28th June 2020
Trinity 3, proper 8
Revd. Cheryl Collins
George Herbert’s poem, Love III speaks of God’s welcome to us, despite our anxiety and reluctance. Our souls are all too inclined to draw back. This was brought home to me by something I found on the internet this week, a picture with commentary of the story of the Prodigal Son. Right in the centre of the picture was a house, shaped roughly like a heart; the artist commented how strange it was that we know the story as the prodigal Son when that is really not the centre of the story at all. He suggested that perhaps the story would be better called ‘The House of Belonging’. It’s typical of us that we give it a name which focuses on us and on our sense of shame and not on God’s welcoming love. We imagine that we are not worthy to come in until we’ve cleaned up our act like the younger son. We are indignant when we judge those who are being welcomed as not being worthy like the older son. But the story is really about the Father’s love. It begins with God. God has always been eager to welcome us into relationship with God. Remember in Genesis 3 God enjoys an evening walk in the garden of Eden with the humans God has created. When God cannot find them, God calls ‘Where are you?’ The man’s reply focuses on shame as the reason that Adam and Eve cannot come and meet with God. They knew that they were naked.
And we do that too. We imagine that the sight of us spiritually naked is so horrible that God cannot possibly mean to invite us into God’s house of belonging. But God is inviting us just as we are, this good news of God’s loving invitation is the heart of the gospel. In fact, God desires our company so much that God does not just hold the door open, God comes running out to meet us where we are in the person of Jesus. God comes to us in Jesus, who time and again demonstrates God’s welcome, even to those that the rest of us are not sure about. Jesus is the bridge that leads us onto the road of relationship with God. For God’s welcome is not a one-off invitation, but a longing to come into our hearts and lives and build a deep relationship with each one of us. It really is that simple. We, of course, try to complicate it. Even though we speak about God’s free grace we secretly decide that God cannot possibly mean it. We assume that God will not be happy to really have a relationship with us until we have cleaned up our act. So, we summon up our resolve, stiffen the sinews and try and force ourselves to do the things we think God expects of us. But embarrassingly, we find that the try-hard life does not lead to the results we were hoping for. Sometimes we are so overcome with our failure and sense of shame that we decide that the whole gospel is rubbish anyway, or that, even if God does love other people, God can’t possibly love me. That in turn can make us quick to judge others, so anxious to feel better about ourselves that sins of others.
The truth is that the obedience of the heart that Paul promises in our passage from Romans is only possible when we allow ourselves to receive and believe in God’s welcome, and welcome God into ourselves, however unworthy we imagine ourselves to be. Sanctification, growing more Christ-like is not something we are equipped to do on our own. It comes when we are brave enough to open to God our whole messy inner life and let God’s love begin to heal us and restore us to wholeness. It’s the relationship we have with God that allows God to do this work in us, which we cannot do for ourselves. Our ability to welcome others comes from the security of feeling welcome in God’s love and welcoming God into our hearts. This is the kind of hospitality we are called to. We have to learn how to receive from God before we can truly share what we have received with others.
In our gospel reading Jesus tells the twelve that when people receive them, they are receiving him and when they receive him they are receiving God. God is a God who is always coming to us, and God wants us to share the good news of God’s coming with others. We are all able to be means of grace. Which brings me back to the small gestures of welcome we make to others when they step inside the church building. They are like that cup of cold water that gives new life to the thirsty. The rules of monastic hospitality frequently encourage the brethren to ‘greet each guest as if they are Christ.’ When we see each stranger as Christ we can freely offer our small, simple acts of kindness. The danger is that, consciously or not, we only offer our welcome to those who fit in to our culture. It is part of being human to feel most warmly to those we can identify with, literally the ‘people like us.’ But when as Christians we see Christ in others whoever they are, we are identifying them as people like us, made in God’s image and a beloved son daughter or person rejecting gendered pronouns of God.
When we truly invite someone in, we begin a relationship with them. And over time, we share more and more of ourselves with one another. We take time to listen to and learn from each other’s experience, which may be very different from our own. We allow each other to widen our horizons, to help us see God at work in all sorts of people and places. We allow our new friend to bless us, as we bless them with our welcome and find ourselves in a never-ending circle of blessing. We cannot know in advance what we will learn, or what we will set in motion. We can know that our welcome makes room for new life. When we open a space to the holy stranger, God creates a space within us. There is extra room in our souls, a place for God to grow. Welcoming one another is a holy art that makes us all whole.