"The Welcome of Christ"
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts September 11, 2005
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2005 by Mark D. Roberts
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Introduction to a New Series
It's my joy and honor to be back in the pulpit today after my summer break. I look forward to sharing God's Word with you today, and in the months to come.
I want to offer a hearty "thank you" to those who preached in my absence from the pulpit. They did a great job proclaiming God's truth to us, and for this I am most grateful.
As I return to the pulpit each fall, I find myself praying a familiar prayer: "Lord, what do You want me to preach?" I try to spend time listening to Him as I think about where you folks are spiritually and what are the needs of the larger community God has put us here to reach with the gospel.
As I was in the midst of this period of discernment, a couple of events helped me hear God's directions. First, I received a letter from a couple who had been attending our church for a year, but never welcomed into our fellowship, so they decided to look for another church. I realize, of course, that many others have a very different and much more positive experience. Nevertheless, I was saddened by this letter and wondered what God wanted me to do about it. Was this something about which I should do some preaching?
Then, in my first staff meeting after getting back from vacation, we were discussing our calling as a church to reach "beyond ourselves" to our community, and to welcome our neighbors into this fellowship. Yet we were stumbling upon instances in which our efforts to be more inviting were feeble at best. Finally, Dan Korneychuk said, "You know, I wish sometime you'd do a preaching series on what it means to be truly welcoming people. We need some help here." As I listened to Dan, I also felt the tug of the Spirit in my heart. It was as if He were saying to me, "This is what I want you to do this fall."
When I told my wife Linda that I was planning to preach on the theme of welcome, her first reaction was less than enthusiastic. She had visions of me standing up here week after week haranguing you about being a more welcoming church. As a somewhat introverted person, she anticipated feeling guilty, misunderstood, and pummeled. And, once I got over my defensiveness, I could see her point. Besides, you might be wondering: How much is there to say about welcome? Surely the topic is worth one sermon, maybe two. But a whole series?
Yep, a whole series, four months worth, to be exact. You see, there's much, much more to this series than simply my telling you to be a welcoming church. Welcome, as we'll soon see, is a theme that runs throughout the New Testament. It's part and parcel of a crucial aspect of Christian character and discipleship, namely hospitality. But, even more importantly, welcome has everything to do with our experience of God through Jesus Christ. When we speak of welcome in biblical terms, we come to the heart of our faith. Here is the good news that will set us free to be more loving, more welcoming people.
So, if you're expecting me to try and pummel you into being a more welcoming person, don't worry. That's not my style because that's not the gospel. My hope and prayer is that, through this series, you'll have a transforming experience of God's grace, and an expanded vision of His mission, and that these realities - not my impassioned rhetoric - will help you to open your heart and your life to others in a new way.
But I'm getting way ahead of myself.
For today, we'll be reading three verses from Romans 15, beginning with verse 5. Listen to God's Word:
Scripture Reading: Romans 15:5-7
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
Images of Welcome
When you think of welcome, what images come to mind? Perhaps you picture the doormat outside of your front door. Or maybe its one of those "Welcome to [this state]" signs you see as you drive into a new state. One of my personal favorites is in California, where a tagger added to the bottom of the "Welcome to California" sign the words "Now go home." Talk about hospitality!
When I think of welcome, my mind is quickly filled with images of servicemen and women returning to their families - images we see all the time on the news these days. Often the waiting families will have made giant signs that read "Welcome home Johnny" or "Welcome home Daddy." And then there are the family embraces, when children hug their fathers, and wives their husbands, and sometimes daddies get to see their babies for the very first time. These are some of the most touching welcome experiences ever. I can only imagine how it must feel to be on the receiving end of such a welcome.
Welcome in Romans 15:5-7
Welcoming people was a big deal in the first century A.D. That may help to explain why there are eleven Greek verbs in the New Testament that can be translated as "to welcome," not to mention two verbs that mean "show hospitality to." I'll have more to say about this later.
One of the verbs meaning "to welcome" shows up twice in our passage today, in verse 7: "Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God." The Greek verb used here doesn't refer simply to saying "hello" at the door. It's not a call to politeness or niceness. "To welcome" in Romans 15:7 means "to invite and include in your fellowship" or "to involve in your life" or "to enlist in a group." In classical Greek, this verb could be used for taking on a partner in business or for enrolling someone in an organization.
The verb tenses employed in this verse are important. The command "welcome" employs a present imperative, which in Greek has the sense of a continuing action. It doesn't mean "Welcome one another once and then forget about it." Rather, the sense is "Welcome and keep on welcoming one another." The second "welcome" verb in verse 7 appears in the phrase "as Christ has welcomed you." This verb is in the aorist (past) tense. The Greek nuance means "as Christ welcomed you, definitively, once and for all, in the past."
Therefore, we might paraphrase Romans 15:7 as, "Warmly receive one another, and keep on receiving one another, into your fellowship, therefore, just as Christ has warmly received you into His fellowship once and for all, for the glory of God."
How Did Christ Welcome Us?
Romans 15:7 tells us clearly that we are to welcome, and keep on welcoming, each other. The pragmatic part of me wants to start talking immediately about what our welcome will look like. But I think that would be premature. Before we're ready to welcome each other, we need first to understand and to experience Christ's welcome. This not only sets the standard for our mutual welcome, but also it empowers us to offer welcome far beyond our own abilities.
So for the rest of our time today, I want to focus on the question: How did Christ welcome us?
Because Romans 15:7 speaks of Christ's welcome in the past tense, we know it's referring to something definitive. In fact the reference has two aspects. First, Christ welcomed us - included us in His fellowship with the Father - through his death on the cross. There He was treated as sin for us so that we might enjoy His right relationship with the Father (see 2 Cor 5:21). The welcome of Christ begins at the cross.
Yet in order to avail ourselves of this welcome, we must put our trust in Christ. We must receive His gift of forgiveness through the cross. We must accept Him as Lord over our lives. When we put our trust in Jesus, at that very moment He welcomes us once and for all into relationship with Him and through Him with the triune God. The welcome that began in the cross is complete in our lives, once and for all.
What can we say about this welcome? Let me offer a few ideas. More will come next week, as I said.
First of all, the welcome of Jesus is gracious. We didn't earn it. It was given to us by grace.
Second, it's all-inclusive. Jesus doesn't say, "Well, I'll accept the good parts of you, but not the whole you." Rather, He says, "I'll accept you as you are, and together we'll help the bad to become good."
Third, it's costly. Jesus isn't able to welcome us just because He's a nice guy. It cost Him His life offered on the cross.
Fourth, it's offered freely. Although it cost Jesus His life to welcome us, all we must do is receive it by faith. We don't earn His welcome through our efforts. Rather we receive it because of His effort.
Fifth, the welcome of Jesus is enduring. Jesus isn't merely saying "hi" at the door. He's including us in His own fellowship within the Trinity, as well as in the family of His people.
Sixth, it's for the sake of God's glory. Romans 15:7 says, "Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcome you, for the glory of God." The welcome is wonderful, not only because we find our true home in God, but also because God is glorified in the process. His goodness and grace are in full view when one of His lost children is welcomed home.
So, even though we've just begun to scratch the surface of Christ's welcome, already we've seen that it's gracious, all-inclusive, costly, yet offered freely, enduring, and for the sake of God's glory. This, then, becomes the standard for us. "Welcome one another" in this way, Romans 15:7 says, in the way of Christ. Treat each other as Christ has treated you. Include each other in fellowship according to the standard of Christ's inclusion of you - a high standard, indeed!
Experiencing the Welcome of Christ
We'll spend plenty of time in this preaching series talking about how we can imitate Christ in the way we welcome each other. Before we do, however, I want to reflect with you on what it means to be welcomed by Christ. We mustn't skip over this foundation, or we'll never understand what welcoming each other means, and we'll never be able to do it.
How can we begin to grasp the meaning of Christ's welcome? When it comes to heavenly things, earthly analogies sometimes help. So I'd like you to think for a few moments about when in your life you've felt truly welcomed. Again, I'm not talking merely about a warm handshake at the door, or even a heartfelt embrace. I'm asking, rather, when you felt accepted truly into someone's life, when you felt as if you genuine mattered to them, when you sensed that you were at home, even if you weren't. When have you felt genuinely welcomed? Think about it.
And when a memory of authentic welcome comes to you, consider what it felt like to be so welcomed. What happened to you? What communicated the fact that you belonged? Words? And if so, what words? Gestures? And if so, what gestures?
When I think of being truly welcomed, I remember my grandparents. I've spoken to you before about Ama and Poppy, named by me when I couldn't say Grandma and Grandpa. They were my mother's parents, and in many ways my second set of parents. Ama and Poppy lived about a quarter mile from my childhood home in Glendale, California. And, crucially, their house was on the way home from school. So I'd often stop by after school and hang out with Ama and Poppy.
And I felt truly, utterly welcomed. I knew they were glad to have me there, and that I could make myself at home. What communicated this sort of welcome? Well, for one thing they used words. They told me how glad they were to see me and always encouraged me to drop by another time.
But, far beyond mere words, they also told me I was welcome by their actions. For example, when I was in junior high, I loved Nacho Cheese Flavored Doritos. I could eat a million of them, and back then I could do so without gaining a pound. Well, somehow Ama and Poppy found out that I liked this flavor of Doritos, so they bought them for me, by the case. I wouldn't be surprised if, over the years, I ate more than 500 bags of Nacho Chesse Flavored Doritos at their house. No exaggeration. (That's almost a million calories, by the way, of highly nutritional carbs and fats.) What was wonderful about eating these Doritos at my grandparents' house wasn't just the flavor. It was the fact that Nacho Cheese Flavored Doritos said to me, "We care about you. We care about your feelings. You are at home here."
Of course it wasn't just Doritos that welcomed me in Ama's and Poppy's house. It was, more than anything else, their care for me, their attention to me. They listened to my stories. They applauded my successes. They passed on their wisdom. We talked, and talked, and talked.
After high school I went East for college and grad school. I'd see Ama and Poppy during vacations, but not all that often. Then, in 1984, I moved back to Southern California, got married, and began working at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. Linda and I had a small, one-bedroom apartment. And my office at church was right in the middle of lots of activity, so I had no quiet place to study for my teaching, let alone for writing my doctoral dissertation.
So what did I do? I knew that Ama and Poppy had a room upstairs in their house that had been Poppy's home office before he retired. So I asked if I might turn that room into my study. You can predict their response. As always, I was welcome in their home. They encouraged me to arrange the room to my liking. They put in some new window shades and cleaned out a lot of their stuff. And from 1984 through 1991, I did the bulk of my studying upstairs in Ama's and Poppy's house. I figure I spent about 3,000 hours there during those years, which works out to almost a year of time. And, yes, I ate Doritos, probably a couple hundred more sacks full. (By the way, I still like Nacho Cheese Doritos, but my svelte figure can't handle them anymore. So don't feel obliged to give me a case for Pastor Appreciation Month! I can't even handle the calories in Baked Flavorless Styrofoam Chips. Sigh!)
My friends, Jesus wants us to feel as welcomed by Him as I once did by Ama and Poppy. He wants us to feel at home with Him. He wants us to know that He values us and our company. He cares about what we care about. He wants to listen to us and share life with us. What Jesus offers is far better than Doritos. He offers Himself, the bread of life, the One in whom we can experience life to the fullest.
And here's a wonder: Jesus knows everything bad about you, and yet He still welcomes you. He took care of the problem of your sin 2,000 years ago on the cross. So if you've never put your faith in Him as Lord and Savior, Jesus is inviting you in. And if you've put your faith in Him, then you have a home in Jesus. You belong to Him. And He wants to enjoy relationship with You.
One implication of this welcome will be your becoming a more welcoming person to others. That's great, and we'll spend plenty of time talking about what this means. But for now I want to end with the bottom-line fact that Christ welcomes you. He welcomed you in His cross. He welcomed you when you first believed in Him. And if you haven't done this yet, He is ready to welcome you home today.
Sisters and brothers, I want to close this sermon with a time of quiet. And in this time I want you to reflect upon how Christ has welcomed you. If you're a believer, consider what it means to be at home with Him. And if you're not a believer, I'd urge you to consider responding to the invitation of Jesus today.
Jesus welcomes you, dear friends, one and all. Be at home in Him!