The gift of welcome. The gift of presence. The gift of listening. The gift of embracing. The gift of difference.
These are all gifts we can give and receive. These are not easy gifts to give and receive. But they are gifts we need in our lives and are all part of the hospitality “at the heart of Christianity” (“Radical Hospitality,” Pratt). And, if they are at the heart of Christianity, then they are gifted to us by Christ.
Imagine meeting Jesus. What would it be like for you? How would you react to being in his presence? What do you have to offer him? What can he offer you? How would you be changed? In Matthew’s Gospel, the Magi “opened” and “offered” and, after doing so, they were changed by this encounter. This “epiphany” is what we all experience when we encounter Christ. Our struggle often is missing Christ in our midst — standing right before us, right now!
Much like the Magi, we must work diligently to “open” ourselves to the encounter. In order to do this, we have to be willing to take Christ seriously when he says:
• I was “a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35);
• “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:5);
• “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
“. . . on entering the house they saw the child with Mary, his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” MATTHEW 2:11
If we believe this welcome of which Jesus speaks is at the heart of our faith, then we have no choice but to take these words seriously. The stranger we encounter in our daily lives — the person in the line at the grocery store, the one walking down the sidewalk, the one in front of us at the stoplight, the individual holding the sign on the street corner, the one who believes differently or votes differently — THIS IS GOD! To welcome the stranger is to welcome God.
Hospitality or welcoming should not be something we do to others but, instead, something active, something we live, something we are. Hospitality calls us to “search for the lost ones, those who have nothing to give us, but who, instead, need something from us” (Pratt, p. xi). Are we willing to be open to another? Are we willing to offer of ourselves to the point of being emptied?
In his book, “Five Practices of a Fruitful Congregation: Radical Hospitality,” Robert Schnase states, “Christian hospitality reveals a genuine love for others, an outward focus, a reaching out to those not yet known, a grace that motivates people to openness and adaptability, a willingness to change behaviors to accommodate the needs and receive the talents of newcomers.”
A true welcome begins in love, a love defined in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). It continues with a turn toward the other — what are the needs of those around us and how can we prioritize their needs over our own?
Jesus gives us the example of welcome by his life on earth. He always stepped toward people, not away from them. Known or unknown, he stepped toward the blind, the sick, the paralyzed, the grieving, the tax collectors, the sinners, the woman at the well. He chose to enter into a relationship with them, first by entering their lives and then by entering their hearts. How do we welcome those we do not know?
In hospitality there needs to be a desire to change our own motive and behavior. This Sunday, choose to sit with someone, near to them. Find someone who might be worshipping alone and ask if you or your entire family can join them. You never know, that person could be an angel as we hear in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels” (Hebrews 13:2).
We must treat every Sunday, or even every encounter with someone, as the only Sunday that matters. If we can start in our own churches where people are just like us, who believe as we believe, then we will be able to bring this welcome to the people in our schools, offices, grocery stores and more.
If we can turn our ear to hear the words of St. Paul, “Welcome one another, then, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7), we will be able to stay focused on offering a welcome that is not ours to offer; on that truth that we are called give and receive the gift of hospitality not for our sake, but for the glory of God.
Aaron Carpenter is director of the Diocese of St. Cloud’s Office of Worship.