attended as she would be by the village midwives and Joseph’ female relatives, including any young girls, in order that giving birth might not be a terrifying mystery to them; and so Mary gives birth to Jesus in the family room, at the heart of the home, displacing male relatives and animals alike.
Consider the flight to Egypt. Joseph—we are told by Matthew that he is a righteous man—fleeing with his wife and young son by night, turning up as refugees seeking asylum among the Jewish community that has dispersed and established itself perhaps in cosmopolitan Alexandria.
Consider the wedding at Cana. Jesus and his disciples have been invited, along with his mother. They have celebrated well, and now the wine has ran out. That would be the sign that it was time to go home, to return to normality, to get up in the morning nursing a hangover and drag your weary bones out of bed and off to work. But Jesus, prompted by his mother, turns the occasion into a different sign. Taking jars of water that symbolised being made clean, being accepted by God, he transformed the water into wine, symbolising the great banquet at the End of the Age, when, having healed the nations, God will sit down with humanity to celebrate without end—without a return to the old normal of Jesus the builder constructing homes for Roman colonials and Peter the fisherman catching fish to export them to dining tables in Rome, the heart of the Empire. In a hot land, even a cup of cold water could be enough to point to such hope.
Consider the disreputable sinners and tax-collectors who invited Jesus to eat at their tables—people who knew that they were sick, unable to cure themselves of their malady, hoping for a doctor.
Consider the Pharisees, worried that they might offend God even unintentionally, also inviting Jesus—so hungry and thirsty for righteousness that they forget to meet the conventions of welcoming him at all; and—ironically—find themselves participating in welcome, however poorly, more fully than ever before.
The more you think about it, the more welcome is the heart of the gospel—and its reward.
Some questions to ponder:
Where have you experienced welcome?
What did that look like?
How did it make you feel?
What grew—what flourished—in that space?