28 June 2020

As we prepare to reopen
our churches, are there
limits to our welcome?

‘Whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me’ (Matthew 10: 40) … a welcome sign at Athens Airport (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 28 June 2020

The Third Sunday after Trinity (Trinity III)

The Readings: Genesis 22: 1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6: 12-23; Matthew 10: 40-42.

There is a link to the continuous readings HERE.

‘Whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous’ (Matthew 10: 41) … a welcome at a front door in Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

As we prepare to open our church doors next Sunday (5 July 2020) and to welcome people back into our churches next Sunday, it is interesting that the word welcome is used six times in the three short verses in this morning’s Gospel reading.

The verb that is used here (δέχομαι, déchoma-ee), means to take by the hand, to receive, to grant access to, a visitor, to receive with hospitality, to receive into one’s home. It can refer to a way of responding generously to something said, to respond positively to teaching or instruction, to receive favourably, to embrace or to make one’s own.

Irish people like to think of Ireland as the land of a hundred thousand welcomes. English people have always put a high value on hospitality – although I fear ‘post-Brexit’ Britain raises questions about whether hospitality is widely cherished as an English value today.

But our concepts of welcome and hospitality come nowhere close to the way these values are expressed by Greeks. In the village in Crete where I have stayed regularly for five years, the baker welcomes me back as I am buying bread for breakfast, wanting not only to assure me that he remembers me year-by-year but to be assured that I remember him too.

In the newsagents, I am asked how long I am there for ‘this time’ – it not only conveys the memory that I have been there before but contains the hope that I would be here many more times too.

The Greek concept of welcome implies that the stranger is becoming a neighbour, a friend. It is not a tourist marketing ploy. It is not a cheap expression of gratitude for return business. It is simply a part of the Greek nature and culture to welcome the stranger or the foreigner. And the Greeks have another word for it – φιλοξενία (philoxenia) – meaning literally ‘love of the stranger or outsider.’

In classical Greece, hospitality was a right, and a host was expected to see to the needs of the guests. There is a classical Greek term (xenia or theoxenia) that expresses this ritualised guest-friendship relation: theoxenia, welcoming the guest, becomes welcoming a god. In classical Greece, someone’s ability to abide by the laws of hospitality determined nobility and social standing, and showed that someone was truly religious.

The Stoics regarded hospitality as a duty inspired by Zeus himself.

The word φιλοξενία (philoxenia) – from φῐ́λος (phílos), a loved one who is more than a ‘friend,’ and ξένος (xénos), a ‘stranger’ or ‘outsider’ – is used by many of the philosophers (Plato, Polybius, Philo of Alexandria and others) to express the warmth properly shown to strangers, and the readiness to share hospitality or generosity by entertaining in one’s own home.

It is a word that is used constantly in the epistles in the New Testament.

Saint Paul speaks of the importance of contributing to the needs of the saints – those inside the Church, and extending hospitality to strangers – those from outside who must be welcomed (κοινωνοῦντες τὴν φιλοξενίαν διώκοντες, Romans 12: 13).

In Hebrews 13: 2, the author uses a similar phrase (τῆς φιλοξενίας μὴ ἐπιλανθάνεσθε) when saying, ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.’

The concepts of to be hospitable (Φιλόξεον, philoxeon or φιλόξενος philoxenos), or to show hospitality (ξενοδοχέω, xenodocheo), occur throughout Saint Paul’s letters (see I Timothy 3: 2; Titus 1: 8, I Peter 4: 9, and I Timothy 5: 10). For example: ‘she must be well attested for her good works, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality (ἐξενοδόχησεν), washed the saints’ feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way’ (I Timothy 5: 10).

One of the requirements of a bishop in the New Testament Church is to be ‘hospitable,’ to be welcoming to strangers (I Timothy 3: 2; Titus 1: 8).

But the NRSV translation shows its weaknesses in those passages. It is not enough to translate these words as hospitality or welcome; it is hospitality towards the stranger, it is welcoming the outsider, the stranger, the foreigner, the person who is different, who comes among us: the people who look different, smell differently, wear different clothes, speak different languages, have different family structures, different names, different religious beliefs and practices.

And in the list of priorities in the New Testament, care for others, for children and hospitality to the stranger come before looking after the needs of church members, described here are washing the saints’ feet.

In his book, Faith in the Future, the former British Chief Rabbi, Lord (Jonathan) Sacks, says: ‘The Hebrew Bible contains the great command, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19: 18), and this has often been taken as the basis of biblical morality. But it is not: it is only part of it. The Jewish sages noted that on only one occasion does the Hebrew Bible command us to love our neighbour, but in 37 places it commands us to love the stranger. Our neighbour is one we love because he is like ourselves. The stranger is one we are taught to love precisely because he is not like ourselves.’

In the New Testament, the concept and the duty of philoxenia is in contrast to ordinary love (φιλία, philia), for it is easy to love those who are like us, from the same family or locality, and is in contrast to xenophobia, the fear of the stranger or the other, which is both unfounded and obsessive – and which is on the rise everywhere and finding expression in disgusting far-right and so-called ‘populist’ movements.

The Christian virtue of philoxenia has its roots in the injunctions to hospitality in Leviticus 19: 18 and 34. We are not just to love our neighbours as ourselves, but: ‘The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.’

Despite what is being said in the current debate dividing Anglicanism and many other Christian traditions, the sin of Sodom (see Genesis 19) was to refuse to welcome the stranger. The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 109, makes it clear. For 1,700 years after the destruction of Sodom, ancient Jews linked the destruction of Sodom to the refusal of hospitality, not to homosexuality.

What we often call ‘hospitality’ is really entertaining, and typically we offer it to friends who reciprocate by inviting us back. Hospitality to strangers is not entertaining friends or neighbours. Philoxenia is much more than that. Philoxenia turns on its head xenophobia and any other irrational attitude to those who are different, those who are strangers, those who come from the outside.

And Christ reminds the disciples in this Gospel reading that whoever welcomes them welcomes him. And that welcome begins not in the large gestures, such as accepting a whole, complex set of dogmatic statements and teachings, but in small, gentle gestures, such as offering a cup of water to those who are thirsty.

There can be no limits or bounds to our welcomes, our hospitality, our openness to others who are different or who are outsiders?

And so, may all we think say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me’ (Matthew 10: 40) … a welcome sign at Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania on the Greek island of Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 10: 40-42 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 40 ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 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; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’

‘Welcome, No Exit’ … ‘Welcome, Way Out’ … signs at Cambridge Railway Station (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical colour: Green (Ordinary Times, Year A)

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
you have broken the tyranny of sin
and have sent the Spirit of your Son into our hearts
whereby we call you Father:
Give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service,
that we and all creation may be brought
to the glorious liberty of the children of God;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

O God,
whose beauty is beyond our imagining
and whose power we cannot comprehend:
Give us a glimpse of your glory on earth
but shield us from knowing more than we can bear
until we may look upon you without fear;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

‘Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple …’ (Matthew 10: 42) … a café in Ashford, Co Wicklow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


59, New every morning is the love
601, Teach me, my God and King
517, Brother, sister, let me serve you
495, Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

‘O God, whose beauty is beyond our imagining and whose power we cannot comprehend: Give us a glimpse of your glory on earth’ (Post-Communion Prayer) … a blanket of flowers beneath trees in a garden in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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