“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” — Matthew 25:35–36
“We are a welcoming church.” I have heard this line many, many times, and, honestly, it is usually from a church that’s simply too complacent to do anything but smile and say hello to new people. Being friendly to people on a Sunday morning is often a cover-up for a lack of real concern for those people. You see, pretending to be a welcoming church takes very little effort, physically or spiritually. Actually being a welcoming church, however, takes a lot of effort. Just look at Jesus’ description in Matthew 25:35–36 of a welcoming Christian, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing those who need clothes, and taking care of those who are sick and in trouble. Now, let me say, over the last four(ish) years that I have been your pastor, I have found Eastern Hills to actually be a welcoming church, you are the real deal.
I’ve seen you bring single mothers into this church and care for them as if they were your sisters or daughters. I’ve seen you invite the hungry out to a personal, sit-down meal. I’ve seen you invite strangers to family gatherings. I’ve seen you give foster children a home while others in the church surround and support the foster parents. I’ve seen you provide a place of belonging for those who don’t feel like they belong anywhere else. I’ve seen you pour out love over and over on others, expecting nothing in return. You aren’t just friendly on a Sunday morning, you are truly welcoming all the time, and I recently realized that I haven’t taken the time to thank you. As a pastor, it is a privilege to minister alongside a truly welcoming church.
And Jesus reminds us why it is so important to be this kind of church. Welcoming others is an act of caring more profound than the non-believing world would ever recognize. You see, we, Christ’s church, know the truth about the stranger, the hungry, the thirsty, the infirm. They are God’s creation, his unique image bearers and Jesus identifies with these people. He says in Matthew 25:40 that whatever we do to “the least of these” we do to him. Since we, the church, belong to him, of course we are going to welcome in “the least of these,” and not as some kind of humanitarian project, not to fulfill our good deed for the day, and certainly not to gain recognition in the church. We welcome people because this is how we would welcome Christ himself.
So, as I thank you for being a welcoming church, let me encourage you to continue and to grow in your welcoming spirit just as you continue in and grow in your love of Christ. Some of you are new to the idea of welcoming others this way. I encourage you to try it, yes, you. Find someone you don’t know and show them that you are glad to be here with them. Invite someone to lunch or to coffee. It doesn’t have to be someone who looks poor or out-of-place. It can be anyone. We all need to feel welcome here. And maybe you were once the recipient of such a welcoming attitude, I challenge you to pay it forward to someone else. Let your love for Christ shine through your actions and show someone, don’t just tell them, that you are glad they are here!