Lord, we ask your Holy Spirit to help us see old things in new ways, to change our habits, to push on with the pilgrimage of faith and to threaten us in our comfortable lives.
The single mother with a toddler on her lap sits on her own. No one in church speaks to her. A man looking for work moved into the area and visited three congregations and was totally ignored by the majority of the people. One or two spoke to him, but even these people took little interest. Eventually, he took a job elsewhere, not because of the location or the job itself, but because of the unfriendliness that he experienced from the church members.
The word “welcome” means to receive someone in a warm and friendly way. The hospitality of our welcome is central to our Christian calling as the gospel is about unconditional acceptance into the Church – the Body of Christ. Now no church would describe itself as unfriendly. We try to do our best welcoming people. Too often, though, congregations fail to show Christ’s love to strangers. Do we speak to those we don’t know – our neighbour in front and behind in the pews? If someone comes to our church and they are not dressed the way we are dressed, do we make sure that they are made to feel welcome?
Peter learned this lesson way back in Acts. He thought God offered salvation only to the Jews because God had given them the Law and the Prophets. It took a heavenly vision for him to accept Gentiles as well as Jews into the church: “…who was I to stand in God’s way.” And others then convinced said: “We can see that God has also given the Gentiles the privilege of repenting of their sins and receiving eternal life.”(Acts 11:17, 18).
The more evangelistic a congregation is, the fewer problems it will have welcoming visitors well. Sometimes it may not be the people in the church who deny a welcome – but the place of worship itself. Do you think this sanctuary is attractive and welcoming? I think it looks very tired and is in need of some TLC – or dare I say modernising – with better heating, more comfortable seating, improved sound. xxxxxx trumps us here.
Our foyer is very small and inward looking. Have you seen the fantastic banner that’s hanging up to serve as a welcome to people? Probably not because it’s too high and we naturally don’t look up! I’d like that banner to be prominent. Also those big oak doors at the front shut us off from the community rather than interacting with it. Replacing them with some plate glass doors would, for example, give a completely different impression and look much more welcoming to folk.
With this in mind at the next church meeting later this month a brochure will be handed out for you to see where improvements can be made. The Management Committee has identified four areas where improvements would help us, as Paul urges, to “practice hospitality” (Rom.12:13).
There is huge power in good welcome because it is the very expression of the gospel of reconciliation between human beings with each other, as well as with God: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus…There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal.3:28). The Church is constantly seeking new opportunities to increase its role in the community reflecting our mission statement of “Reaching out and loving others in the name of Christ our Saviour.”
God has promised throughout Scripture that He would reach the nations. This began with the promise to Abraham and is fulfilled in Christ. Peter in the reading is inviting his critics to see that “What God has made pure, you shall not call impure” – for even repugnant strangers can receive a blessing directly from God’s Holy Spirit – “Receiving the same gift he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Acts 11:9,17).
In the world around we see alienation, isolation, division, barriers, people who are unwelcome here, there and almost everywhere. Who seeks out the lonely widow hiding behind her front door, or the alcoholic who has lost faith in God, or the asylum seeker, or the homeless? Are we doing what God wants us to do? Are we as willing as his servant Peter to go to an unknown or strange place – or to welcome people to church – where all are valued.
This week, as you go about your usual life and work – think who could you pass that welcome on to? Who could you assure that God’s love and grace for them is real? And how can we as a church make our welcome more explicit to our neighbours?
There was once a church with big gothic doors where everybody who considered themselves important and of high status went to. Not just anybody could walk in there and join. Income and proper attire was a membership requirement of this church. People in need were out of the question. People who had divorced need not apply. People who didn’t have a job were not welcome. People afflicted with disease and poor health were kept at arms length and forbidden to take communion.
As you might imagine this church did not receive many new members. Its congregation simply grew older…too few people of the “right type” existed and then eventually there were none. The church closed. It’s still standing today. But now it’s a restaurant. Where there had once been pews, now there were tables, and waiters and diners. Where the communion table had once stood, now there was a salad bar. Ironically, everyone is now welcome to eat at the table!
According to Jesus, how we respond to people, to our neighbour in need, determines our whole relationship with God: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in…” (Mt.25:35).
So Jesus is actually saying that when we welcome the stranger into His Church we are actually welcoming Him. Consequently when we don’t welcome someone we are rejecting Him. Every member of this congregation has a responsibility to create a welcoming church.
Remember Church isn’t the building – it’s what we do. It’s who we are; sinners saved by the grace of God. So making everyone welcome is not just about growing the church. For Peter it was transformation. His entire perspective changed to comprehend even more the great love of God that we find in Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever and who welcomes every sinner to sit, eat and rejoice at His table.
Peter saw a vision from God that challenged his concept of normal and proper. If it wasn’t for that we wouldn’t be here this AM as we are mostly the descendants of those gentiles. The last question from today’s text is this: Will we allow the Holy Spirit to prod us – to give us a renewed vision – to make this church more attractive and welcoming?
The roots of hospitality are not complicated, but they are central to the Christian life. So let’s be the Church and practise hospitality, helping people connect and belong here. Who knows what great things may happen as a result! It may be our welcome that leads to someone, in due course, being used mightily by God as the Holy Spirit falls upon them!
Is this church ready to embrace a fresh vision? Time will tell.