The welcome for same-sex couples now totals six states and the District of Columbia, when it comes to marriage equality. New York is by far the largest, and first majority Republican state, to do so. Kim and I watched the vote streaming live on the internet Friday night along with more than 45,000 others. And it was quite a celebration in New York’s upper chamber. There was jubilation, relief, and a welcoming, sustained, thunder of applause.
The issue of ‘welcome’ is on Jesus’ mind too, at the end of a long chapter in Matthew’s gospel about living out one’s faith, and how to invite people to become followers. I’m giving you the authority to welcome in my name, says Jesus. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Jesus is handing authority off to us!
Welcoming was an essential ingredient in the Palestinian culture of Jesus day, and throughout the ancient Near East. It was a social custom and essential art form to welcome the traveler, the stranger passing through. In Israelite tradition, Abraham and Sarah provided the proto-typical example of hospitality. The three strangers that stop by their tent one day seemed like ordinary travelers, yet Abraham and Sarah go beyond the call of duty and prepare a lavish feast for them, and sure enough, they turn out to be messengers of God, angels. Which, a couple millennia later, prompted the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews to say, “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” [Hebrews. 13:2]
“Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because one is a disciple,” said Jesus, “amen, I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” “Little ones” did not mean children in this case, so much as the new Christian believers and followers of Jesus, the ones they – and all of us – are called to reach out to with extravagant welcome; the seekers, those who are testing the waters of a Christian community, those who see in them – in us – a hope for an alternative to the dog-eat-dog rule of the empire, and it’s false gods of hierarchical exclusionism, it’s eco-destructive economy, it’s scape-goating of “the least of these, and little ones.” Jesus builds his community on the wisdom of sharing the abundance of God’s gifts as it’s center piece, where the Messiah sets the example, even in sharing a cup of cold water on a hot summer day. The reward is abundant life shared in community, and the promise of eternal life with all the saints. The reward is receiving the welcome of Jesus, and if we say yes to the welcome of Jesus, thereby, we also have received the welcome of God, in the face of every seeker and believer.
Welcome starts small, but is important in all we do, whether in sharing a cold beverage, or in sharing the deepest held beliefs of our hearts. The welcome in Jesus name must be both. Peter discovered this hospitality when he shared a dream with Cornelius, the Roman soldier, and outsider. Peter’s dream was unexpected and deeply disturbing – the dream of the sheet descending from heaven with every kind of unclean animal on it and God telling him 3 times to eat the forbidden food. Cornelius’ dream was to invite this Jew, Peter, to his home. Peter is like a renowned Guest Speaker coming to a foreign land. And the more Peter preaches the word of God, the more the Spirit descends on the household of Cornelius, until Peter himself says, “can anyone withhold water for baptism?” And so, in a surprising transformation for Peter too, he baptizes his entire family. And when Cornelius invites him to stay for a few days and celebrate, what else can Peter do? The one who sent Peter, is the one who has welcomed and bestowed the renewing-restoring grace of baptism on Cornelius. They are brothers now, Peter and Cornelius, welcomed in the name of Jesus, and welcomed in the name of this awesome God we have.
Hospitality may start with a cup of cold water, but it is also much more. It welcomes across social, ethnic and sexual boundaries. It sits down with the stranger, the one who is different. “Welcome” unites black and white, rich and poor, male and female, supporters and detractors of same-sex marriage, and gives us all a chance to receive the same reward. It recognizes that even the presence, and breaking in of the Holy Spirit to create change, is just the beginning. And we are called to continually invite people to sit down with us for a number of days, for whatever it takes, to learn who each other is, and where we come from, so we can continue to welcome Jesus into our lives, and the one who sent him. We need transformation not just of our minds, but of our hearts, and our whole persons – and transformation of any social-political- and economic custom that separates us.
The welcoming realm of God is a lot to share! And so, beyond a smile and a handshake, we continue to deepen our welcome. We sit down together. We break bread together. We march with Pride. And we “praise the gracious power, the persistent truth, the inclusive love, the word of faith, and the tide of grace, that make us one.” [“Oh, Praise the Gracious Power”, ELW 651]