Readings: Romans 15:4-7, 13, Matthew 3:1-12
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our sustainer. Amen.
‘May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.’
We place a great emphasis here at Opoho on welcome don’t we? We try (and mostly succeed) in being a church that loves welcoming people, that nurtures and engages and lives in relative harmony as the people of God. There are moment when it is not so good, when personalities clash, where unintentional hurt is given and where the welcome is not all it could be. I hope I am good at welcoming and connecting but I am painfully aware that distraction is my second name and I miss people because my brain is engaged elsewhere. It is easy to feel ignored when the person you are talking to only gives part of their attention to you. In fact, I remember a conversation up in the Hurunui some years ago when I was talking to a teacher at a school and was getting highly miffed at his seeming lack of attention to what I was saying until I realised he was hearing me and answering me perfectly – he just happened to be someone who had the ability to carry on conversations in his head and with someone else at the same time. Found out later he was an ex Master Mind by the way.
But welcome and harmony within the family of God is so much more than different personality types trying to get along and a sense of guilt at a failure to engage properly with each other. So much more.
To help us dig deeper let us look at the words of verse 7 from Romans.
Where the NRSV uses the words ‘Welcome one another, just as Christ welcomes you’, the JB Phillips translation uses the words ‘Open your hearts to one another’ King James ‘receive one another’ and the NIV ‘accept one another, just as Christ accepted you.’ All of these are facets of the same gem – a gem that recognises our deep need to belong, to be accepted as who we are, to be loved and valued.
Jesuit theologian Peter van Breemen develops this theology of God’s radical love in our lives, saying that while every human being wants to be loved, there is a deeper need and that is to be accepted in this love for who you are, no matter what you have done or achieved or failed at. I hope that every person here has a sense of that love, from God, and/or family, church community, friends. I hope we all know the acceptance that is being loved unconditionally for who we are at some time in our lives.
For, as Christians, this love is freely offered to us, is in fact right in front of us; that place of deeply fulfilled welcome by one who knows us intimately and loves us as we are, whose hand has our name written on it.
This question does need asking though, for sometimes we forget or compromise.
Do we wholeheartedly accept that we are loved by God as we are? Or do we still feel that we have to do something, be someone to have that deep sense of home, of welcome, of being received unconditionally?
This is, I would suggest, absolutely core to whether we in turn can find a way to welcome others without judgement, with loving hearts and in hope. Unless we experience the power of complete acceptance in our lives, we would find it very hard to offer it.
As I said before, welcome is more that courtesy and good welcome practice – it is that deeply sustaining understanding that we are held in love no matter what that allows us, in turn, to offer that same sanctuary of welcome to others, no matter their suitability or sustainability or mistakes.
That is the heart of our gathering around the table – the place where all are welcome as we are. Not, as I once thought, only when I have my life in perfect order and am worthy but when we are just us with all our joys and brokenness, our hopes and fears, a motley crew of travellers on Christ’s way sharing the meal around the table.
It would be nice to stop there, yes? We are loved and cherished by God. We are welcomed at the table, one body with Christ.
But John whom we call the Baptist won’t let us do that. John, in his baptising down by the river, is looking to our response to the grace of God, and when he welcomes people to repentance, he is pleading with them to realign their lives with God, letting them know that the one who is to come is the one who will lead us to God.
John challenges those who have based their wholeness with God on a singular moment of welcome (the promise to Abraham) and then deviated from the path of righteousness. Not enough he says. To bear fruit worthy of God, to walk in the way truth and justice and love you have to be in living relationship with God, so that you come to the river, eagerly laying down those things that separate you from God, seeking a new beginning. And that takes courage, for we need to accept the complete and intimate presence of God’s self in us, just as we are, without being able to tidy the house first so to speak – God knows us in all our moments, good and bad, cringe-worthy and best behaviour. That is faith, that is love, that is acceptance that we are the beloved of God no matter what.
And Paul, in his letter to the Romans, expands on this. When we have accepted not just in our mind but in our heart of the complete stickability of God in our lives, it’s like we can find the courage to offer that same place of acceptance to each other, to the sometimes grumpy and the often distracted and different personality and one who has hurt you and the stranger who might hurt you.
Dare I define harmony not as the lack of discord but as living in the common purpose and presence of God fresh every morning?
Dare we understand welcome as lowering the barriers so all might come in, just as we are, striving to be better but knowing we are still completely loved when we are not?
Dare we believe that, in Jesus, we are all accepted, no matter who we are and how many times we have to come to the river to begin again?
And from that place of belonging can we all pray for each other and the stranger ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.’
Thanks be to God. Amen