Can you think of a time when you were made to feel really welcome? Where the host(s) went out of their way to ensure that you felt comfortable and well served?
What did that look like?
How did that make you feel?
What difference did this make for you?
How about in a situation where you were not sure how you'd be received? How did you feel?
Being well welcomed can make all the difference in any given situation, and often how we have experienced welcome is how we welcome others. When I am talking about welcome, I think of related ideas like invitation and hospitality. These two aspects are inextricably intertwined with welcome and combine to create an environment that is genuinely safe, comfortable and creates space where we can be a little more free to be who we are. A little more honest with others and ourselves. As anyone who has experienced genuine welcome can attest, it can make all the difference in the world.
The Welcome of God
There is a biblical text that expresses a profound truth of welcome. It is found in the letter of 1 John chapter 5 verse 19. It says that we can love because God loved us first and I think this is true of welcome. When we experience divine love and divine welcome, it inspires and creates capacity in us to love and welcome others well. The depth of which we have experienced genuine love and welcome is the depth to which we can offer it to others.
Talking specifically about welcome as an expression of divine love, we experience the acceptance and the safety of love in the genuine welcome.
No longer having to be worried about being rejected.
No longer fearful that if we don't perform, we will be kicked out.
We are free to stop pretending, to let down our masks and be a little more authentically who we are.
This why I am convinced that the healthy cultivation of divine love, with its extravagant welcome, is key to every healthy spiritual journey.
The extravagant welcome of God seems clearest to me in the person of Jesus. Jesus is the best picture in all of the scripture of the character of God and his posture toward his human creation. The incarnation in itself is the divine welcome or invitation to all of us. In Jesus, God became like us to welcome us, and this welcome is as much a reconciliation as an embrace. In our felt estrangement and fear of God, God meets us in Jesus - not with judgment and condemnation but with mercy that lifts the heavy burden of self-inflicted shame and guilt. God meets us with a divine hug, not a rejection - a divine kiss which contains the DNA for genuine transformation.
God initiates with human kind, not waiting for us to get our poop in a group but wading into the muck and mire that humanity can often be, in the flesh and blood of Jesus. In Jesus, we see the co-mingling of full humanity with full divinity. In Jesus, we are welcomed into the community of God as partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).
The term perichoresis is an ancient Christian term used to describe the nature of the relationship within the Trinity (Father, Son & Holy Spirit). It has often been described as a Circle Dance. This dance demonstrates a culture of divine love. Love to be love needs to be given to another and in the image of a dance we see a community of self-giving, self-deferring love. No competition to draw attention to oneself, nor is there any hierarchy implied; it is simply the dance of perfect love. As partakers of the divine nature, the crown jewel of creation (humanity) is welcomed into the divine dance.
Like a glass of cool water, God in the person of Jesus extends a welcome to all people, especially those who have found themselves on the outs with the religious gatekeepers. Those who despite their best efforts are disqualified from God by religious bullies because of race, gender, sexual orientation, poverty, creed, and culture. But Jesus' extravagant and all-embracing welcome in Matthew is certainly Good News in the best sense.
Mt. 11:28-30 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Matthew retells a story that Jesus shared concerning the Kingdom of God (Mt 22). The story was of an upcoming wedding feast, and invitations were sent to all the best people. Surprisingly, the best people all came up with excuses as to why they couldn't make the wedding. The host said ok; then I want you to go to the streets, alley's and back water towns and invite anyone you see. The wedding banquet will be full! A beautiful picture of how the religious folks of Jesus' day, those who were intended to be agents of the Good News of God, lost sight of this calling. They got caught up in their religiosity of their religion and instead of welcoming people into the Kingdom, they became roadblocks to people entering! In this story Jesus tells, the religious folks do not thwart the welcoming heart of God - the net result was the wedding feast was filled - with folks the religious establishment had written off as unacceptable.
Luke tells the story of Jesus in a full on teaching exchange, and people were bringing their children. The disciples, still learning the Kingdom rhythms began to chase the children away, but Jesus stopped them. (Lk 18: 15-17) Jesus said “Let these children alone. Don’t get between them and me. These children are the kingdom’s pride and joy. Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.” This was so revolutionary because in Jesus' day children had no social clout. They had nothing that was considered worthy. Jesus' response is so affirming for us in that we see it is not our spiritual resume's or our influence that has traction in the Kingdom of God. He welcomes even us with our empty, dirty hands with passionate enthusiasm.
We see extravagant welcome in the story of a notorious tax collector named Zacchaeus, who was well hated by people in town. Not only did Jesus call this man by name, but invited himself to dinner. In Jesus' day - eating together was a special honour and was a practice of friendship. Where this "filthy sinner" was considered unclean by the religious establishment, Jesus demonstrates an extravagant welcome. This is good news for people like you and me who may feel like total screw ups and may have done things we aren't very proud of - folks like us are not disqualified from the extravagant welcome of God.
We are welcome.
Say it. Say "I am welcome!"
Say it again. Friends, God's posture as we see through Jesus is one of indiscriminate, extravagant welcome. No matter what, because of Christ we are welcomed into the expansive, healing love of God - as we are, not as our shame tells us we should be.
Experiencing the divine welcome in progressive ways creates the capacity to genuinely love and in turn sharing that kind of extravagant welcome. As this capacity expands so does the ability to love other well. This includes not only our friends and families but also the stranger, the foreigner, and even our enemies. In time, we reach a place where we can extend an extravagant welcome to ourselves, even the shadow parts of us, and in the light of divine embrace even our shadows can be transformed and used for our good!
What might being a person of extravagant welcome look like in our life?
As I end here I leave you with one last question, as communities of extravagant welcome, how can we create environments that not only welcomes but also calls forth the best (things like authenticity, beauty, creativity, innovation, generosity, mercy, kindness, etc.) within people?