Welcome. Inclusion. Hospitality. These are all church words, words we try to embody to the best of our ability. Yet, not everyone feels welcomed. Not everyone experiences inclusion. Not everyone receives hospitality. There are limits to our being church, aren’t there? We aren’t perfect and we sometimes get it wrong. True. However, what about that Spirit who tells Peter “not to make a distinction between them and us”? I’m not sure how well we do this. Quite recently someone asked me why nonmembers have the same status as members and shouldn’t members be given some sort of preference.
In late October 2008 I moved from Massachusetts to NH to work as a clinical chaplain at the state hospital. On the first Sunday in November, I went to worship at a church where I didn’t know anyone. I was newly divorced, just moved away from my friends, starting a new job, and in the first semester of a DMin program. Worship was the place I needed to be for healing, for renewal, for building new relationships.
I found a church that had an 8:00am worship service so I could worship before going to work to lead services of my own. People were friendly and welcoming. The worship service was great until communion. I think it was World Communion Sunday so the pastors had planned this beautiful procession with all kinds of bread being brought to the table. There were several loaves of bread in different colors and shapes. And the message was a very clear “all are welcome” to the table, no exceptions.
However, I was the exception. I was not able to share in that simple, beautiful feast because I have Celiac disease and multiple food allergies. The church I had been serving prior to moving was a small, new church start where I made the communion bread so that all could share one loaf. I knew that I couldn’t receive communion in most churches, but for a variety of reasons the exclusion from that particular table hit quite hard. It was unexpectedly painful and I sat crying in this place where I knew no one and no one knew me.
As unintended as my exclusion from the communion table was, that morning in worship I felt the pain of having been rejected by church again and again. The early questions of whether or not I as a young woman should go to seminary… the later questions of the propriety of a divorced pastor continuing to serve a church… then the clear rejection after coming out… So many times I had been excluded if not completely rejected. On that November morning in a new place, feeling so alone, I sought the welcome, hospitality, and inclusion of church. Instead of experiencing these things, I felt the old pangs of unworthiness vibrating deep within.
Peter wrestled with some of these issues in his dream. What food could be shared and with whom were valid questions of the very early church. There was an “us” – those who had been Jews – and a “them” – those who were Gentiles. Peter was very clearly informed that his way of thinking about us and them was not going to work. He was to meet the people who came to him and accompany them along the way without distinction. No doubt this was a hard thing for Peter to learn, but it was necessary for this movement that would grow into the church.
It’s a lesson we would do well to pay particular attention to in this era of radical changes within the church. Remember that Jesus didn’t seem to pay particular attention to traditions and rules when people came to him with particular needs. He nearly always met the person where they were at and gave them what was needed. His words to his disciples after their last meal together summarizes this, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
When it comes to the body of Christ, there should be no “us and them.” This is how we love as Christ loved. If one has need, all have need. If one cannot, all cannot. That church in New Hampshire quickly moved to offering communion bread that accommodated my needs and the needs of others with food allergies. For me it was a huge step toward welcoming me and including me as “one of them.”
I cannot help but wonder who is feeling unwelcome and excluded from church now. Who could benefit from the hospitality we are capable of offering? There were no limits or qualifiers on Jesus’ love. When will the welcome, inclusion, and hospitality of the Christ we embody stop making distinctions between “us” and “them”?
RCL – Year C – Fifth Sunday of Easter – April 24, 2016