April 23, 2023
For the Easter season—between now and Pentecost—we will have a 5-week series on Holy Welcome. Over these next few weeks, I invite you to think with me about we, as a church community, can welcome people into our fellowship. And I hope these conversations about church welcome might also spark some ideas of how you, in your own life, might offer and receive holy welcome.
As we go through this series, we have a sort of theme song—the song that we just sang: “Let Us Build a House.” There are, conveniently, five verses of the song and five weeks in the series, so we’ll focus on a different verse each week, adding that verse to the song when we sing it together.
This week we just sang verse one: “Let us build a house where love can dwell.” Let us build a church where all are welcome. And I hope you know that when I say “church” I don’t mean our building; I mean all of you–the people. We want to build a community that radiates the holy welcome of Christ.
This house we are building, in the beautiful words of Marty Haugen, is “built of hopes and dreams and visions.” Our mission statement is the most formalized way of trying to express what those hopes and dreams and visions are. I would invite you to look at your bulletin and read our mission statement with me: “Peace Mennonite Church is a Christ-centered community that seeks to create peace, work for justice, care for creation, serve others, and nurture thoughtful faith.”
That “Christ-centered community” is the “rock of faith” that the song talks about. And all of these other things in our mission statement, these things we strive to do as followers of Christ, these things we do not—and will never—do perfectly—that’s the “vault of grace” that covers us.
This is the vision that we have agreed to live into. It is the vision we want to welcome other people to be part of. But what does it look like to build a house where all are welcome? What does it look like to extend holy welcome to those who might join us in living into these hopes and dreams and visions?
In the scripture we heard from Acts, there are two interlocking stories. It’s a lot like a movie where you see this person here and another person over there and you know that their stories are going to come together—you know it, but they don’t. At the beginning of Acts 10, Peter and Cornelius are in different places having different experiences. Oddly enough, though, both of them have visions.
Cornelius has a vision that he is to send for Simon Peter, and I imagine this is a strange vision for him. He must be unsure about whether Peter will even come; unsure about why he would want to invite Peter into his home. Cornelius is a Roman commander, pretty high up, with a household and servants to command. And this powerful Roman official is told to host an itinerant Jewish guy. So it’s a bit of an odd vision. Yet Cornelius is willing to follow that vision. He is willing to seek this person out and welcome him into his home.
Meanwhile, Peter has a vision on the rooftop with the sheet; this vision where God tells him to eat things Peter knows he is not supposed to eat. And I love Peter so much. He is arguing with God, just like he used to argue with Jesus. God says, “Eat this.” And Peter says, “No, you said not to eat that.” And God says, “But now I’m telling you to eat it.” This unexpected vision prepares Peter for the unexpected invitation he is about to receive: to go to the home of a Gentile, a Roman soldier. This vision is getting Peter’s heart in the right place to receive the invitation.
Cornelius has a lot of logistical things to figure out as he prepares to welcome Peter: there is cooking and cleaning to do, the spare room needs to be ready with clean sheets and the good guest towels put out. Cornelius has a lot of external work to do. But Peter has a lot of internal work to do—a lot of things that need to shift around in his heart and his mind—before he is ready to receive welcome from Cornelius.
Ryan and I have twice hosted exchange students from Italy. We prepared to welcome these young women. In both cases, we got their bedroom ready, put together a “welcome” gift basket, and met them at the airport with “Welcome!” signs. The first, Michaela, who many of you met, became a lovely part of our family for several months (until COVID–boo!). The second student none of you met, because she didn’t even stay a week. She was terribly homesick and returned to Italy.
We can’t control who is ready to receive our welcome, we can’t control who the Spirit leads. We can control who we invite and we can control the welcome that we prepare for them.
With this story from Acts 10–as with many stories in scripture—I think it can be helpful to place ourselves in the positions of different characters and consider what the passage might have to tell us from these different perspectives.
In a sense we are Cornelius. As a church, we want to prepare to welcome people, to get everything ready for them. And even to be willing—because of our vision from God, because of the nudgings of the Holy Spirit—be willing to invite people to come who we think might not really want to come.
Can I tell you a secret? I’m kind of scared about doing what Cornelius does here. I hate asking people to do things I think they might not want to do. But this story shows us that we don’t know what God is doing in other people’s lives. Sometimes the people we think will be most resistant to an invitation are the people who are most ready to receive welcome. We can’t know what the Holy Spirit is doing in other people’s lives; we can only respond to what the Holy Spirit is doing in our life. We can only offer the invitation as we are prompted. Are we Cornelius?
Maybe we are Peter. Do we have this idea, like Peter did, of who “our people” are? Peter was talking about Jesus to Jewish people. His vision had to expand in order for him to go to the home of a Roman military officer. Now we might not have problems with people from Rome today, but still the military officer piece might be hard for a lot of Mennonites. I’m not sure what to do with that part of the story. But it’s there for us to wrestle with.
The coming together of Peter and Cornelius is one example of the line from the song: “here the love of Christ will end divisions.” There are things that keep people apart that the love of Christ can erase if we trust that love, if we trust the movement of the Spirit.
To be sure, the work of the Holy Spirit is key in this story from Acts 10. And the Spirit’s movement is key in our own work of Holy Welcome. I know the Spirit is moving in this church; I see it; I feel it. I hope you do, too. The Holy Spirit is working here, preparing us to welcome people.
And also the Holy Spirit is working within people who will come to us—people we know and will invite and people who will come in any number of ways. We can’t forget or discount the work of the Spirit in the lives of the people we are called to welcome. Those we are welcoming have so much to offer; they have their own stories, their own testimonies to what God has done in their lives and the way the Holy Spirit is working.
Just like with Cornelius and Peter, right now, we are in one place and those we will welcome are in another. Yet in these separate places, the same Spirit is granting us dreams and hopes and visions; the Holy Spirit is working to bring us together.
As we begin this worship series today, I have a few concrete things to suggest in terms of how we might offer holy welcome:
The first is, please, if it is at all possible for you, get on Zoom this afternoon at 1:30 for our congregational meeting. This meeting will include an important conversation about an alternative worship service that the Coordinating and Worship committees are recommending we try as a way to extend welcome in new ways. Please be part of that conversation if you can.
Second, you can extend holy welcome by inviting your friends, your neighbors, family members. I know it can be uncomfortable, but your invitation might be what they need. If you are feeling a nudge from the Spirit to invite them, they may be feeling a nudge from the Spirit to receive that invitation.
Third, we can think about what will make people feel welcome when they come. It’s a little tricky when we’re not in our own space, but wherever we are, think about what words and actions will be received by visitors as welcoming. When we get back into our building, look around and think, “If I had never been here before, how would this feel? What would help me feel more at home?”
There are many concrete, logistical things we can do as we seek to offer holy welcome.
In this story of Peter and Cornelius, though, we see that holy welcome goes much deeper than the simple logistics of hospitality. Both men’s visions come to them when they have gone to God in prayer.
I know in a world of calendar reminders and to-do lists, prayer can feel like a waste of time. It is not. It is vital. It is how God can communicate with us best—when we set ourselves aside in prayer.
So I invite you to pray throughout this five-week series and beyond. I invite you to pray in general about whatever it is you need to go to God with, and I invite you to pray specifically about how you can offer holy welcome, about who you might invite. Invite the Holy Spirit to shift whatever inside you needs to shift so that you are in a position to receive the people that God sends for us to welcome.
I am, as always, excited to be part of this church doing this good work with you all. Thanks be to God.