Not so long ago our family moved twice in a period of 18 months. Not something I’d recommend! The first move was an interstate move, the second a less significant move to a different suburb 10 minutes from where we already lived.
Clearly, our first move was the more challenging one. More challenging logistically. More challenging emotionally. We moved from a city where we had great networks of family and friends, to a city where we knew almost no one.
The first move was to a little house on a little street. Within a couple of weeks, we’d met our 4 or 5 immediate neighbours. They came and knocked on our door; they invited us over for coffee; they chatted to us in the street; they dropped in. They welcomed and included us in their lives – for the whole 18 months that we lived there. It was lovely and helped us to feel slightly less alone in a big new city.
By the time we moved again, we had friends, we were settled in our jobs and our church, and our son was settled in his school. None of this changed with our second move.
This was a move to another little house, but this time on a big street. And this time, it seemed that no one noticed that we had moved in. No one popped in. No one introduced themselves. It was weeks before we met one of the neighbours and the other neighbour still studiously ignores us. Let’s say we’ve felt something short of welcome in our new neighbourhood!
Sometimes coming to church for newcomers can be a lot like our second move. But should it be like that? Should church and Christians be welcoming, or not?
Is God a welcoming God?
Perhaps to help us reflect on this question, we need to ask a prior question. Is God a welcoming God?
Well, ‘God so loved the world’ – the whole world – people of every walk of life, every faith background, every nation, every culture, every people group – ‘that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16)
God gave his precious son so that we might live with him forever. Yes, our God is a welcoming God. Each of us must choose how we respond to his offer of welcome, and the promise of eternal life is for those who respond to his welcome with belief in him. But the offer of welcome is open to all.
In the same way, Jesus’ death was for all – for those who were ‘still sinners’ and ‘enemies’, Jesus died (Romans 5:8, 10). He paid the price for our admission into God’s family. Our God is indeed a welcoming God.
Jesus’ story of the rebellious son who left home and squandered his share of his
inheritance before returning home to apologise to his father is, among other things, a story of welcome. ‘While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him: he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him’ (Luke 15:20). God our Father stands ready to welcome us home.
So if God is a welcoming God, what does that mean for us?
A chip off the old block
A while ago, my nine year old son noticed himself behaving in a way very much like his father. “I’m a chip off the old block”, said my son, proudly. It was one of those warm, fuzzy parenting moments, that you need to keep in mind when you’re having one of the other sort of parenting ‘moments’!
In many ways, we’re also meant to be ‘chips off the old block’. I’m not thinking so much of our earthly parents, but of our Father in heaven. There are many ways in which God longs for us to be like him – although we certainly can’t and shouldn’t be like our heavenly Father in every way!
When it comes to welcoming, God longs for us to be like him.
Israel was called to be a light to the nations (Isaiah 42:6), and although her light was diminished by the darkness of her sin, it still shone. In spite of her imperfections and limitations, in a small but significant way, Israel welcomed the nations into her midst. Rahab and Ruth spring to mind.
When Jesus was asked by one of the teachers of the law what the most important commandment was, he mentioned two. The first, ‘Love the Lord you God’, and the second, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:28-31). Perhaps that might include, ‘welcome your neighbour as God has welcomed you’!
When it comes to church, 1 Corinthians 14:22-25 assumes there will be unbelievers in our midst, and that our gatherings should be organised in a way that is helpful for them. So church on a Sunday should also assume that visitors/newcomers/unbelievers will be present, and we should welcome them.
Finally, and intriguingly, we are urged in Hebrews not to forget to entertain strangers, ‘for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it’ (Hebrews 13:2). Whether or not you may one day entertain an angel, every stranger that we meet is a person made and loved by God, with His purposes in mind. What an opportunity we have to welcome strangers, and to be part of what God has in store for them in their lives.
So, is God a welcoming God? Yes, he is. Do people (especially those not connected with church) know that God is a welcoming God? Often they don’t. And perhaps that’s partly because they haven’t found a welcome from God’s people.
God so loved the whole world, and Jesus’ death was for all.
As children of our heavenly Father, let’s think hard about how we can welcome those God might bring into our lives and our churches, and let’s be motivated to make sure we do it!
Nat grew up in Sydney, lives in Melbourne and loves both cities! A former lawyer, she’s now an Assistant Minister and is passionate about sunshine, summer, sport, reading and local church ministry.