When Welcoming is Hard
Over the past year, I have preached a number of sermons on the importance of Queen Street Baptist Church being a welcoming church. I have tried to emphasize this part of our mission in numerous ways, both challenging and encouraging us in this area.
You could get the impression that being welcoming comes very natural to me and that what I am doing is asking you to become like I am. The truth is much more complicated than that.
I have definitely bought into the idea that the church, not just this congregation but the church in general, should be welcoming. I see from the Scriptures that this is a core value of the Christian church.
But that doesn’t mean that I’m comfortable around everyone. A number of months ago, we had a young man walk into the church and come up on the platform, attempting to communicate with me by mental telepathy. I will confess I was uncomfortable. I have had a number of similar experiences in the past (not always including telepathy). I don’t want you to think that I dislike people with mental illness. Rather, it gets me nervous when there are people who can act unpredictable, because of my own need for order. I will include my own children with autism in this. It is not that people with mental illness or disabilities are unwelcome, I’m actually quite passionate about making them welcome. But there have been times that I have been stretched by people are not interested in my peculiar sense of order and predictability.
Who is that stretches you? I know that there is someone. I want you to imagine right now someone coming and sitting beside you. What type of person would make you feel the most uncomfortable?
I recently did a poll on social media, asking people what kind of people would be the most stretching for their congregation to welcome. By an overwhelming majority, it was a transgendered person. How would you feel a person that you recognized as being transgendered sat beside you?
These are the kind of questions that we need to ask when we reflect on where we are as a welcoming church.
Paul and the Jerusalem Church
I want you to know that my emphasis on welcoming is not based political correctness or social trends. Rather I see the Bible focusing on the importance of welcoming people, including people different from us, and that is something that I cannot ignore. What I love about the passage we are looking at is that is an example of when welcoming is difficult.
When we think of Paul now, we think the great Apostle. We think of the author of much of our New Testament, the missionary, church planter and theologian. We may even think of the first person after Jesus that we would want to meet in heaven. But things were not always this way.
Paul began as a zealous Jew of the Pharisee variety. It seems as if Paul was never irreligious, but was always interested in the things of God. He probably looked at some of the Old Testament stories of men who were willing to take a strong stand against those who opposed God’s truth and sought to emulate them. And that is what he did with the small Jewish sect of the Christians. Paul actively persecuted the Christians, even to the point of death. This was not a matter of one religion being against another but a person trying to keep the purity of his religion.
Everything changed when Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus. All of that religious zeal that Paul had was then channelled into a deep love for Jesus. Paul was no longer a hater of Christians, he was a Christian. That is all very fine that Jesus had accepted Paul, but things would not be so easy for the church. How could they know if his change was genuine? And even if it was genuine, how could they forgive?
Paul came to Jerusalem and sought out the disciples. They were not prepared to welcome him. We shouldn’t be too quick to judge. How easy would it be for us to welcome a former member of ISIS? There would be understandable concern.
But a man named Barnabas stepped forward and took a chance with Paul. Barnabas was not actually his name, it was a nickname that means son of consolation or son of encouragement. It could have been that this was a trick and that Paul was trying to get access to the leadership to destroy them. Barnabas risked it and he was able to bridge the divide between Paul and the other disciples, he was able to welcome Paul and by his example, lead to the church welcoming Paul. How would Christian history have been different if there had been no Barnabas?
Apply to Today
I find the story of Barnabas and Paul to be very inspiring. But inspiring in what way? Getting the warm fuzzies is enough. We need to be inspired to do something and this case it is should be inspiration to be a welcoming church, even when it is difficult. I see in this passage, five lessons for us.
- The first is that is normal to be uncomfortable in certain circumstances. It was normal for the Jerusalem church to be uncomfortable with Paul. Depending on your background, there are probably people you are uncomfortable with. Although I am passionate about disability advocacy now, I can remember a time when I was uncomfortable with anyone with a disability.
- The second is that at some point the church has to get over the fear. That is not the same as getting over being uncomfortable. Many years ago, this church decided to open its doors for the Out of the Cold program. I am sure that was outside the church’s comfort zone and often still is. But the congregation got over the fear and took the brave step. We need to do that over and over.
- The third is that we need a Barnabas. It is possible that there were a number of people in the Jerusalem church who knew that they should welcome Paul but they were nervous. Then Barnabas stepped forward and took the lead. Sometimes it takes one person to do what needs to be done. I have heard from a number of people in this church who can identify that one person who really welcomed them. Will you be a Barnabas for someone else?
- It would be easy to end the story with the welcoming of Paul but Luke has more to say. Once Paul was welcomed, he began to preach to the Hellenistic or Greek-speaking Jews. Here is where a bit of context helps. Paul was originally from Tarsus, which was a very Hellenistic city. Paul had exactly the right background to reach those Hellenistic Jews. What happens if we welcome people different from us? It is likely that they will be able to reach others that we would be less able. Welcoming the different may open up a whole new set of opportunities for our church.
- The final thing is not so obvious. If we look carefully at this passage, the Christians are referred to by three different descriptions. The first is disciples. Disciples are learners or students of a master, in this case Jesus. This is the baseline for all Christians. Then they are referred to as apostles. Apostles means sent out ones and yet we see them her struggling not just to go out but to welcome in. Then we get to the final description, once Paul was welcomed. Some translations say believers but the Greek really has brothers. These Christians had moved from mere disciples to brothers (and sisters). There was a development in the family of God that was helped along by the welcoming of Paul.
I do not want to suggest that being a truly welcoming church is ever easy. Yes, it is fine to welcome people just like us, but things get messy when people different from us start showing up. I’m thankful that this congregation has a long history of being welcoming and of celebrating diversity. There is something beautiful here.
What I want to leave you with is a reminder of what happens when we welcome. It makes a difference to the person who is visiting and who is new to our congregation. But it also makes a difference to the congregation. We become a better church family when we stop looking inward and start opening up to people who are different and especially people who make us uncomfortable. Let us seek to each be a Barnabas and to welcome the Pauls who God sends to us.