‘Anyone who welcomes you welcomes Me…’
Anyone who is part of a family or other closely related group knows this situation. You come home, or you wake up in the morning, or you walk into a room where the others are. It can be husband or wife, it can be children, it can be mother or father, brother or sister that are already there, and suddenly, there you are too. You expect to be greeted with a smile, with words of greeting, comforting words.
In Japan, we say when entering the house after being out, ‘Tadaima!’ And if anyone at all is home, we hear the response, ‘Okaeri nasai!’ and then see the smile of welcome following on the words. This is what we expect in our hearts, because God made us that way, to expect love, to expect welcome. He made us that way because He it is who is waiting for us to return to Him, so that He can drop everything and run to embrace us, to make us feel welcome, to love us face to face.
To continue, you expect to be greeted with a smile, with a welcoming word or gesture. Instead, you hear words of unwelcome, you hear words of criticism or judgment, you may not hear a greeting at all, and the face that you see is not what you expected. As in a dream, you pursue someone whom you know, and when you catch up to them, they turn around, and they are a stranger, and you back away, confused. Only this is happening now, in the ‘real’ world. You are awake. The words you hear cut into your heart, the face you see flashes unwelcome eyes. You know you are not wanted, and there is nothing you can do about that.
It is not with the one who comes, but with the one who receives, that the power of welcome lies. This is one of the most painful of experiences.
Jesus has much to say about this situation in the gospels.
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—your enemies will be the members of your own household. Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes someone known to be a prophet will receive a prophet's reward, and whoever welcomes someone known to be righteous will receive a righteous person's reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is known to be my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly be rewarded.
Everyone, without qualification, that comes to us deserves our welcome, and if we follow Jesus, and if we do what we see Him doing, we will welcome them. If this is true of any human creature, how much more is it true for members of our own household, for our own family members, for those who ‘have a right’ to hope for a welcome from us. Yet often this is not what we give, or what we receive. Still, we need that sense of welcome more than anything else, even more than food, more than life itself.
Following Jesus separates us from people. A friend of mine asked me the other day, ‘I’ve heard people say that to follow Jesus is a very lonely road. Is this true?’
Yes, to follow Jesus is in a sense a lonely road, because you find that you are no longer welcome to many people, to your neighbors, to your erstwhile friends, and even to your own family members. Jesus Himself tells us this. Yet there, at that table, was the proof of the love of Christ, the incarnate gospel, that although we might be outcasts from the world, maybe unwelcome by those to whom we should be welcome, at that table, where He was present with us, we were more than welcome, to Him and to one another.
So there is a sweetness to the bitter edge of martyrdom. With Jesus, who draws us together around Himself like a belt, we are welcome, and of that welcome we can be the ambassadors, passing on to those around us the good news that God has reconciled all of us to Himself through the sacrifice of His Only-Begotten Son. We can offer to others the welcome that has been denied us. We can do this because we are now really free to choose.
And so we choose to follow Jesus.
‘… and anyone who welcomes Me welcomes the One who sent Me.’