“Welcome” and the Word of God

by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston

This is the first sermon I preached in my new position as Canon for Adult Christian Formation at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Columbia, South Carolina.

My family and I have enjoyed such a warm and gracious welcome at Trinity, and I am excited and energized for the work that God has given me to do!

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 29, 2014

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

“Welcome” is the watchword in our Gospel passage this morning, and I am very glad for it. “Welcome” has been the watchword of the week for me and my family as we continue to settle into our new home here in South Carolina. We have been embraced by the Trinity community–embraced by our new friends and neighbors in Columbia–embraced by new colleagues and partners on staff here at the Cathedral.

We have even been welcomed by the climate here in Columbia. Now summer here is a little different from summer in Connecticut, that’s true. But as a native Floridian, I will say that nothing makes me feel more at home than the unmistakable embrace of humidity as I step out my front door. With that warm blanket wrapped about us, I feel as though nature itself were adding to the wonderful welcome we have received.

So for the innumerable ways we have been so kindly welcomed my family and I thank you, and we give thanks and glory to the God who has called us to worship and learn and serve him together with you in this place.

With the welcome my family and I have received very gratefully in mind, I’d like to talk this morning about the welcome and embrace we hear described in our Scripture today. I do not mean the welcome you might expect. We have heard about welcome and embrace from our Gospel lesson, and our first instinct is to read those words of Jesus as either an exhortation or a commendation–either a command for us to be more welcoming or a congratulatory comment on the ways in which we have been welcoming already. In other words, the danger we face is that we will read this passage as if it were all about us. (To tell the truth, that is a danger we face whenever we open the Bible, but that’s another sermon for another day.)

But on this day, God rescues us from the constant threat of our self-centered interpretations by the power of his Living Word informing and interpreting itself. In order that we might understand aright the welcome and embrace our Lord Jesus describes in the Gospel, we find the Apostle Paul rushing to our aid through his mighty Epistle to the Romans.

You see, this morning Paul tells us of a very different welcome than the one we hear about in the Gospel. Paul tells us that the human race has been held in a very different kind of embrace than the one Jesus describes.

It is the embrace we speak of whenever we baptize a new Christian and ask that person to renounce “all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.” It is the embrace we see at work in the world around us, the embrace “which corrupts and destroys the creatures of God.” It is the embrace that we have known within us—the tight embrace of our own interests, our own needs, our own selves against all others—the self-embrace that turns inward and cannot focus on the hopes and fears and joys and sorrows of other people.

What Paul dares to declare to the faithful gathered in Rome in the first century and to the faithful gathered in Columbia in the twenty-first century is that we human beings have embraced–and have been embraced by–powers and principalities that oppose the will of God in our lives and in our world.

Paul himself uses the disquieting language of being “slaves to sin,” but we must not let that unsettling image distract us from his meaning. What he means is that the tight embrace in which we are held is one we cannot break—one we cannot escape by ourselves. For Paul, we are men and women held in the iron embrace of Sin; we are people bound in fear of the final welcome of Death.

“But thanks be to God,” the story does not end there. “But thanks be to God,” we have been caught up into a different embrace. “But thanks be to God,” we have not been left worrying and waiting for Death’s dread welcome. “But thanks be to God,” says Paul, “that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of the teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”

In these verses, the great Good News of what God has done rushes to greet us. “Thanks be to God,” you and I have been wrapped in a new embrace. “Thanks be to God,” you and I have been granted a new welcome. “Thanks be to God,” says Paul, you and I have received mercy instead of condemnation; you and I are being sanctified instead of being censured; you and I have been brought from the false freedom of following our own devices and desires, and have come instead into the true liberty of God’s faithful service.

Beloved, this is the context for Jesus’ words about welcome this morning. This is the context for all our own work and witness of welcoming today. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” says Jesus, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Though we are people who, by nature, were found clapped and bound in a strong and terrible embrace—”Thanks be to God,” now Christ has embraced us! Though we once knew only the mocking welcome of the powers and principalities of this world—”Thanks be to God,” now Christ has welcomed us! Though we once faced only rejection from a holy God—”Thanks be to God,” now by his grace this same God has received us into his very household, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.

In the person of Jesus our Brother, God has rushed to our aid. In the work of Jesus our Savior, God has stooped to lift us up. In the Resurrection of Jesus our Lord, God has welcomed us as saints and citizens of his Kingdom—God has claimed us as sons and daughters and fellow-heirs with Christ—God whom we could not find our own has come to find us.

That is the welcome we have received. That is the embrace we are now called to extend. For God now sends us forth with the announcement of what he has done. He sends us to proclaim to all the world the promise of perfect freedom found in his service. We welcome others not because we are good and righteous and holy and perfect ourselves, but because the good and righteous and holy and perfect God has first welcomed us. We embrace those whom God give us not because we have all the answers or can heal all their wounds, but because our Lord Jesus Christ stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the Cross that he might draw all the world into his saving embrace.

As I begin my ministry among you with joy and thanksgiving, my prayer is that God will grant us grace so to live in his welcome that we might welcome all those whom he draws near. My prayer is that God will grant us strength so to proclaim in word and deed the freedom Christ has won for us that our lives would lead others to the saving embrace of his Cross. My prayer is that God will grant us courage, through all the changes and chances of this life, to rest in his free gift to us, which is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

“Thanks be to God.” AMEN.