It is quite appropriate that as we gather here this morning, mindful that members of our congregation and church are in the cathedral to witness the Bishop ordain our New Deacon Alison we hear a reading from Matthews gospel. This chapter in Matthew’s gospel is one in which Jesus is instructing the Twelve disciples as he sends them out to preach the good news. The reading comes from the end of the chapter, and forms Jesus’ concluding words to them. These concluding words are to challenge and to comfort the disciples. The Challenge comes first: God and his Kingdom demands your highest loyalty, beyond all else in your lives, even your closest relationships. We can tie this to our old testament reading also as we remember the extreme call God puts on Abraham and his beloved son, Isaac.
Then we are reassured in Jesus second words. Words of comfort: you will be welcomed and cared for by those who hardly know you.
These 2 sets of words. Words of comfort and words of challenge come together by no accident. The comfort is the necessary balance to the challenge to set aside loyalty to families. To hear the real challenge in the call to loyalty alone to God, to hear the word ‘hate’, the extreme demands that God puts on our lives is almost enough to make us feel the task is impossible for us to do.
He is firing the most difficult request at us, to get our attention, to make us see just how serious and drastic the call to serve him is but he supports our fears of that impossible task in his words of comfort. In the Kingdom, Jesus says, we step beyond the natural human structures of care and support. We stop feeling that our family must come first, that charity begins at home, that we look out for our own before we look out for others. The challenge is to start to see all people as our family, all as deserving our special care.
And this is where the comfort fits in: once we start to do this, seeing everyone as being as deserving of the same care and consideration we would give to our own family, we will start to experience what it means to be part of the family of God: welcomed into the homes of strangers as if a newfound brother or sister, finding that people look out for us and feel concerned if our needs are not met. So Jesus speaks of prophets, righteous people and little ones, all ways of speaking about his disciples, who are welcomed and cared for just because of their name, not because they are known. We might talk in the same sort of way about welcoming another Christian and looking out for them just because they’re a Christian, without knowing anything about them.
There’s clearly plenty here that we could spend some time thinking about, but as we prepare to welcome Alison as our new curate, I want to focus on just one thing: what does this passage tell us about welcoming others? As I said, Jesus is speaking here to the Twelve, to those who are going to be welcomed, but I want us to reflect on what he might be saying to those who are going to be welcoming others. I think there are two main things Jesus might be saying: first about what God sees when he watches us making our attempts to be welcoming, and second about what might really be happening when we welcome others.
So, firstly, what does God see when he looks at us welcoming others? This may seem like an odd thing to think about, but Jesus’ words suggest something quite extraordinary: God puts a value on even our smallest actions of hospitality that is far beyond what we would assume. Jesus speaks of those who offer ‘one of these little ones’, by which he means his disciples, just a cup of water. Offering a cup of water in the heat of Palestine is the most basic and simplest form of hospitality, meeting the most basic of needs without greatly inconveniencing yourself. Any household would have water to hand. But Jesus puts it on a par with welcoming someone into your home – in God’s eyes even the smallest step has value.
The point is not that a massive sacrifice has been made, as if it was our deprivation that gave God pleasure, but that we have taken that step into god’s Kingdom – acknowledging those around us as part of God’s family, and our brothers and sisters. This helps us to see that even the smallest of things that we do when welcoming people in our church and community is important. The smile, ‘good morning’, the item picked up from the floor, the drink and chair offered. Nothing is too small an act of welcome and the small things matter.
The second thing we can learn about welcoming from Jesus’ words is that when we welcome his disciples we welcome Jesus himself. The various people Jesus illustrates in his reading- Prohets, the righteous person and the little ones tells us that people called to be disciples and who are then sent by Jesus/God into the world come in different forms and guises. Jesus may not come to us himself in a form we would expect and indeed those who the church recognises as ‘sent by God’ in ordination are not always likely candidates. So when we welcome people, we may be welcoming Jesus and we should perhaps welcome people in that knowledge, that we may be welcoming Jesus.
Jesus is saying that the family of God is the people who welcome Jesus in whatever guise he appears.
Welcoming those sent to us by Jesus and therefore welcoming Jesus himself is not an extra thing that we do on top of the other important stuff, it’s normal and just what you do for a member of the family.
So today, we have the opportunity to welcome others in church, we have also, the opportunity to welcome of new curate Alison, this evening. Are we challenged to hear Jesus instructions to us to stop feeling that our family must come first in order to benefit the comforts of a wider family in which we can be nurtured and supported in the task of our continuing ministries?
Wether we are called to ministry of service and word, to a sacramental ministry, to a pastoral or bereavement ministry to a children’s and youth ministry, to a smile and a coffee ministry- we are all called to be part of the family of God. It seems to me that God expects little of us in order to be members of his family, in that, all he expects is that we welcome one another- and our reward is that in return he considers us each one of his own.