|This Article is from the Spring 1999 edition of good idea!, also available here in a fully formatted PDF file.|
Our student son said to us recently, “By the way, I was talking to some street kids in Toronto the other day, and I gave them our phone number in case they needed it. I hope that’s OK?” So far our mettle has not been tested, but it raised an interesting question. To welcome or not to welcome? Which is kinder . . . to everyone?
It brought home to me in a fresh way that welcoming is a very vulnerable thing to do. If I welcome this person, will they take advantage of me? Will they respect me? Will they . . . well, once they’re through the door, anything could happen. I am no longer as much in charge of my life as I generally like to be.
All of which sharpened my wits as I began to think what welcoming means in the Bible. There are at least three dimensions to this topic:
God welcoming us
God’s posture, as Jesus shows it over and over again, is one of welcome towards humankind. Thus Jesus welcomes the crowds (Luke 9:11). In particular, he welcomes “sinners”–to the discomfiture of the Pharisees. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!” they say in amazed disgust (Luke 15:2). How can he open himself to such people? The story Jesus tells in response, of course, is all about a father who is also a welcomer. Would the son abuse the father’s generosity a second time? Maybe. For the welcoming father, however, that made no difference.
The most frequent Greek word for welcome, or receive, is dechomai. Twice, when describing those banquets which are foretastes of God’s eschatological banquet, Luke uses an unusual word for “feast”—doche—-which is related to dechomai. Welcoming, it seems, is most naturally followed by feasting!
Us welcoming God
God’s hope is that humankind will reciprocate by welcoming God’s banquet invitation. In fact, the word dechomai becomes almost a technical term in the New Testament–the equivalent of receiving or believing or trusting in God’s salvation. So when the New Testament observes anyone engaged in “welcoming”, it is not just a sociological statement but also a theological one. The welcome means the welcomer has welcomed God’s grace.
Thus when Zaccheus “welcomes” Jesus into his house, it is almost Luke’s code way of saying, “Look! Do you get it? Zaccheus has entered the kingdom.” Zaccheus discovered, of course, that it costly to welcome Jesus, just as it is costly for God to welcome us.
It is not only receiving Jesus which has theological significance, however. When Jesus is sending out the twelve, he explains to them, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me” (Matthew 10:40 cf. John 13:20). Paul too understands that the messenger stands in for the speaker. When he recalls how the Galatians first welcomed him, he says, “you welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus” (Galatians 4:14). Their welcome of God’s messenger was the beginning of their opening the door to God.
Us welcoming one another
The work of God’s Spirit in us can be summarised as making us like Jesus, restoring the image of God in us. Part of that renewing is to turn us into welcomers in just the way that God is a welcomer.
Jesus urged us, “When you give a feast [doch], invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind…” (Luke 14:12-14) Paul says much the same thing, only in different words: “Welcome one another, as God in Christ welcomed you.” (Romans 15:7) God is the standard by which we are to measure the warmth of our welcoming.
For Paul, as for Jesus, this was not a matter of mere words. When Luke records at the climax of the Book of Acts that Paul “welcomed all who came to him”, we recognise this to be a Christ-like kind of welcoming, not least because Luke adds pointedly that Paul entertained “at his own expense”—-just as God’s welcoming is at God’s own expense. (Acts 28:20)
When we welcome strangers into our churches, then, like Paul we are agents of God, representing the God who has welcomed us without reserve. The hand of welcome we extend is God’s hand. There is thus something sacramental in the act of welcoming. It is, as the BCP says of baptism, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”: the sign of the grace God has shown to us. Is it costly? Is it disturbing? Naturally. That’s the way grace is. But it is also deeply divine, and deeply human.