Romans 6.12-end, Matthew 10.40-end (Year A, 2020)
Back in 2008 a Methodist minster, the Reverend Derek Rigby, made the national news when he turned up at the church where he ministered, convincingly dressed as a homeless man. He hadn’t shaved, wore a wig and ripped and dirty clothes, and carried a can of lager and a couple of syringes, without the needles. Most of the congregation ignored him, and some members told him to stay away from their cars. After the children had left for their Sunday school, he walked to the front of the church and revealed his identity.
(For details see news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/north_east/7497411.stm)
There’s a lot to unpack in that story, not least of all the difficulty we have in being gracious when a prophetic mirror is held up to our behaviour, when we are shown the difference between what we like to think of ourselves and the reality of how we truly act.
This is also about how we welcome people. As we begin to plan for the churches to open for services again, how we welcome people is important because we won’t be they way it was before Covid-19. We can’t gather chatting; we might have to wear masks and we’ll definitely have to sit distanced from one another. So how do we give that warm welcome.
And let’s think wider: how do we continue to welcome those who cannot yet join us, because they are still shielding. Can we pay attention to how we can make our welcome even more inclusive than it was before, for people for whom these beautiful, old buildings have been accessible, or feel uncomfortable because they look around and think, ‘There is no-one here like me’.
Because people remember how they have been welcomed at church.
The welcome is not just about making people feel good. It’s a theological reflection of the welcome of God.
The theme of welcome often appears in Christ’s parables – think of the forgiving father running towards his prodigal son. Or on one occasion when the woman washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, Jesus compared her behaviour with that of the Pharisee who had not welcomed him properly.
And here in today’s Gospel Jesus explains why that welcome is so important. As the disciples were being sent out on their mission, Jesus told them that the people who would welcome them, were actually welcoming Jesus, and not only the Son but the Father as well, the one who sent Jesus to the world.
Sometimes we get passages in the New Testament where Jesus tried to explain to the disciples about how they are all one. And here we have a practical example. God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all one. And we, the Body of Christ on earth, are part of that relationship. We are one, because God is one – something worth keeping mind when we say the Creed, and repeat that ‘I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’. God is present with us wherever we go, because we are one with Him.
And so how we welcome others should be the welcome we think God would give them.
Jesus expanded on this by telling the disciples that the welcome they will receive with be like that of the prophets and the righteous ones. The implication is that the reward for those who welcome such holy people will be wonderful, some heavenly promise.
But then he threw aside this special status, by saying that the same reward will be given to those who welcome ‘one of these little ones’. We might think we’re pretty sophisticated when it comes to symbolism, but actually we often read things literally. In this case it seems straightforward that Jesus is talking about children. After all, who wouldn’t give a child a glass of cold water if they were hot or thirsty?
But, in Christ’s time, in Judaism the term ‘little ones’ was used to describe the socially weak, the childish and immature, even the pious. Both Matthew and Mark use the term to refer to ordinary, insignificant Christians, and Jesus is saying that they are just as important as the prophets and righteous people.
That cup of cold water is to be offered in the name of God to anyone in need, the poor, the destitute, the prisoner, the sick and dying. That’s why I took for this week’s artwork ‘Christ of the Breadlines’ by Fritz Eichenberg, a powerful image of Christ standing in line at a soup kitchen along with those in need of food. Christ’s halo radiates the light on to those around him, and we’re reminded of the words of Matthew 25, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
These passages together remind me of the 1959 film ‘Ben Hur’, and the moment when the unseen Jesus gives the newly enslaved, beaten and desperate Judah Ben Hur the relief of a cup of water; and how many years later Judah sees Christ carrying the cross on the way to Calvary, and tries to return this small act of kindness. His heavenly reward is a gift of grace, completely out of proportion to the act, no matter how kindly meant.
Likewise, we welcome people not for the reward but because we try to live Christ-like lives; and we offer it to everyone, rich or poor, friend or stranger, because when we welcome in the name of God, we partake in God’s own blessings.
This Gospel challenges us to think about our welcome, here at church, at work and at home.
Be the welcome you long for – God shows us the way. Let’s follow it.
(Artwork: ‘Christ of the Breadlines’ (1950) by Fritz Eichenberg)