Some words shared with the lovely people of St. Mary’s Eversley on this first morning of my deployment, when the Gospel seemed appropriately themed to ‘welcome’.
Of surprisingly personal interest among the welcoming congregations were a couple we last shared ministry with over 20 years ago, when we were involved in starting and leading the church plant that is All Saints Warfield together!
I have spent much of this week receiving a lovely welcome from various groups and individuals around St. Mary’s and Eversley, and I have to say it has been great to meet, and sometimes pray with, a few of you. I suspect the welcome will last a little longer, as there are many I’ve not yet met, and groups I’ve not yet been to. I look forward to each occasion.
But, I wonder what you are welcoming me as? A priest and curate, yes. The ‘temp’ filling in a ministry gap; true indeed. Anything more than that? A prophet? How many of those have you met recently? Someone helping you prepare the soil that will mean you reap a harvest of holiness as you extend the kingdom of God?! Sounds grand, but soil preparation tends to be hard, muddy, back-breaking work.
But you know that, because you’ve been doing it yourselves, with and for each other, and your community. For years, in many cases. But, has the work that you do for each other meant that you’ve stopped recognising the welcome you receive from each other? Do you receive each other’s gifts with the grace with which they are offered? It’s all very well welcoming me, but how do you receive the gifts of time and talents that you offer each other, Sunday by Sunday, week by week, from parent or fellow parishioner, from a child or a churchwarden? Do you see Jesus in them? Do they see Jesus in you?
Our Gospel passage this morning comes at the end of a tough, hard-hitting series of mission instructions to Jesus’s disciples. They’ve been taught about the mixed-reception they may receive when they arrive in a new place, the promise that at some point there will be rejection and suffering, and the challenge of discipleship, both in what they are called to do, and in its impact on their family life. But this last little passage then highlights those disciples who are just as ‘sent’ as all the obvious ‘twelve-disciple’ leader types, but whose field of opportunity is closer to home, less visible or heroic, and so often undervalued. This passage is for the disciples who simply keep on handing out the life-giving water of ongoing prayer, hospitality, planning, practical and financial support, week by week, and year by year. The almost invisible members of interdependent parts of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12).
The passage that we heard from Romans this morning seems to be dominated by the language of slavery. Not the drudgery of doing the same old tasks all the while, but our obligation to obedience. It’s about obedience not to our own natural, unthinking way of doing things that Paul sweeps up in the word ‘sin’, but to the way that God calls us to do them. There’s the knotty little word “righteousness” in this Romans passage, and in the Gospel, a word that theologians have spent centuries wrestling with. Yes, it’s about each of us being right with God. But there’s something more binding than that emphasised in Paul’s writings, something that keeps us enslaved, indentured if you like, to God. It is the new covenant of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, a covenant justice of love and grace that should be revealed in, and through,… us. The good purposes of our creator God, is putting our world to rights; bringing righteousness.
You might well poo-poo that statement given the gloom of news headlines, but God is working hard to bring the world back to something that more closely resembles his original intentions for love, beauty and peace, and we are part of that work. God’s covenant work of re-creation starts with us being transformed from within, with our thoughts, actions, and faith being changed, little by little. It means that we need to work hard, and perhaps against our natural instincts, to look for the itinerant Jesus, in those of no fixed abode; the prophet Jesus, in the words of a child; the healing Jesus, in the brief companionship of someone we meet on a walk; the broken Jesus in everyone and anyone, because we all carry hidden burdens.
Through the challenges presented in these and many other encounters with Jesus, through the discipline of trying to recognize Jesus in the most difficult of characters, we are changed. We become instruments of righteousness (Romans 6:13), but also come to see the welcome we receive from them, in the trust they hopefully offer in response to us. With them, we come to know ourselves in receipt of God’s love, grace, forgiveness, and the promise of eternal life. But the really amazing thing, that which some of us may forget, and which is part of our journey to righteousness, is that we realise others see and meet Jesus in us! For, in the opening words of our Gospel, “he who receives [or welcomes] you, receives [Jesus].”
It’s easy to forget that people should see Jesus in us. What we do, however seemingly insignificant, should make Jesus visible to others. Our obedience, our slavery to speaking and acting in ways that Jesus taught, with his love and grace, perhaps repetitively, hopefully with humility as well as occasionally with a gentle challenge, enables others to encounter Jesus. It can be hard, thankless work, and if we’re honest, we frequently won’t know whether, or how, the image of Jesus in us is recognised or received by those we meet.
In some of our activities we can perhaps make a direct connection between ourselves and Jesus and think that it’s just possible that others can see it too; things like the funerals ministers take, the time we spend sorting or serving at the food bank or in leading children’s work, the spiritual and physical nourishment we offer each other in Life Groups, all speak loudly of Jesus. But it’s perhaps more difficult to see God doing anything as we buy and prep the food for lunch club, boil the kettle for the coffee we serve, arrange the flowers or ring the bells at church, sing the slightly tedious alto line, or hand out a hymn book? Can people see Jesus in those actions? I hope so, because they too are contributing to the welcome we give people, people in whom we try to see Jesus, who are changing us towards righteousness, and making us more like Jesus ourselves. It is in relationship that we find Jesus, and grow towards righteousness.
The evidence I’ve seen so far suggests that yes, Jesus is alive and visible in Eversley. But it’s important to recognise and celebrate the fact. There’s something about being acknowledged for what we contribute, that helps us to feel valued, and to strive just a little harder to be a bit more Jesus-like in what we do and give.
So, thank you for the welcome you’re giving me, in all sorts of little ways, because in those things you do, I am seeing the patience, the sacrifice, the love, of Jesus. But please remember to thank each other too, and then practice the gifts you give each other on the stranger, your neighbour, the man driving the tractor down the lane who needs the space to pass, the woman struggling with screaming child in the supermarket, and a hundred other little encounters during a week, so that just perhaps, they too will discover that they have received Jesus.