One of the charities that I support is the Children’s Society. When reading their most recent magazine I was struck by the depiction in it of colourful postcards sent by supporters of the Society sharing messages of hope for young refugees. One such read: ‘Welcome to England. We hope that you feel welcome and enjoy being here’. Another wrote: ‘Welcome! You are valued!
How reassuring these words must be to refugees arriving in England from afar. They prompted me to make ‘welcome’ the theme of my sermon today as I believe that it is a crucial part of the life of the church to welcome people into its worshipping community.
At present, in the socially distanced situation we have been left with by the corona virus, we cannot welcome people into the church building as it must remain closed until it is safe enough to allow people to enter once more. Nevertheless we can, thanks to technology, stream worship into people’s homes, where computers are to hand, and engage in a pastoral ministry by phone and email. All this, to my mind, affirms St Mark’s as having a continuous welcoming presence. What we can conclude from this continuity is that the unwelcome virus that has found a way through cunning means to unlock and corrupt the human cell can never lock us out of our faith and participation in worship. We can also say that our worship, wherever it takes place, reflects our membership of the body of Christ and that body was resurrected following the Crucifixion and raised up on high to sit at the right hand of God, so we are members of an incorruptible body now and in eternity. As we affirm in our worship: ‘we are many but we are one body’.
We do, though, look forward to the day when we can once more open the church door to welcome parishioners and visitors from all walks of life so they may be sustained, comforted and uplifted by the rites and rituals and music which form our worship and nurture our spiritual as well as mental wellbeing.
So how does welcome relate to today’s Gospel reading? Here, Matthew writes that Jesus sends out his disciples to the iron age Semitic tribes of the ancient near East, known as ‘the lost sheep of Israel’ to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven has come near. They are being called upon to ‘cure the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons’ but without payment or money to take on their journey. The missionaries must be sustained by Divine providence and travel in humility. They must take the risk of sharing life with people to whom they are sent. They are to be the labourers for God’s harvest and as such there will be a strain upon them. They may well face persecution before governors and kings so they must be careful for they are sheep amongst the wolves. Yet lack of welcome is to work both ways. If the disciples are not welcomed into the houses and towns they travel to then Jesus says: ‘Truly, I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town’. Also, the disciples are given a commanding position by Jesus as it is they who greet the households they approach and not the other way round. If, and only if, the household is receptive to their mission will peace come upon it. If they are not welcomed they are to ‘shake the dust off their feet as they leave that town’. I interpret this to mean that they will continue their journey and continue un phased by rejection and lack of welcome.
Great significance to welcome, then, is given in today’s Gospel narrative.
How, though, does what is known as this ‘little Commission’ to the disciples square with the ‘Great Commission’ given at the end of Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus shows mercy to all in his call to the disciples to ‘make disciples of all nations’. This reflects covenant theology rather than the harsh judgement of destruction worse than Sodom and Gomorrah. Scholarship has not resolved this tension but I think we can say this much. Whilst having faith in God’s mercy and love for us all while we are in our earthly existence we must do our best to be a welcoming presence for all in any way we can. Particularly now whilst we are threatened by a most unwelcome virus and the recent horrific attack on a black man in the United States of America. Restrictions on us all there may be but as long as welcome continues we are staying with the words of St Paul addressed to the Corinthians: ‘For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.