Sunday, April 27, 2014
There alone, Christ is in our midst
I wonder how many times a stranger, maybe not even a total stranger but an ‘outsider,’ comes to your church. You see him or her in the congregation during the worship service. You may even feel obligated to exchange the peace, ‘Christ is in our midst,’ if they’re standing near you in the service.
If you’re the priest, you may beam them a clerical smile when they venerate your hand cross and your hand as they pass by at the end of liturgy with a ‘How are you?’ and receive their equally formal, ‘Fine, thanks!’ in polite response. Neither you nor your congregation recognize Christ in your midst.
Inviting everyone, especially any visitors, to join you in the parish hall for the coffee hour, is protocol: You have fulfilled the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. Now you can, whether priest or member, go into the fellowship hall and socialize with a clear conscience. You made the first move. Or did you?
When I attended my family church, where I was known to everyone by name because I used to do some high profile volunteer work like publishing the parish monthly newsletter and running the book store, along with a handful of others, I kept watch for the stranger who might cross our threshold.
One of our older members, old enough to be my dad, always sat in the last pew on the right side of the aisle and kept an eagle’s eye out for the visitor and newcomer. He then would make sure they didn’t just leave without personally inviting them and accompanying them to the coffee hour if they accepted.
I tried my best to follow his example, though as a dad with boys in tow I sometimes couldn’t maneuver myself to catch the ‘outsider’ before they fled to their car or the bus stop. Each of us ‘watchers’ were quite different in age, background, and of course, of both sexes, and it usually came about that there were enough of us to match every kind of visitor.
Sometimes Christ would just show up in the coffee hour whom none of us noticed in the service. In that case, we didn’t let him sit alone at a table that everyone else avoided. When we did sit down, we asked, ‘May I join you?’ and then made our introductions, learning the stranger’s name and telling ours.
A friendly smile always broke the ice of no matter how shy a visitor or greeter, for yes, I for one am a shy person who has forced myself to ‘come out’ to others. We always felt—at least I did and still do—that the burden of opening the door of fellowship with a newcomer is on the home parishioner, not the other way round.
It rarely, almost never, happened that Christ caught in the coffee hour wanted to be left alone. He always showed up, hoping someone would notice him. If he had wanted to just slip into a pew for liturgy and then escape the same way he came in, he would have. So what are we going to do with him, now that he’s ‘in our midst’ for real, and not just a line we recite in church?
What do you do with them, brothers and sisters? What do you do with them, reverend father? These strangers and outsiders whom you verbally welcome in the church service and invite to join you for coffee hour? Yes, you welcome them, you invite them, and then—what?
Don’t comfort yourself with bible stories about the disciples not recognizing the resurrected Christ until after He spoke to them. Yes, that is how it worked during the forty days till His ascension to the right hand of Divine Majesty, but that isn’t how it works now. So, after the forty days, that is, today, why don’t you recognize him?
‘Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me,’ is a gospel verse burned into my memory till it hurts, and I’m glad it does, because that is almost the only thing worth feeling guilty about it if you fail to do it, if I fail to do it. If we can’t see Christ in our neighbor and do for him what we say we want to do for Christ, we are lost. Yes, sorry, we are lost.
Brethren, in love I cry to you, really welcome the stranger as Christ Himself, especially when he comes to your church, or accepts your invitation to join you in the fellowship hall. He expects you to keep your word to him, just as you expect Him to keep His word to you.
And, brother or sister, stranger to the flock though you may be, if you come to a gathering of the brethren, and after they welcome you and invite you to join them in fellowship and friendship, and you go, and find yourself alone in a crowd, then I bid you, flee from that place!
For if you seek Christ, who is the life of all, then pursue Him until you find Him, for truly, Christ is in our midst, but just in whose midst, that is the question. ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son,’ and that love cannot be hidden, cannot be faked. Where you find that love, go, and stay, for there alone, Christ is in our midst.
at 1:44 PM