A bit behind this week with posting my sermon – completely forgot about it until this morning! Never mind, here it is.
Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
Hospitality means making your guests feel at home, even though you wish they were! I’ve no idea who said that, but we’ve all been there – we all know the feeling!
It’s not always easy to feel hospitable and welcoming to other people. When we were in Peckham we had regular callers at the vicarage. It so happened that we were on a regular route for three people of the road – two men and a woman. They never wanted money, just some lunch, and during the summer months they would turn up every few weeks, ask for some sandwiches, and then have a picnic on the vicarage lawn, before heading off again on their travels. They were always very friendly and appreciative. One day we arrived back from holiday mid-afternoon to find the three of them sitting on the vicarage lawn and we were greeted, as we got out of the car with the children, with, “So where have you been then?”
This morning’s Gospel reading is about hospitality. And it must be the one of the shortest in the whole of the three-year cycle of readings. Just three verses. Should I preach a correspondingly short sermon, I thought. A two sentence sermon to go with a two sentence reading. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I decided against that – because short as this reading is, it contains key elements of Christian belief. That we take Christ with us when we go out in his name. That we meet him in one another. It’s about exercising true hospitality – not wishing that those we welcome were really somewhere else but welcoming them whoever they are because we recognise Christ in them and want to show to them the Christ in us. And it’s about going out to find those we want to welcome – for how can we welcome people unless we invite them?
While preparing this sermon I read some of the history of the Church Missionary Society and those people it sent across the world to invite people to faith in Jesus. I read about ten missionaries sent out to Sierra Leone in 1823. All of them died of fever. In October 1885 Bishop James Hannington, also a member of the CMS, was murdered by Ugandans, to whom he had gone to preach. In 1964 Dr Helen Roseveare was cruelly treated by Congolese soldiers who, for five months, occupied the territory in which her mission centre was situated. Why do people take such risks? Countless numbers of other examples can be found of men and women who have faced great danger and death by going out to people across the world to tell them the good news of Jesus Christ. The remarkable thing is that others, knowing of the dangers and difficulties, have followed in their footsteps.
Why do such people face the risks that are inherent in the job of proclaiming the gospel in word and action in lands the Foreign Office tells us are dangerous to travel to? Why are followers of Jesus Christ often excited at the prospects of their going out as missionaries to share their faith? The answer they would give is that they believe themselves to be obeying and responding to Christ’s call to become his ambassadors. They know that, as ambassadors of Christ, whoever welcomes them is welcoming the one who sent them – namely Jesus Christ.
When Jesus tells us that “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me”, there is obviously a personal, face-to-face encounter implied. The propagation of Christ’s Gospel throughout the world involves someone speaking to someone else in such a way that the other person will hear and believe. The apostles understood this commitment, and were ready to go out and make disciples of all the nations. The successors of the apostles, throughout the ages, have continued to do likewise, so that, in time, the whole world may be evangelised, and all nations of the world acknowledge Christ as Saviour. They knew that they were not just talking to people about Jesus, but that Jesus was with them and in them and that when people welcomed them they welcomed Jesus himself.
At different times in the progress, growth and spread of the Christian Faith throughout the world there have been set-backs in the work of evangelism. There have been times when congregations have simply settled down, to become a familiar settled community of known and numbered members, no new converts being expected. When this happens nobody goes out to welcome others on behalf of Jesus Christ. There are no new hearers, therefore, to give a believing welcome to Christ. Such a church will eventually die. Missionaries are not just something from a bygone era. Many missionaries are still witnessing for Christ in different regions of the world. But the task remains enormous. It has been reckoned that about three billion people in the world – around half the world’s population – have no knowledge that God sent Jesus Christ into the world that they might believe, and receive eternal life. It’s not that they haven’t listened or have rejected the message. They have never had the opportunity to hear it and simply don’t know.
The task that faces us is not just overseas, of course – it is here as well. Churchgoing in Western Europe is the lowest in the World. Churchgoing in Britain is amongst the lowest in Europe. And churchgoing in London is amongst the lowest in the country. There is a tendency to assume that that is just how things are in a modern, non-believing nation. It doesn’t have to be like that. It’s worth remembering that over half the population of the United States attend church at least once a month – over five times the level of church attendance here.
But it seems such a huge task. How do we tackle the task for which every professed believer is responsible? The answer lies within that question, namely to recognise that the responsibility for mission does rest on the shoulders of everyone who professes to be a follower of Jesus. This means that every local Christian congregation must see itself as a local mission centre and be seriously seeing each member as truly missionary. Our mission field need not necessarily be in foreign parts. It might be in our workplace, in our street or in the places where we meet for recreation. Wherever we find people who do not know that Jesus came into the world to bring us to a knowledge of God’s love, we are each called to witness to that love, as ordinary members of Christ’s Church.