The Book of Acts is the story of how the Holy Spirit went to work, long ago, shaping and molding the disciples of Jesus into what he wanted them to be.
In our own time we are the present chapter in that long story. And the Book of Acts is still the story of how the Holy Spirit likes to work today with the disciples of Jesus.
So we can read in the Book of Acts and see what the Lord wants to make of us. We can see the kind of people the Lord wants us to be. We can see the kind of family the Lord wants his church to be as a group, as a body.
What I see, in the two places we have read from this morning, is that the Lord wants his people to welcome others.
Long ago the Lord wanted his people to welcome his new servant, Saul (who would later become known as Paul). This was very hard for them to do, and (in the beginning) they did not do a very good job of it. It’s true that they had good reasons for doing a bad job of welcome. Saul (or Paul) had been a dangerous enemy whose heart had been suddenly changed (completely unexpectedly) by the grace of the Lord.
And the Lord also wanted his disciples to welcome Gentiles (non-Jews) into the family of God’s chosen people; starting with a Roman army officer named Cornelius, along with his family and friends. The lesson Peter learned from this was that the Lord wanted a relationship with all of the nations and all of the races outside Israel. The Lord wanted to include them in the kingdom of God.
They should have known this all along. At the very start of God’s work with Israel, with the children of Abraham, the Lord gave this blessing to Abraham: “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
The Lord wanted his people to eventually become a blessing people, a welcoming people: a people who reached out to others, and who took other people in. He wants us to be like that too; because that is one of the wonders of the big story of the gospel. There is no real gospel without it.
As the years passed, and Paul found himself to be accepted by the church, he wrote some thoughts about how important it was for Christians to be a blessing and welcoming people. In the fifth chapter of Second Corinthians (5:16a, 17-18) he wrote: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.” “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come! All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”
Reconciliation is a kind of welcome. Reconciliation is a very scary and radical kind of welcome. It is much more than the welcoming of strangers. It is the welcoming of former enemies.
It is a way of saying that God is in the friend making business. God came in Jesus to die on a cross to make a world of enemies into his friends.
When God speaks to any human being from his cross, God reveals a love, and a holiness, and a mercy, and a hope that cannot be found anywhere else. When God speaks to a human soul from his cross, this welcome of God’s love opens the secrets of that person’s heart.
When God is speaking to us from his cross, we see the sins that we have cherished in our lives, and we see the ugliness of sins that we didn’t even know were sins. When the Lord speaks to us from his cross, and when we hear, we die; and this is the gift of God’s love.
What we have been, up to that point, dies. Our old self is lost to us. We must become new. From the depths of our hearts we are changed; because we have been welcomed by the love of God in Christ.
We might still fight the old battles, and struggle with the old weaknesses, but we do it with a different mind and heart. We fight the old battles with a different kind of strength: with a strength that is never entirely our own, but belongs to God; to a God who would never surrender and would never give up on us, not even if we belonged to his crucifiers and killers.
The love of God in Jesus says what Jesus said on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) We will fight our oldest battles with the humility and patience that Jesus showed on the cross.
And sooner or later we realize how much we need the welcoming of a God who never gives us up. This is the message of reconciliation.
Now the Book of Acts tells us how God’s people are being trained by the Holy Spirit to welcome others, to welcome people who have been their enemies. We see these lessons in how the church learned to welcome Paul, the persecutor and murderer of Christians; and Cornelius, an army officer of the Roman occupation who, no matter how good and spiritual he was, still worked for the enemy.
Now, if you know that God requires you to welcome enemies, then you must know that you have to welcome others as well; not only enemies, but strangers, too; outsiders, people who are not like you, people you may not understand, and people who may not understand you.
When I was going to the community college near my hometown, there was another kid who wanted to come to church with me, but I never let him, because I knew what would happen if some people saw him wearing blue jeans. It was as petty as that. I knew, as well as I knew myself, that there would be people there who would snub him, or make some comment to him and make him feel embarrassed about what he was wearing. (This happened in the year 1971, when a lot of people actually had issues about blue jeans in church.) And the fact that those were the only pants he owned would have made no difference to certain people.
Now-a-days we are very broad-minded, and we can’t imagine holding off a person from the church over the matter of blue jeans. But just try to think of someone you would rather not see here, and ask Jesus what he thinks about your reasons.
I was looking for one verse about welcoming others and found three of them together. They are from the thirteenth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews (13:1-3). “Keep on loving each other as brothers (or as brothers and sisters). Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”
Keep on loving each other. (“Keep on loving” is our translation’s way of making the Greek verb tense clear.) Sometimes the way to welcome someone is to keep on loving them.
Some people really don’t believe in love. At the point when you are trying to welcome them they may have no concept of a healthy love. And the gospel is all about love. So they will often fall back on being hard to love, to see if your love is real, or they will be hard to love simply because they can’t help themselves.
These people won’t ever learn anything about Jesus, in the long run, if you don’t decide to keep on loving them. This is related to what we ask God for when we pray, “Forgive us our debts (or our trespasses) as we forgive our debtors (or those who trespass against us).” How we keep on loving is very revealing about our own grasp of the good news of the grace and love of God in our own lives.
Then there is the welcome of strangers, “for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” Now this verse deserves a whole sermon in itself. This is probably a reference to Abraham (Genesis 18) and Gideon (in Judges 6), and the times when they were visited by angels. It may be a reference to some experiences of the first Christians. It describes a miracle. It really does.
But the word for angel, in Greek and Hebrew, also refers to plain old messengers. Sometimes strangers bring us messages from God. When God’s people welcome strangers, they learn something, and they are wiser than before.
And then there is “remember those in prison”. Remember here means to do something real about something, and here remember means to visit. One kind of welcoming is not what you do when someone else comes to you, but what you do by going to them. Welcome is about making a first step; all by yourself.
There are people in prison, or in hospitals, or even people caught in some pattern of life, or some trap of life; who (because of who and where they are in life) cannot come to you. But you can come to them. You receive them; you welcome them, by going to them, by giving yourself.
Now, welcoming others, or being a welcoming place, as a church, is not something that should be up to us. Peter asked his friends about what to do with these Gentiles, these Romans, who believed. He asked, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized?” (Acts 10:47) Later on, the church in Jerusalem challenged Peter’s welcoming of the Gentiles into the church. And Peter just said, “Who was I to think that I could oppose God.” (Acts 11:17)
There was a cartoon of a church business meeting, and the leader was reading from the by-laws, and said, “According to our by-laws, the will of God can only be overruled by a two-thirds majority of the congregation.” The will of God here is all about what kind of heart and soul we are going to have, and how we are going to live a different way, based on what the Lord wants to nurture in our heart and soul. How are we going to live out the welcome of Jesus in this fellowship, this church? Will we do it by coming back to live the message of reconciliation from our heart?
That is the standard.
Otherwise what do we have that is any different from what this world offers? We are talking about being a new creation that does not work the way the world works. All the welcome you could possibly give, with every fiber of your being, is not going to be a welcome that anyone would possibly want, if it isn’t a doorway into some kind of haven and shelter that does not give us, a home of steadfast love and faithfulness.
There was a wealthy woman who was interviewing a prospective maid, and she asked, “Can you serve company?” The applicant answered, “Yes ma’am; both ways.” The employer was puzzled and asked, “What do you mean both ways?” And the answer was, “So they’ll come again, or so they’ll stay away.” (in “”My Little Salesman Truck Catalog” Parables, Etc” June, 1988)
The wonder of real welcome is that it must come from the heart, and the heart speaks clearly. And it is just as clear whether or not the welcome in our hearts speaks from our knowing the welcome of God’s heart; the welcome that comes from the good news of the gospel. That is the welcome that people need the most. That is the welcome that shows Christ to them.