“‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
Welcome feels like a pretty tricky concept right now, don’t you think? Who are we supposed to be welcoming? We can’t even invite our own families into our homes, so a Gospel reading about welcome seems particularly badly timed right now.
Of course, it won’t always be like this. As we ease out of lockdown, as pubs and restaurants get ready to open up, as even shielding comes to an end, we will start to socialise again. The day will come when we can welcome people into our homes, when we can see friends and family and throw open our doors to let people in and throw open our arms for the hugs we’ve been missing.
And what about church? Hospitality and welcome are an absolutely fundamental part of our faith and of church life. When we gather together for a cuppa and a biscuit at the end of the service, we are living out God’s invitation to us, to come and be loved and welcomed and nurtured. The Eucharist service is an invitation to God’s table, and we echo that invitation after the service too.
Our faith is one of welcome and invitation, because we want to share God’s love with other people. When people come into our church services we have people whose job it is simply to welcome them, because welcoming the stranger is a fundamental part of who we are. We want people to feel at home among us and also to hear the good news about Jesus, who calls us to the Father, and through whose death and resurrection we are made part of God’s family.
Which is why it has been so hard to see church doors closed since March. We are still a church, still God’s family – but it has been so difficult for us not to meet, and just as hard to be closed to other people, to be unable to welcome them into the church we love and show them the invitation God has waiting for them.
You will have seen in the news that churches are now able to open, at first just for private prayer but eventually for services as well. You may have been wondering when St Aldhelm’s will be open and when we will get together again. You may be mentally dusting off your Sunday Best, looking forward to walking through those doors, saying hello to your friends, singing your favourite hymns, hearing God’s Word proclaimed and sharing in the mystery of the Sacrament.
I hope you are. I really hope you are, and Jesus knows that I am. It won’t happen immediately, though. We have a lot of work to do before the church can re-open. We still have coronavirus to contend with, still have social distancing, still have a lot of people in our church family who need to take extra care to protect their health. As a matter of principle, the PCC has agreed that we won’t open the church until we can do so safely – and that means looking long and hard at things like cleaning and sanitisation, at ways to maintain social distancing and minimise virus transmission. And it may be that when we do return to church, it will look very different from how it was before.
But we will re-open and we will once again extend God’s invitation and God’s welcome to one another and to the community around us. Because we are God’s people and that is what we do.