“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” [Matthew 10:40]
Jesus speaks these words at the end of a long sermon commissioning the twelve apostles to go out and proclaim the good news, to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Jesus tells them all this and then tells them don’t worry about bringing a bag, or a tunic, or money, or whatever. These apostles would have to depend on the hospitality of strangers in the places they visited. The church from its inception has relied on the kindness of strangers, for those who welcomed the apostles welcomed Jesus. The early church depended on hospitality and it was charged with extending that same hospitality to others, and so today we Christians strive to be a people of welcome and hospitality.
“Welcome” is a hard word for me – because I really want to believe people when they tell me I’m welcome in a space but it’s hard to accept that welcome at face value when their actions tell me differently. Like many of my fellow Millennials, I have been burned by community, hurt by churches and groups and fellowships that said they welcomed me and all that I am, only to be disappointed when that welcome proved to be conditional. I am often welcomed into progressive, liberal spaces because I am a queer brown person with a “prophetic” voice but I am quickly seen as a troublemaker when I ask hard questions and refuse to settle for scraps at the table. Or other times, my friends and I are welcomed and invited to the table if we all dress to the nines and serve you Sunday best church lady realness but not when any of us walk into your church with dyed hair, tattoos, or, Heaven forbid, wearing a t-shirt and shorts. Many places are eager to lay out a welcome mat for people like me, but are not sure what to do with us once we walk through the door.
But, perhaps foolishly, I continue to show up to church, I continue to read and study my Bible with others, I hatch plans to start theology study groups, I continue to do my best to love and welcome the stranger in my midst. I’ve been asked more than once, why I would dare return to Christianity after having experienced so much abuse, so much pain, so much nonsense? I can tell them quite simply that the answer is… Jesus. Shocking, I know. The church’s welcome may sometimes ring hollow, but the love of Jesus, with his arms stretched out on the cross can welcome and envelop all parts of me. Jesus welcomes me in when I’m happy and pleasant, and Jesus welcomes me when I am messy. Jesus invites me in after calling people out on social media, when I’m pissed off, when I burn bridges, when I refuse to be polite. Jesus sets a place for me at the table at all times of the day and Jesus feeds me the bread of heaven even when I want no part of it.
This is the welcome we are called to embody.
Some churches will loudly proclaim that “It doesn’t matter to us who you are – you are welcome here!” But actually, it does matter, because Jesus loves each of us as we are, in the fullness of our identities – and when we say it “doesn’t matter” we’re essentially saying that you’re just another body in the pew, we don’t need to know your life story, just show up! Nobody wants that. In order to truly practice the radical welcome of Jesus Christ we must build relationships. We must foster and nurture connection. We must see people for all of who they are.
One of my good friends once said something that will always stay with me – she said that people have different “textures” – someone you know could be the happiest person in the world one day and then the next be sad, distraught, or pissed the hell off. And so often the temptation is to only see a person in one of those textures, and not the wholeness of who they are. So we must accept people and all of their textures!
If the church has any desire to stay true to what Jesus has commanded us, we must be truly welcoming. We must listen to people’s stories, and build relationships with them. We must welcome people even when we are challenged by them. We must continue extending hospitality to the strangers in our midst, especially in this country, where the government continues to criminalize Black bodies, threatens to kick off millions of people from their healthcare coverage, shut out Muslims from entering this country, and deport millions of undocumented immigrants.
We once depended on other’s kindness hospitality – and now we are called to extend it to others.