Sermon for Williamsburg Friends Meeting
Reading: Ephesians 2:11-3:6
I chose this passage because of the sign that is outside. I cannot think about your meeting without thinking about this sign and a little bit about what it means that you put it up. Churches everywhere have signs that say “Everybody welcome” — those signs are so common that they mean nothing except that there is no bouncer to throw the wrong people out, however, far too often when a stranger walks through the doors of the church, the stranger feels anything but welcomed.
A couple years ago, I was an intern at Muncie Friends Memorial. At the time I was also a student at Earlham School of religion, taking classes from professors such as Phil Baisley. Every time I drove between Richmond and Muncie, I saw this sign. There were some points in class where our professor and your pastor told us about your commitment to welcome those who were not always welcome in other places. I was personally impressed, as I personally have more experience with people talking about welcome than actually doing the work of offering a welcome.
Currently, I am involved with Irvington Friends meeting in Indianapolis. About two weeks ago the co-pastor Rex Jones mentioned your meeting and your sign — a sign that he knew from when he was pastor at West River Friends. He spoke about how much it meant to say: “you will find a welcome here”. It really does place the responsibility on you, as you must make sure that there is a welcome that is obvious enough for someone to find. Offering a welcome is hard work, You likely know this because you publicly committed yourself to this work. I want to remind you that it has always been hard work, and this work is why I like Paul so much. Paul devoted his ministry to finding a welcome — and welcomes were no easier to find in the primitive church. Even those who saw Jesus in the flesh had a lot to learn about welcoming humanity into Christ’s kingdom.
Paul learned how hard it was to find a welcome as soon as he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. As you might remember, Paul was one of those who persecuted the Christians. When Paul claimed to be a Christian, people remembered his past and were afraid for their lives. People did not want to include Paul in the community, so from the start he knew what it was to be excluded. Fear makes it difficult to believe in redemption. Welcoming those with a past is an act of faith, and a call to the whole community to share in this faith. I know this from personal experience, as I know a few churches that make it a point to welcome those who have a criminal past. It truly seems that sometimes when we welcome one person, another person feels it necessary to leave.
Paul became the apostle to the Gentiles. The Gentiles were another group that was excluded — they were systematically excluded because they were different — there were of a different culture and had different customs than Jesus and his disciples. The Gentiles did not share in the stories of Israel, nor did they share in the covenant that God had with the Jews. One of the first major challenges of the church was to decide what to do when outsiders started calling on the name of Jesus. There were many among the Christians called them names, and had no desire for them to find a welcome: Paul’s ministry was to find them a welcome.
This argument started before Paul’s ministry. Many thought that in order to become Christian, a person must become culturally like the first Christians. This called for such things as a change in diet, an adoption of somebody else’s story, and as we read alteration of the body itself. The thing is that even after hiding every difference and trying to force a welcome, the Gentile would remain an outsider. The stories of Israel might be inspiring, but they are always somebody else’s story. No matter how much we try to become good enough for the community, we are always tainted by a past when we were not good enough. The complete welcome never comes by our effort.
Before Paul’s effort, it took a miraculous act of God to convince the disciples that there was a need for welcome. Peter needed a prophetic vision to accept the Gentile Christians. There had to be a second event like Pentecost where the Holy Spirit came on the Christians of Antioch to show that God gave them the same spirit. Even with these miraculous events, the best of the disciples had trouble living up to what God showed them. Peter, the disciple that worked hardest to welcome the Gentiles still snubbed them at Antioch when people who looked down on them were there — and at that point Paul’s ministry of welcome included standing up to Peter, and correcting him because he failed to live up to the gospel that he preached.
Even after miracles and prophetic visions, the church had great difficulty finding a welcome for those who were different. Paul’s ministry required him to be a theologian — somebody who explained how Christ’s ministry made him more than a Rabbi who taught a deeper understanding of Torah, and more than a prophet who brought the message of God to God’s people. For Paul, Jesus was God’s revelation to all Humanity — and Jesus was the new Adam, somebody who changed God’s relationship with all humanity. Christ was God’s way of making a welcome for us all. Whatever conflict there was that lets one person in, and keeps another out — Christ corrects it.
When I look at the welcome Paul offers, I see one thing clearly — I can identify with those who were once unwelcome. No matter how much I identify with the sacred history of Israel, I still have no claims to that story. I am a Gentile, and my culture is Gentile. Paul’s ministry is what created my welcome — however, I see that it remains a challenge to share that welcome. It is too easy to confuse culture with faith. It is too easy to expect others to first conform to our culture, then allow them to be under the grace of Jesus Christ. We have the same problems welcoming as the first Christians — we are afraid of the stranger — and we are afraid of those who have a past.
Not only is it easy to not give a welcome because of fear — but pride also prevents a welcome. In this passage, the Jews (or more accurately, those who said salvation was only for the Jews) felt that they had a uniquely special connection with God. If we believe that God’s grace is limited to people who look like us, talk like us, eat like us, and vote like us — we will feel superior as we lock the doors and make sure than only a select few find a welcome. Paul addresses this here — but he really elaborates on it in the first couple chapters of Romans — where he points out the cultural sins of the Gentiles, such as worshiping false gods, and then goes so far as to name the sinfulness that goes on in the Church. He tells the Church people: “You are no better!” He addresses this issue of pride by deflating it, and pointing out that we are all in the same boat. The only reason we have to go to Church is that we all believe that we need Jesus: We all need God’s grace.
One thing I’ve learned is that pride is a terribly hard thing to overcome. It is so easy to compare ourselves to others, and think we are doing better — but, as Paul pointed out, those who judge are no better. It is so easy to judge individuals and groups, and forget that the church is a community of redemption. We who judge risk shutting the doors to those who need God’s grace the most. It was difficult for Paul to find a welcome for himself — and it was also difficult for Paul to call people to a faith in God that invited those who were different.
In the end, the only reason you can say: “You will find a welcome” is not because you are wonderful, welcoming, and understanding people. I’ve heard good things about you — but, you are still people. Like it or not, humanity finds it difficult to offer such a generous welcome. The reason you can say this is because Jesus welcomed all of Humanity into grace and redemption. In the end, the welcome we offer isn’t about being better than those who cannot offer such a welcome — it is about faith that Jesus offers grace to everyone. It is also about living in that grace ourselves, because some days the strength to offer a welcome requires a miracle.