Welcome You All

God's welcome mat is big enough for Jew and Gentile both to wipe their feet before coming into God's house...

SJF • Advent 2a 2013 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

We come now to the second Sunday in Advent, one step closer to Christmas. Last week we heard a splendid sermon from Deacon Cusano about being alert to the signs of God’s presence, and responding with the love of God. This week I’d like to reflect with you about putting that love into action, in terms of the virtue of hospitality. Since we are in the midst of preparing to welcome the Christ child on Christmas, and Christ the King when he comes in glory, it would be well for us to look at how well we welcome our brothers and sisters (as well as his brothers and sisters) in the meantime. For he has told us that it is in how we treat the least of those who are members of his family, that we will be judged.

In his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul was addressing a Jewish congregation in Rome — that is a Jewish Christian congregation. One of the biggest issues facing the church in its early days was the tension between those Jews who had come to accept Christ and the Gentiles who had done the same. It seems so simple and obvious to us two thousand years later, but believe me, at the time it was as hot a topic as the debates on human sexuality that we are going through the churches today. So let’s put ourselves back in time and look at what Saint Paul said from the perspective of his original hearers.

The first thing to remember is that most Jews in the time of Christ and Saint Paul regarded Gentiles as lower than dirt. One of the prevailing Jewish sects at the time was concerned primarily with purity, almost to the point of an obsession. This obsession with purity played a large part in their opposition to Jesus — you may remember all the fuss they raised about the disciples not washing their hands before eating. Concerned as they were with such matters of ritual purity, those Jews regarded Gentiles as more or less permanently unclean — since they were outside of the Law of Purity, they couldn’t be trusted to be pure: their food, their manner of life, everything about them was considered unclean. Even today you may notice on the subway an ultra-orthodox Jew, following the rules laid down in the fifteenth chapter of Leviticus, by avoiding sitting down on the subway seats, because according to the biblical law anyone who sits on a seat upon which an unclean person has sat becomes unclean himself. And while some may call the Jews who follow such rules today “ultra-orthodox,” in the days of Jesus and Paul, this was the belief and practice of the vast majority of Jewish believers: keep as far away from Gentiles as you possibly can; don’t let one touch you, don’t touch anything that they’ve handled; certainly don’t sit down to eat with them — because both their food and their seats are likely unclean!

So imagine the consternation when Peter and Paul both come along saying that God means to welcome the Gentiles into his kingdom — and not just in the way that the prophets had promised. This is no longer a promise, this is a reality. And we all know that sometimes it is easier to deal with an idea than the real thing. Peter and Paul both were saying, “Folks, this is real now. It’s happening. Now. God is welcoming the Gentiles into his household.” God’s plan is bigger than just a Messiah to rescue Israel from its troubles; God’s welcome mat is broader than imagined. It is not just for the descendants of Abraham, but for all the peoples of the earth.

You know how hard it is to change habits — especially religious habits! Well, this obsessive concern with purity was hard for many of them to let go of, even after they came to accept Jesus as Messiah. So Paul, writing to these Roman Jewish Christians, tries to prove that God welcomed the Gentiles as well as the Jews by citing those other passages of Scripture, pointing to the words of the prophets. He claims that Jesus came as a servant to the circumcised — that is, to the Jews — in order to confirm God’s promises to their ancestor Abraham, and in order to show mercy to the Gentiles, so that they also might give glory to God, who is not just the Lord of a small Middle Eastern tribe of nomads, but of the whole earth and all who dwell therein. So Saint Paul quotes the Psalms and Isaiah to prove that God’s welcome mat is big enough for Gentiles as well as Jews to wipe their feet on as they come into the kingdom.

Now the sad news is that Saint Paul didn’t convince everybody. There were still some who insisted that only they were welcome in God’s kingdom. In fact, the ongoing controversy runs through many of Paul’s letters, and right up to the end of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul finally gets to Rome and the Jews there tell him that all they have heard about the Christians is bad news! So too, many of the Jewish believers in Christ still ignored the preaching of John the Baptist, who told them that relying on their Jewish ancestry as children of Abraham meant nothing to God — God could raise up children of Abraham up from the very stones of the riverbank if need be. And so too some ignored the preaching of Paul, and insisted that only Jews were welcome into God’s kingdom, or at most Gentiles who had gone through the whole nine yards of conversion to Judaism. That included circumcision and the promise to follow the whole of the Jewish law. That law included all the rules that would separate them from their Gentile sisters and brothers, shunning even the benches they sat on and the food they ate.

Fortunately for us, the church eventually came around to Saint Paul’s way of thinking, accepting his preaching, in large part because of the experience that Saint Peter had when he was preaching to the Gentile Cornelius, and even before Peter could finish his sermon, the Holy Spirit came down out of heaven revealing that God shows no partiality, and welcomes all who turn to him in faith. God’s welcome mat is there for all, all of the children of Abraham and all of the Gentiles, all God’s children by birth or adoption.

+ + +

Let me close with a story about another Abraham, the 16th president of these United States. I don’t know how many of you have seen the Steven Spielberg film that came out last year. A point it makes is that even many of those who agreed that slaves should be free still couldn’t imagine that they were equal them, or should be treated as full citizens. Many even of those who opposed slavery would still, by any standard, then or now, be considered racists — because for them, race made a real difference; for those people, race made them superior. Into this atmosphere, Lincoln won a second term in 1864, as the War raged on, and as this very church building was being constructed — some things don’t stop for war.

And neither did the inaugural ball, which was a grand affair. Guests arrived by coach and on foot, and were ushered in to the festivities. Among them was a tall, sturdily built African-American man, with an impressive mane of white hair and a beard that Moses would have envied. He came up the steps and approached the front door of the White House. Out of nowhere, two policemen rushed up and blocked his way.

Well as I said, the gentleman was a large, powerful man, and he just brushed the two officers aside and stepped into the foyer. Once inside, two more officers grabbed him, all the while yelling insults at him that I will leave to your imagination. As they dragged him from the hall, he remained surprisingly calm and called out to a nearby guest, “Please tell Mr. Lincoln that Frederick Douglass is here!” At that name the officers let go , still standing on their guard. Soon enough, orders arrived to usher Douglass into the East Room. And as he came into that room, a hush fell as Lincoln, seeing him enter, took three big strides across that room, and stretched out his hand as the crowds parted like the Red Sea, and he walked towards his guest, with hand outstretched in greeting, and speaking in a voice loud enough so that none could mistake his intent, and said, “Well here’s my friend Douglass.”

And I can’t let pass another great man, who died this past week, known to his people as Madiba, but to us as Nelson Mandela. After 27 years in prison on Robin’s Island, he was elected president. And at the inauguration, people noticed among the guests seated on the platform the warden of the jail where he had spent those 27 years. And many people shook their heads to see this sight. But Madiba said, “We are all South Africans now.” That was what he fought for, that was what he lived for, that was what he spent 27 years in prison for — that all, all, would be there, on the platform. Just as Paul and Peter and Jesus preached, that all would be there in his heavenly kingdom. And it is our challenge to be like God, to say, “We are all God’s children now.”

+ + +

My sisters and brothers, Christ has called us to be his friends, as Lincoln welcomed Douglass. He has invited all, and his welcome is still open to all. We dare turn no one from the door of this church for any reason, any more than God turns them away from his welcome mat: for the color of their skins, or the nature of their ancestry; because they eat foods we might find distasteful, or have habits we might disdain; because of the languages they speak, or the relationships they form; for what they have done or left undone. God’s welcome mat is there for all who are prepared to enter his kingdom. Let us, as we prepare to welcome the Christ Child at Christmas, and Christ the King when he comes to judge and rule the world, also be prepared to welcome all of our yet-to-be-known brothers and sisters in him, that we may all together as Saint Paul said, “with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”+