For me, these are some of the most beautiful words in the English and the German language, respectively. To me, welcome, willkommen just sounds warm and inviting. And some of the beauty of this word lies in its meaning – when it is spoken, someone is invited in, drawn in, they are being told: you belong.
In that sense, I want to say to all of you again, no matter, where you are: Willkommen! Welcome! Welcome on behalf of St. Matthew’s, welcome on behalf of infinitely larger body of Christ and the community of saints. You belong.
Now I’ve done a little research about the word ‘welcome’, ‘willkommen’. Where does this word come from? And I found that the root of both the English and the German word is the Proto-Germanic word ‘wiljacumo’, which literally means ‘wished-for comer’ – someone whose coming you desire. All you German speakers probably get that thing about desire, since the word ‘will’, ‘wollen’, expresses just that – ‘Ich will, dass du kommst.’
Welcome, be it in its ancient or the modern form we use, is a very positive word – try to say without a smile, and you’ll find that you have to work really hard at it. ‘Welcome’ describes a positive relationship between those who welcome and those who are welcomed and goes way beyond a feeling of obligation and mere tolerance.
We hear the word ‘welcome’ several times in today’s English translation of the gospel; 6 times in 2 verses, to be exact. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous…”
It seems that the concept of welcome, of wanting someone to be in one’s space and one’s life, is important to Jesus and essential to the life of his followers.
Jesus’ followers probably were quite uncomfortable hearing him talk about this kind of welcome. In order to understand that, we have to take a big step back into the Judea of the 1st century. There and then, the idea of a human being an individual was foreign. Everyone was defined and identified by the groups they belonged to: family, tribe, religion, region, social status, profession. Take a person out of their social context, and they were basically nothing. So people were usually identified by their family ties –think of James and John, the sons of Zebedee – or by their place of origin – like Jesus of Nazareth.
Of course this was also the case for most folks in the societies we come from until quite recently. Think of your last name for a moment – chances are, that they either point to a place of origin, a profession, or the family you or your spouse are from. My last name implies that my husband’s ancestors most likely were ‘Weidmanns’ at some point, which is game keepers. Individuals of the lower classes were unimportant. And one could argue that they still are today.
But to us, who grew up to value individuality, sometimes to a fault, this concept of being defined by some form of community seems archaic and outdated.
But back in Jesus’ days in Jewish society, people, because they had such strong communal ties and were defined by them, had very clear ideas about who is welcome, who belongs – and who doesn’t. Certain people were just not welcomed into a proper Jewish household, the temple or synagogues: goys, non-Jews, like the Roman occupiers. Sinners. On the flipside, a pious Jew would never let themselves be welcomed to and enter the house of someone considered improper or uncouth. There was a line.
But Jesus challenges this notion. Not only does he enter the houses of outsiders – like the house of Zacchaeus, the despised tax collector, collaborator of the Romans – how scandalous! – but he also teaches his followers: whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. And maybe the most important word in here is ‘whoever’. Whoever! It doesn’t matter who it is. They don’t have to be a member of your tribe and share your experience or your opinion. It might be a stranger, it might be a sinner, it might be someone considered inappropriate. Someone your mom – or your community – told you not to play with. In God’s eyes, everyone is worthy. Allow yourself to be welcomed.
Jesus sends his followers out into the world, teaching them to have open hearts and minds, and to not discriminate. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me. Whoever receives you with a glad and willing heart, whoever accepts you, whoever invites you into their life and shares it with you, whoever gives you the feeling that you belong, receives me. There, I belong. Take me there.
Jesus calls his followers to overcome prejudices and preconceived notions of people’s worthiness. And this revolutionary idea helped the apostles to go out after Christ’s death and resurrection and spread the gospel in all the known world – as they crossed visible and invisible lines and allowed themselves to be welcomed – and entered the houses of Roman citizens, of non-Jews, of independent women, and mingled with slaves.
The apostles made themselves vulnerable by going out, by stepping out and entering unknown territory. There is always something humbling about entering someone else’s space, someone else’s territory. You have to play by their rules and can’t just do what you want.
Yes, those who went out to spread the gospel had something to offer, the good news of Jesus Christ, who lived and died and rose again for the sake of ALL the world. But they had to proclaim – and to embody – this good news in a way that they were truly welcomed – and not merely tolerated or, even worse, despised for their message. And how did they – how do we – do that? Definitely not be hitting someone over the head with the Bible – that would be rude and inconsiderate – but by listening to them, by becoming part of their lives, their struggles, their joys. By showing: we care. That’s what Jesus did, after all – take part in people’s lives.
Those who welcome Christ’s followers are not just folks in desperate need of salvation, no, they have something important to offer as well: their lives, their experiences. It is a give and take between those who are welcoming and those who are welcomed; and it’s only in mutuality that true relationships and the kingdom of heaven can grow. Just imagine if those early converts, the ‘whoevers’, hadn’t been able to contribute anything, their lives, to the proclamation and embodiment of the good news of God’s kingdom come near – Christianity wouldn’t be that beautiful and diverse global tapestry we experience today – colorful and lively in expression, but one in Christ, through the gift of baptism and faith. This is how the kingdom of heaven has grown and continues to grow, like a mustard seed…
Now we as the followers of Christ are in a quite peculiar situation today. We primarily understand ourselves as the ones who extend the welcome, rather as those who receive it. However, if we hadn’t been welcomed first into God’s realm of grace and forgiveness, we wouldn’t have any welcome to offer to others. We don’t ‘own’ God’s kingdom: we are merely stewards of God’s good news of grace and love and acceptance. It’s our duty and delight to welcome people to that.
Now as church we may open our doors and hope that people will somehow find us, and we then can be the gracious hosts: welcome. Or make it quite clear that certain folks are not so welcome after all – like the occasional homeless person walking into our sanctuary on a Sunday morning, or the parent with a fussy child. We may be more tribal than we think after all, because somehow we have certain expectations who is worthy of being in our midst, who belongs; we have the expectation that all who enter our doors are to look the way we want them to look and to behave in the way we want them to behave. To be honest, I don’t think that this is what Jesus had in mind when he talked about welcome. Do we truly welcome and receive God if we reject ‘whoever’ our neighbor is?
I already mentioned that first and foremost, we are the ones who have been welcomed by Christ. Furthermore, we may have forgotten that we are the ones whom Jesus calls to go out, to cross the line, to leave our familiar and comfortable communal structures – to build a house where hand will reach beyond the wood and stone, to heal and strengthen, serve and teach, as we will sing in a moment – and allow ourselves to be the ones who are welcomed who are invited into the life and experience of ‘Whoever’, to honor their space, to listen to their story, to learn from them, to be enriched by them, to become part of them – and to grow as we, at the same time, share of ourselves.
In this way, we embody Christ, who shared himself with all. Who welcomed us into the dance of the Holy Trinity and into the realm of forgiveness and grace. We see his outstretched arms on the cross: come. Allow yourself to be embraced. You belong.
Image by Belinda Fewings on unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German