I remember very clearly, as if it were only yesterday, the death of a young man, who was killed when he was struggling with depression.
He had been brought up in his church and had actively attended all the way through his childhood, teenage years and early adulthood. In his late 20s he had a crisis of faith and stepped out of the church, to the distress of his family and community. He went and explored other faiths and traditions, examining them and testing them, as he wanted to ask them all the questions he was asking God, seeking honest and thoughtful answers as he tried to discern his pathway for life.
In time, the young man returned to the church and his faith, better informed, more resilient, mature in his trust and deeply engaged with God; and there was much rejoicing.
However, he said privately to his father, ‘people welcomed me back to the church, but they had never truly seen me, known me and had not been truly interested in me. When I left no one came after me. I was seen as a failure because I expressed doubt and because I asked questions. It was as if I was contagious and therefore unacceptable. I became too awkward and difficult for them to be reconciled with me. Now I’m back, everyone wants to forget this absence as an aberration, a mistake. But how can that be when this questioning and doubt is part of who I am?’
Not long afterwards he was killed. His church leaders gave thanks to God the young man had turned back in time and could now go to heaven. They were satisfied he had finally made it into the club.
I remembered the young man with some grief as I was preparing this reflection and wondered whether his story might help us to think about how we welcome and practice it each day with each other and with strangers. This story is his gift to us today. Jesus said:
Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.Matt.10:40-41
So who is a prophet: A prophet is one who proclaims God’s word, speaking about justice and acting justly in all things. This is someone already living in God’s kingdom.
A righteous person is one who embodies God’s word, loving God and loving others because of God; just as we say each week:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength; and loving your neighbours as yourself.
Righteousness is the kind of discipleship action that transforms us in God’s kingdom. It is radical behaviour pushing us beyond whatever law or rules, tradition or custom require as the basic standards or expectations. As disciples we are invited to do much more than passively obeying commandments.
We are called to love God beyond everything. It was the unwillingness to love and be prophetic in their welcome which the young man pointed in his reflections about his own church experience.
Jesus calls us to represent Christ to the stranger and to encounter Christ in the stranger and to each other. Mother Teresa reminds us every day we encounter Christ disguised as those who are:
Hungry not just for bread, but hungry for love; naked not only for clothing but naked of human dignity and respect; homeless not only for want of a house of bricks and mortar, but homeless because of rejection.Mother Teresa, Words to Love By (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1983, 80.
It is this encounter, this prophetic and righteous living and discipleship which is causing people to march for justice for people of colour, for refugees, against violence and for genuine, loving inclusion. When we think about how we respond to others including strangers, in our welcoming of them, ‘in the name of’ a prophet or as a righteous one, we are being reminded by Jesus to see the other also ‘as’ a prophet with all the full welcome and joy given for such a person joining the community, and similarly for the gift of someone’s presence who is righteous and walking humbly with God. We welcome and celebrate when such people come into our lives, because we realise how much more clearly we can see Christ because of them.
Jesus tells us:
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.(Matt:10:40)
Let us imagine then how we welcome God, how we speak and act around God each day as we encounter God regularly in those around us, in a kingdom where justice is and mercy are always present.
Let us imagine how our behaviour, words and decisions will take us beyond the simple rules and expectations of our society; where because we are so in love with God those around us are able to see God a little more clearly because of the way we share God’s love.
What might the young man have felt if this had been his welcome, rather than simply being taken for granted as a man who did not conform.
We need to be reminded the Church and our attendance are not the end point for our life as disciples. Many churches have tended to institutionalise themselves as ‘the purpose for the gospel’ rather than as witnesses.
Consequently, let us reflect on our own willingness to be sent out into the world, witnessing as God’s disciples and actively welcoming as prophets and righteous ones, as Christ is in us and the one who sent him.
More generally, has the church been God’s witness, sent into the world to bless all people, welcome them and love them in Jesus’ name? If not, I would say then we have essentially not been the church.
There should be no such thing as a church that is not missional. When we cease to be missional, we are no longer the church: we are simply one more cultural organization serving consumerist needs as if there was nothing more significant than consumption.
The fact is many people today shop for a community of faith in the same way they shop for a pair of jeans, asking themselves when they attend a church: Is this church good for me, for us? Does it suit me? And if not, I’ll go elsewhere.
Perhaps my question instead should be to ask if you are ready to go out as witnesses, into the world, to be Christs and to meet Christs, to welcome and to risk, for the sake of justice and love, reputation, persecution, and irreparable family rifts, to face the wolves of insatiable greed, determined individualism and exploitive power; to lose your life and find it; indeed to inherit the kingdom.
If this is your experience, then we are being Christ to others and they can become Christs to us, and I can stop grieving for this young man who lost his life, as I believe he found it.
Lord be with you.