Friday, July 17, 2015

WHY DOES WELCOME MATTER? Some theological reflections Part 1

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
Welcome lies at the heart of the gospel…If I asked you to name your favourite parable here and now, I doubt if I’d have to wait very long before the prodigal son made an appearance – it’s certainly very dear to my own heart…and if you've not yet read it, may I encourage you to explore Henri Nouwen's book based on the Rembrandt painting.

 It’s one of those books that can change your whole sense of identity in Christ and revolutionise your attitude to brothers and sisters too…as it draws us into a sustained reflection from the viewpoint of each character in the parable. I wonder, though, which one you most readily identify with.
The Father?
The older brother?
The prodigal son himself?
It’s interesting how we tend, on the whole, to see ourselves as that young man who went so badly off the rails. I’m guessing that this is because each of us, whatever our life and faith story, is so very conscious of the unconditional loving welcome that we receive from God.
Hospitality is part of his DNA – and, what we have freely received we are called on to freely give in our turn. We know that. Think too, of the accounts of Jesus’s ministry. Again and again we hear “He welcomed…children…prostitutes…sinners…women…” – and in welcoming them he enabled them to see past the labels of a hostile society and recognise their true selves as precious children of God.

Time and again his teachings remind us about what it means to welcome someone, to include them, to show hospitality. Before there was healing, there was a welcome. Before a miracle, there was a welcome. Jesus welcomed sinners and outcasts to join him at the table to eat. He welcomed the little children, those considered by the culture to be invisible, to come to him. And he welcomed the women in his life, also a cultural boundary not to be crossed, to sit with him and discuss things of importance.
And now, of course, he reaches out to welcome us to his table week by week, offering us his own life, his own self in a fragment of bread and a sip of wine. Whatever your theology of Eucharist – and I recognize that we won’t all stand in the same place – this is surely the ultimate sacrament of both reconciliation and welcome….and we build fences round God’s table at our peril. The Iona Community has a glorious invitation that sums up for me exactly who might be included. You’ve probably met it before, but listen anyway!
This is the table not of the Church but of the Lord.
It is to be made ready for those who love him,
and who want to love him more.
So, come,
you who have much faith
and you who have little,
you who have been here often
and you who have not been for a very long time,
you who have tried to follow
and you who have failed.
Come, not because it is I who invite you:
it is our Lord.
It is his will that those who want him
should meet him here.
Frustratingly, of course, the Canons of the Church of England do not strictly permit such an open invitation – but it seems to me that the “membership” restrictions they impose can hinder the work of the Spirit…and I have never felt that God ordained me so that I could be a gatekeeper of the Sacraments...Empty, open hands cry out to be filled.

Meanwhile, there are barriers to cross before people ever reach the altar and we must never forget that the way that we welcome others into the life our Cathedral impacts upon the way that they understand and receive God’s welcome too – or turn away hungry. Our responsibility, week by week, is to ensure that we offer visitors a taste of the delight that God feels whenever one of his children turns their face towards him…That’s far more than simply not making it difficult for people to find their place and feel at home and we need to remember that God in Christ reconciling the world to himself will draw some most unlikely people to cross our threshold. People who have no idea why they’ve come. People seeking something and people who believe they have their lives neatly sewn up. People on a spiritual quest and people who are ambivalent to the point of hostility to the concept of faith. In her wonderful book “Take this Bread”, the one time atheist writer Sara Miles writes about the overwhelming reality of her own encounter with God, when she walked careless, curious into a church one day – and was quite simply handed Jesus in a piece of bread and a sip of wine...and meeting him there, had her life changed forever.

To be continued...


Sarah W. said...

I need to read that book!

(also, yes- there are certainly people entering the Cathedral who are drawn to be there but are also fearful. They *need* human reassurance when they come through the door).

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

At my daughter's church, children who have been baptised are admitted to Communion, at least as far as the Bread. At Pentecost last year, when the younger boy had not yet been baptised, nor was he yet mobile, he was sat on the floor and a pair of 2-year-old twins came down to "love" him as only 2-year-olds can - but one of them force-fed him his Communion wafer!