The scene is a high-rise flat in an area in the 1% most deprived in England. The estate is dark, labyrinthine and for the only time in my ministry, I find myself thinking the place looks dangerous. The lift is out, and I’ve climbed the stairs to the tenth floor. I’m there to arrange the baptism of a baby with his young parents. It’s clear that friends are joining the conversation – mum, dad and another young baby. ‘We asked them to stay with us,’ say the couple I am there to visit. ‘The flat they rented was so damp it was affecting the baby’s chest’, says the mum, ‘and the landlord wouldn’t sort it,’ adds dad. ‘There’s only one bedroom here, but we manage between us. We couldn’t leave them there.’ Faced with such generous and radical hospitality, how could the Church match that!
In August, the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, reported that over 200,000 children were homeless and living in unsuitable accommodation with their families. She estimated that nearly half were ‘hidden’ from the headline statistics by the kindness of friends like the couple I met as they sofa-surf for months on end. Many were living in converted shipping containers, and tiny converted offices – often in the middle of industrial estates and a long way from local shops and amenities and from the support of friends or family. Her report Bleak Houses sets out the scale of the problems that families face, the deprivation suffered by the children and the complexities of sorting this out.
Mary and Joseph came from a poor community; the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth is built around an adapted cave – a typically poor home in that first century town. In Bethlehem, they arrived in a crowded town with limited amenities. The lower floor of inns and homes was where the animals were kept, with people living and sleeping on a raised platform.
Born where animals give birth, and laid to sleep in a stone trough where animals feed, Jesus came into the world in a crowded and inhospitable world. Welcome and hospitality became core values for Jesus. His welcome is radical and core to the way he works. Criticism flies his way for welcoming the excluded of his day – the poor, the sick, sex workers, bully-boys and collaborators with the Roman invaders, other outcasts too. Jesus speaks of a God who beckons and welcomes them. And he acts that out by sharing time and food with them. ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,’ he says, ‘and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me’ (Matthew 10:40). Reflecting on Jesus’ birth, John writes, ‘He came to his own home, and his own people did not welcome him. But to all who welcomed him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God …’ (John 1:11-12).
Addressing a major division in the church and first century society, Paul calls on Christians to “welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7). “Show hospitality to one another”, says Jesus’ closest disciple, Peter (1 Peter 4:9), and an anonymous writer goes further, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:1-2). Advice and encouragement which chimes-in with the Hebrew Bible’s generous treatment of strangers and the poor.
As we reflect on the welcome Jesus received in his day, his experience of rejection – at his birth, through his life and ultimately in the cross – I encourage you to look for the rejected, the outsiders and to begin transforming their experience with something of the radical welcome of Jesus for all.