With the lockdown easing, churches now are preparing to open their buildings with much care and are taking all safety precautions and doing risk assessments, the question that comes to the fore is who is welcome now to the church building? I have seen some notices outside the doors of some churches that read, “This church is now open for private prayer.” The immediate thought that followed was “for whom?” is it to the general public? is it to the church members? is it to the Christians in the neighbourhood? When I enquired is it open to the general public, I heard that they are now open for their members, only at certain prescribed times and are not publicising it widely. With the infection still not under control and with the limitations of volunteers, I understand that the church buildings will not be open as widely as they were open previous to COVID. Such hesitancy in opening the church buildings as widely as they were before, raises some theological questions about the being of our churches, and specifically about a theology of welcome today in and through our churches. In the context of post-lockdown, who are welcome to the church? The straight answer might be, “yes, all are welcome*” but in reality “are all really welcome?” In moving forward, my prayer and hope is to say, “Welcome, we are a little church, open for little people with little acts of love.”
The gospel reading from Matthew 10:40-42 is part of Jesus’ homily to his disciples as he sent them out on an outreach. In the whole of chapter 10, we see Jesus giving instructions, exhortations and some tips on their journey for the outreach. Towards the end, Jesus instructs them about welcome. Jesus explains four types of welcome to them. Firstly, whoever welcomes the disciples welcomes Jesus who sent them, and eventually welcome God who sent Jesus. Secondly, whoever welcomes a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Thirdly, whoever welcomes a righteous person will receive such a reward. Fourthly, and more importantly, whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple will not lose their reward. The first three welcomes, welcoming the disciple, welcoming the prophet and welcoming the righteous person are words of instruction to those disciples, but the final welcome offering a cup of cold water to one of these little ones is an invitation for action to the disciples on their journey. I want to call the first three welcomes as privileged welcome and distinguish that with the final one as prophetic welcome. I will now attempt to tabulate some of the characteristics of these two welcomes, for it then puts into perspective the kind of welcome we as churches can offer in this post-lockdown situation.
A disciple, a prophet and a righteous person
Little ones – people who are vulnerable and on margins,
*The Greek word used for welcome is ‘dechomai’, which is used for ‘feast’ also. Welcoming is most naturally followed by a feast.
Offering even a cup of cold water
A reward follows – no guarantee that they will not lose their reward
Truly Jesus said, none of these will lose their reward
The above table provides us the distinction between the two kinds of welcome, which I think are relevant for our contexts today. Most of us are comfortable in offering a privileged welcome, welcoming the powerful and the privileged into our folds and we take pride in doing that. Welcome and offering hospitality is part and parcel of the church’s DNA. However, Jesus’ invitation to action - that whoever offers even a cup of cold water, leave about offering a feast to the most vulnerable and little ones in our society, as a prophetic welcome - is a challenge for us in our mission today. Welcoming the unwelcomed into our midst is prophetic, welcoming the excluded into our midst is prophetic, welcoming the outcaste into our midst is prophetic and welcoming the little ones of our society is prophetic. Jesus is inviting us to embark upon such a welcome, for Jesus himself was welcoming such little ones in his society unconditionally. Jesus by teaching about welcome to his disciples was in a way affirming that #littlelivesmatter for him and for his mission on earth. As we now prepare to open the doors of our church buildings, we are called to offer welcome in a prophetic way, by receiving the little ones into our midst and affirm #littlelivesmatter.
The relevance of this text for us as church is to be a place of welcome, in fact prophetic welcome announcing with our actions that we as churches are open for little people, for little people’s lives matter a lot to us and to our faith.
1. Welcome the little people:
To be prophetic in our welcome, we are called to welcome and receive little people of our society today. As churches we have been engrossed with membership and have always worked in keeping up the number. When there is a decline in the membership, some people are concerned that the relevance of our church is being lost. The words of Jesus of “whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones (42v), challenges and inspires us in our faith journey. The relevance of our churches can be felt when we as churches become spaces of welcome to ‘one of these little ones,’ the little ones of our society. If opening our church doors is not possible due to health and safety issues, we as a church should go to those little ones and affirm to be a space of welcome. Last week, I was at a local school which has been in a deprived area where fresh food is being distributed to the parents of the children in that community. I had to see that poverty is a reality right in the town I live in the UK, and had to think what is the relevance of my faith in Jesus Christ in such a context. When there are many children that are living in poverty, is Jesus not telling us “whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones” and challenging us as churches to offer welcome and hospitality as part of Christian faith commitment.
2. Welcome with little acts:
One of my childhood favourite quotes was, “to be faithful in little things is a big thing,” for I have pencilled it on all my books. I understand how important is to be faithful in little things, for that is a big thing. Jesus spoke to his disciples by saying, ‘whoever gives a cup of cold water,’ a little thing to these little people that is welcome. In the context of early Palestine, people lived under a scorching sun, and offering a cup of cold water was a big thing to quench the thirst. I recognise here Jesus’ emphasis on little acts, which matter a lot. During this lockdown we have witnessed simple acts of kindness on our streets like helping our neighbours with their shopping, bringing their prescriptions, sharing food etc. It has been great to see so much kindness among communities. In seeking our relevance as a church, I think it is important to nurture such little acts of kindness, for little acts put together can make a big ocean of kindness. In the context of child poverty again, little acts like collecting fresh food for children during school holidays, talking to one another the reasons for child poverty, writing letters to our MP about issues around poverty etc. all matter for us as a welcoming church.
3. Welcome as a little flock:
Jesus was talking to the 12 disciples, a little flock, who were not a mega church. Church is about little faithful flocks, where we support one another and care for one another. In the culture of quantifying everything in terms of numbers, we undermine the value and importance of little flocks. If we are really serious about being relevant as a church, we are called as little flocks to accept the invitation of Jesus to welcome the little ones in our community by offering a cup of cold water, may be in our context a hot cup of tea/coffee to start our welcome. I really wish there are some church notices outside the doors of our churches when we open that read, “we as a little church are open to the little people with little acts of love for you here.” Welcome and hospitality is not dependent on the size of our church or with the membership of the church. I am reminded of Archbishop William Temple words that “the Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not yet its members.” Though I understand that charities and agencies do such things for others, the point is church’s commitment for people outside of its fold should not lost. As little flocks if we as churches can be there for our community, particularly for those on the margins offering welcome and hospitality, we as churches find relevance today. Otherwise our church doors might be open but we will remain closed with irrelevancy.
'Little flocks' represented the minority people in contrast to majority, for Jesus said elsewhere that, 'wherever two or three are gathered there he is present' for God in Christ locates among the littleness. Littleness theologically is further understood that Jesus became a human and took on the form of a slave, the powerless, for the sake of the slaves to pitch his tent among them so that he is willing to struggle along with such communities ensuring liberation and freedom. Littleness of little flocks is further understood by his engagements with the outcastes, women and poor of his times. God in Jesus is born as a little child in the little town of Bethlehem, God in Jesus has become a child refugee as he fled into Egypt and God in Jesus resided, identified and was crucified in all his vulnerability. Jesus therefore had to categorically say that unless a person becomes a little child, he or she is not eligible to enter the Kingdom of God. When his disciples were arguing among themselves who is the greatest, Jesus picked up a little child as a greatest, for he acknowledged that in the littleness exists God and god like-ness.
May God grant us strength as we begin to open the doors of our churches as little flocks to be sensitive in our welcome to those little people offering little acts of love. During lockdown the notice that caught my attention was “This building is closed, but Church is open.” That spoke about our church as people offering love to the community. Post-lockdown, my prayer is, “Our building is open and our little church is wide open with little acts of love.” May God the Spirit help us in being and becoming a prophetic welcoming community, offering love particularly to those on the margins around us.
Rev. Dr. Raj Bharat Patta
25th June 2020