Philippians 2:5-11Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.Chapter 53: The Rule of St. BenedictAll guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt. 25:35). Proper honor must be shown to all, especially to those who share our faith (Gal. 6:10) and to pilgrims. Once a guest has been announced, the superior and the brothers are to meet him with all the courtesy of love. First of all, they are to pray together and thus be united in peace, but prayer must always precede a kiss of peace because of the delusions of the devil. All humility should be shown in addressing a guest on arrival or departure. By a bow of the head or by a complete prostration of the body, Christ is to be adored because he is indeed welcomed in them. After the guests have been received, they should be invited to pray; then the superior or an appointed brother will sit with them. The divine law is read to the guest for his instruction, and after that every kindness is shown to him. The superior may break his fast for the sake of a guest, unless it is a day of special fast which cannot be broken. The brothers, however, observe the usual fast. The abbot shall pour water on the hands of the guests and the abbot with the entire community shall wash their feet. After the washing they will recite this verse: God, we have received your mercy in the midst of your temple (Ps. 47 [48}:10). Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received; our very awe of the rich guarantees them special respect.
Back in the day, I did a fair amount of traveling for RenewalWorks, often meeting in churches in towns I’d never visited before. I loved the adventure, the exploration, the learning. With the help of Google, I’d find my way, but I was always glad to see signs that confirmed I was on the right track. The signs read: The Episcopal Church welcomes you. I could spot them a mile away. I’m grateful for them. Good branding. As far as it goes.
In recent days, I’ve had occasion to think about what it means to be welcoming. Our church is putting together a parish profile. I’m reminded that every profile I ever read describes the church as welcoming. My experience of church visits can suggest otherwise. The folks who craft those profiles are usually folks at the core of those communities, folks who feel the welcome, which is wonderful. I contrast that with the young woman I met on the steps of a church in a big city. She looked up at the imposing façade and asked: Am I allowed to go in there?
Last week, Scott Gunn, Executive Director of Forward Movement, smart guy, faithful disciple, creative Christian, wrote a reflection after nine years as leader of that ministry. He’s done an amazing job, and we are all grateful to him for his leadership. His reflection included comments about the state of the wider church. He explored the quality of our welcome. He wrote: “We need a new slogan. ‘The Episcopal Church welcomes you,’ sets up a dynamic of a club to which new members of many kinds will be admitted, rather than a mission-focused, outward facing movement in which we seek to make disciples of all nations. It isn’t enough to be nice to people who show up in our churches. We need to get out there and invite people to know the transforming grace of Jesus Christ. We need an active urgent slogan – because we need to be urgently active in the world.”
I’ve played around with supplemental slogans over the years, as I’ve sensed what Scott more ably articulated. Our slogan has been plenty nice. It’s key. But it may not go far enough. Our church in Chicago embraced the following vision: If you come here, you will grow. That helps get at the transforming quality we seek in church, the challenge of the gospel we need in our culture these days. But I’m not sure it says enough about how we connect with the world, or how in the language of RenewalWorks, how we pastor the wider community.
I was thinking about this in morning reflection time last week, as I read from the final chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans. The passages represent his summing up comments, his so-what factor for this church in a culture not unlike our own. Among other things, he offers this instruction, which might not be a bad slogan: “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.” (Romans 15)
I like this, because it is rooted not in our own benevolence but in belief about God’s action in Christ, the ways we have been welcomed. It is rooted in a doctrine of grace, of love from which we can never be separated. Think about ways that you in your spiritual journey have been welcomed by Christ. How would you describe that experience? (Maybe you want to journal a bit about that this week.)
Think about how Christ welcomed those he met. By going outside his comfort zone, emptying himself as the letter to the Philippians describes it (included above). By crossing religious, ethnic, social, gender boundaries of his day. By meeting with people he shouldn’t have met with. By offering them a path to transformation, a new way of life. By finding what God was up to in the neighborhood, among Samaritans and other foreigners, criminals, outcasts, scary people possessed by demons, lepers, pariahs, Pharisees, tax collectors, soldiers, rebels, rich people, poor people, and marvel of marvels, good, religiously observant people. Each one of us fits in there somewhere. Each one of us has had grace extended to us. A sign that we really know that grace will be our ability to show that grace to others.
And once we’ve reflected on how we have been welcomed, perhaps we can explore ways to welcome others in that spirit. What would that look like?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for those signs of welcome on street corners. Maybe they just need to say more, something like “The Episcopal Church welcomes you as Christ has welcomed all of us.”
Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham firstname.lastname@example.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org
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