Sunday, December 5, 2010

Making Welcome

Making Welcome

copyright © 2010, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Second Sunday in Advent: December 5, 2010

Romans 15:1-13

Welcome one another, therefore,

just as Christ has welcomed you,

for the glory of God.

“The abominable greeting.”

I have heard it called that.

Here at First Church, Vancouver, we have been calling it the “passing of the peace.” I have also heard it called the “fellowship moment,” and the “ritual of friendship,” among other things. I hear occasional complaints about it, praise for it, questions concerning it, but mostly, it provides barely even a dent in our worship life, it is but a blip on the liturgical radar screen, a whispered hello, and handshake or two, and then it’s gone.

When any of us tries to think about what is the essence, the main event or outcome of worship – if we think about it at all – probably we would offer a variety of perspectives. I doubt, however, that many of us would offer the opening greeting or the passing of the peace as the highlight of our worship experience. More’s the pity, because if the New Testament writers recommended anything to those earliest Christian churches, it was the blessing of hospitality, of welcome, and, most especially, the welcoming of strangers.

Probably all would agree that a church ought to be welcoming. But what do we mean by that? Exactly whom do we think we are welcoming? People just like us? People slightly different than we are? People drastically different than we are? More importantly, how do we express the thing we call welcome in such a way that those outside the church family would see it, experience it as true about who we are? And how do we go about making this an important aspect of worship?

It might alarm, or even frighten us to know in our flu-bug-sensitive, vaccine-seeking age, that there were churches in those earliest days of gatherings of Christian believers that passed the kiss of peace. Some still follow that practice. Yet for stout Northern European types, among others, the practice, if it survived at all, eventually devolved into the much less intimate business-handshake of peace, or, as I recall from my long-ago sojourn in the South, the “Texas howdy of peace.”

Recently I read that in some church assemblies, word has come from denominational authorities offering permission for folks to skip the kiss and even the handshake of peace in favor of the more sanitary “wave of peace.” The whole point of the kiss of peace, of course, is that a kiss is intimate, germs and all. And by this action, members of the community of faith are meant to remember that Christ would have us be reconciled to one another, even “leaving our offering at the altar,”1 as scripture says, to reconcile with one another before going about our religious rituals. It was meant to be a gesture of intimacy among those who had formed a small, faithful community for Christ in the midst of a world that barely knew who Jesus was, if they knew of him at all. Genuine affection would be hard to miss if we were asked to kiss each other as worship got under way. Even the simpler greetings we do make would cause some to wince in discomfort in churches that do no such thing.

OK, I suspect some of our personal space intrusion-meters might be starting to click like Geiger counters, so let me put fears to rest, or at least at ease. There are no plans afoot to initiate the practice of the free-for-all exchanging of the kiss of peace in the sanctuary. After all, we don’t live in the first century, which is one of the many things about which we don’t need to feel guilty. We aren’t a community of believers on the far margins of a culture at best ignorant of, at worst hostile to our faith and the community in which we celebrate it, as those first Christians were.

Still, I find myself cycling back to the many, many admonitions to the earliest church communities to be communities of welcome, and I do think if we need to recognize our shortcomings about anything, we need to recognize them when we fail the test of Christian welcome, in any form that welcome might take. There is little chance we will be found overly welcoming, our particular shortcomings are more likely to run the other way.

In the New Testament, words for welcome occur 46 times; for greetings 61 times; for hospitality 7 times. The word kiss appears 15 times, though, as we know, not always in a happy context, since Judas was known to have betrayed Jesus with a kiss in the gospels. Still, there is plenty of kissing apart from that unhappy scene, as when the Ephesian church elders said their farewells to the apostle Paul with weeping and kissing.2 This was a description of hospitable kissing, the Ephesian version of the Texas howdy of peace.

In other words, making welcome is, in the New Testament, a high-level Christian duty, right up there alongside jacking the log up out of our own eyes before pointing out specks in others’, and practicing kindness to the poor, the powerless, the weak and the suffering. But this sounds so great to hear, it is often not so easy to do. After all, since, biblically speaking, welcome is not intended only for those already in the community of faith, there is a high likelihood that welcome to those currently outside the community will include a welcome to some outsiders whose presence we might even find discomforting. Yet scripture seems clear, welcome is meant to be expansive, not restrictive. Paul’s words certainly provide a case on that point.

In Paul’s day, Jewish Christian believers worshiped right alongside non-Jewish Christians, often referred to as Gentiles, which, really, meant anyone not born a Jew. Because most faithful Jews grew up with a laundry list of religious practices we associate with the Old Testament – like refraining from eating pork or other meat the Old Testament law declares to be unclean, circumcision as a religious requirement for males belonging to Israel – there was a tendency in the earliest churches for conflicts to develop between those who believed that to be faithful followers such requirements as circumcision were still required, and those who didn’t. It doesn’t make much sense to revisit those ancient quarrels which are no longer our quarrels, except to find in them the opportunity to ask what barriers we may place between ourselves and others in our own time when, as Paul said,

“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. Christ became a servant of the circumcised [that is, the Jewish believers] on behalf of the truth of God, in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.”

Pretty clearly, Paul says that the welcome of Christ came first, his decision to become a “servant” for the sake of all, Jews and Gentiles, equally. If his welcome can be so global, how can ours be any less? He who died that all might be one is crucified again when we seek to divide, when we fail to welcome one another “just as Christ has welcomed you.” If Christ offers welcome, we must let go of any barriers dividing us and also welcome one another. It is a religious act, not just a way of being neighborly, and it is meant not only to transform us but to transform the world. And the world will be transformed when all who confess Jesus as Lord, believing God raised him from the dead, are found together in the same worshiping community, celebrating his gift of himself at the same table.

A friend of mine was preparing to retire from ministry after 37 years in the same church when he shared his delight in his memories of speaking with the children in that church in the annual season of Advent. Something he reflected on with great joy is an experience many of us have come to cherish in our own church life, and that is the telling of the story of Jesus’ birth to the children. If you’ve ever attempted to “tell” a group of children this particular story – or any other story really – in a way that takes the children seriously, you will know that “telling” is not really the right word. Even many very young children, given a chance to speak, already know so much of the story, it is astonishing. They are generally eager to supply details about names and places as hands shoot up with eagerness to be part of the telling. And then their own stories begin to weave into the big story, the “travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem,” calls up memories of recent family trips, and mention of names like Joseph and Mary elicit the naming of their own fathers and mothers.

Why do children feel this way? Because they instinctively know they have been welcomed in the church, this story is as much theirs as it is ours – maybe more so in a way. They are at home at church, and they feel it, they know it. Children understand this effortlessly and at this season of the year it is they who welcome us to join in the telling, so that the story of Jesus “becomes our story and our story to tell.”3

As we move through Advent with it’s built-in longing for Christmas and the arrival of the Christ who receives us all, it is especially good for us to think again and again on ways in which we receive each other in his name. If reaching toward another person in welcome and fellowship seems a bit of a strain, we need to think of it like the strain required for muscles to become stronger. Though the process may require some discomfort, in the end, it’s a good thing, the healthy thing to do.

In the name of the One who is coming to us, may we always welcome one another, as well as those whom, year by year, Christ is bringing to our faith and fellowship; because in doing so, we welcome Christ himself.

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved


1 George Chorba, in The Pipe Organ, New Vernon, NJ, December, 2004.

2 Matthew 5:23

3 Acts 20:37