A Normal Welcome
Fifth Sunday of Easter—Year C
May 19, 2019
Today’s reading from the book of Acts is all about welcoming others. In it we encounter a God who is all about welcoming everyone and God challenges Peter, and us, to do the same.
Now, I’ve heard a lot of sermons about being welcoming, and many of those have been focused on the idea of extending a “radical welcome.” I would imagine you’re heard your share of them too. They all convey the idea that our “welcome” within the context of the church should be “outside the ordinary”—radical. A “radical welcome,” is one that is unexpected and perhaps even out of character. A radical welcome surprises the one being welcomed, it knocks them off their guard and leaves them feeling shocked and awed at their unexpected inclusion into the gathered community. I understand the sentiment behind this idea of “radical welcome.” After all, the church has not always been the best example of what it looks like to include those who seem different or to welcome those we may disagree with or not quite understand into the full life of the church.
However, I don’t know that the idea of “radical welcome” is actually all that helpful. In truth, I think the idea of “radical welcome” can actually stand in the way of the welcome God expects us to give to everyone—a welcome that isn’t “unexpected or outside the ordinary” but is instead “normal, commonplace, and expected.” Because this is the welcome God has already extended to each of us, and to everyone we meet. God’s welcome isn’t “radical,” its’ a welcome that has always been, and always will be normal, expected, and effusive. And God expects our welcome to be just as normal, just as expected, and just as effusive.
In today’s reading we encounter Peter as he is explaining to fellow believers in Jerusalem how it is he found himself in the position to extend just this kind of normal and expected welcome to people these men considered “other.” Peter describes a vision wherein a sheet is lowered from heaven full of animals an observant Jew, like Peter, would be loath to eat. A voice from heaven tells the hungry Peter to, “Get up…kill and eat.” Peter is understandably upset—he would never dream of eating one of these ritually unclean animals. While the animals (and the people Peter will soon come to realize the animals are representing) aren’t inherently “bad, evil or sinful,”—for to be “unclean” is a ritual category, not a moral one–they are outside the normal and expected for Peter. To “Get up and eat,” would seemingly be a radical instruction.
However, listen closely to the voice from heaven’s response to Peter’s objections. It responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Did you catch it, “what God has made clean.” Not is making, or will make, has made. These living beings are already clean—they are already welcome.
This story has often been cited as the moment when God extended God’s mission of love and reconciliation to the Gentiles, to those outside the Jewish faith. However, I fundamentally disagree—this is not the moment when God suddenly decided to welcome everyone into the family of God—it’s the moment God showed Peter everyone was ALREADY welcome in the family of God!
Thus Peter is not being asked to extend a “radical” welcome to those to whom he is being sent. Instead, he’s being asked to extend a “normal and expected” welcome to those God has already welcomed.
God is and always has been a God of welcome. And we, the hands and feet of God on earth, the followers of Christ, are to bring that normal, expected, and effusive welcome to everyone we meet. God’s love and welcome extends to all, no qualifiers or conditions, and so must ours.