There are many reasons that we welcome people. Sometimes it is simply to be polite. I think that we have all done this before—we run into someone new, someone we don’t know, and we exchange pleasantries with them. “Good morning, how are you?” They respond with some variant of “I’m fine.” This exchange continues until one of the parties makes some comment on the weather, good or bad, and then the conversation is over, the welcome complete. We do it because it is polite, we do it because it is what society expects of us, and we do it because it is safe. It is a warm welcome, but it is only a skin-deep welcome.
You see this welcome a lot in churches when the community isn’t really interested in the new person standing in their door. The community is quite comfortable with the way things have been, they don’t really want the new ideas that new people bring, and besides, they’ve been waiting all week to catch up with their friends at coffee hour. This is the type of welcome that allows us to sit for years in the pews without ever actually knowing the person who has been sitting next to you the entire time.
Another reason that churches welcome people is because the church wants to grow, whether it is growing their numbers, growing their budgets, or growing their committees. If you’ve ever visited a church where this is the case, you know what I’m talking about; it is a welcome stretched taught over the community’s hunger. While you are at coffee hour, your wallet is being weighed or your weeknight calendar is being evaluated. It is a disconcerting but very common experience—from my work in new member ministry, I would hear the shock and surprise from new members when they weren’t asked to sign up for a meeting or asked to make a pledge on their first Sunday in a church community. This type of welcome, while common, isn’t very warm, and like the welcome out of obligatory politeness, it is only skin deep. It is a welcome that we extend only because we are interested in the resources that someone might bring into the community.
However, today’s Gospel reading suggests another reason that we should engage in welcoming people. Gathering up a child who happened to be nearby, Jesus says to his disciples, “Whoever welcomes a child such as this in my name also welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.” Jesus tells us that the reason we welcome strangers in our midst is not because it is the right thing to do and not because we need their resources. Jesus tells us to welcome the stranger because in doing so, we encounter the Christ, and when we encounter the Christ, we encounter God, the one from whom Christ comes. Jesus tells us that welcoming is not a social obligation nor a means of getting what you want, welcoming is a spiritual practice.
When we think of welcoming as a spiritual practice, we begin to think about our interaction with strangers as opportunities to encounter the other, to welcome and value that which makes us different from each other. It is a welcome that is not skin-deep, it is a welcome that is deep and wide because we are not afraid of the change that happens when we encounter and greet that which is different from ourselves. It is not just warm; it is a genuine welcome because it is extended with the anticipation of finding the Christ that is within each of us.
I grew up in the foothills of Northern Virginia, which is an interesting place in my old country because northerners consider it the south and southerners consider it the north. We belonged to both sides of the country, and we belonged to neither. As a result, we got a blending, or perhaps a watering down, of the social customs of the north and the south. When I was a child, I have clear memories of being dropped off at friends’ houses for dinner or sleepovers and receiving these final instructions as I got out of the car, “now remember, be polite and eat everything that they serve you for dinner.”
The graciousness of the host in giving had to be matched by the graciousness of the guest in receiving. If you went a bit further south than Northern Virginia, this equation becomes more pronounced and elaborate. “You simply must,” says the host. “Oh, I couldn’t possibly,” replies the guest. “Oh, but I insist,” says the host. “Well, I wouldn’t want to put you out,” replies the guest with a sufficient humility. “Don’t worry, it’s my pleasure,” says the host. “Thank you so much,” replies the guest. So goes this elaborate social dance, each move practiced and anticipated by the partner, whether it is over an offer to stay the night, an invitation to dinner, or an extra piece of pecan pie. In the end, the host is allowed to demonstrate their hospitality without feeling put upon and the guest is able to accept the hospitality without feeling like they are taking advantage of their host.
While I’m not advocating for the elaborate social customs of the south, they do remind us that there is another part of this equation; if there is a spirituality of welcoming, then there is also a spirituality of being welcomed.
What does this look like? Jesus gives us the model in today’s scripture when he picks up a child and presents the child to the disciples, instructing them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” This isn’t the first time Jesus uses children as an example, elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus commands his disciples to become like children in order to enter the kingdom of God.
When Jesus picks up the child and presents it to the disciples, it is not because children are cute, and it is not because children are innocent or pure. In fact, anyone who has had children or was once a child knows that children are not always innocent and are not always pure, just as adults are not always innocent or pure.
While we have a tendency in our society to romanticize childhood, it was not out of a romantic notion that Jesus gives us a child as a model. Jesus presents us with a child because Jesus knew that children live by grace and grace alone, whether it is the grace of adults or the grace of God. There is no illusion as to the dependence of a child on the care of others to survive; there is no pretense of self-reliance and the pride that comes with it. You do not hear talk of self-made children.
The illusion of independence and the narrative of self-reliance that plague us hinder our ability to receive grace. After all, how can we experience grace when we don’t believe we need it? The spiritual practice of being welcomed is that we are to come to others and to God secure in our knowledge that we need each other and that we need God. The spirituality of being welcomed is being comfortable living in grace, just as children, trusting that the grace of God and the grace of others will sustain us.
These two practices go hand-in-hand. It is difficult to genuinely welcome a stranger, seeking the Christ that is within them, if the stranger doesn’t believe that they need you. Similarly, it is difficult to be welcomed by others, trusting that you need each other, if the one welcoming you isn’t really interested or simply wants you to fill some need of the community.
What’s more, we’re always playing both roles, the one being welcomed and the one welcoming. For example, you welcomed me into your community just over a year ago, just as I also welcomed you all into my life. Likewise, I am here before you being welcomed, secure in the knowledge that I am not here by any merit of my own, but by the grace of God and others, and that our ministry together in the future will be sustained not by our best efforts, but by God’s grace. You too are standing here, not on any merit of your own, but because the grace of God and others brought you here, and you also have only God’s grace to trust in our future ministry together.
Finally, as I said, these are spiritual practices; they are not one-time spiritual exercises. This is not something we do once, but something that we do over and over again, growing in our capacity to welcome and be welcomed. We have constant opportunity to practice this spirituality, whether it be in the stranger that we meet for the first time, or the person who sits next to us in the pew every Sunday. Every time we greet each other it can be with the anticipation that we are meeting Christ and every time we are greeted, it can be with the reaffirmation that we need the one standing before us.