The Front Porch: God’s Love for Us
1 John 4:7-21
In the series “Welcoming in God’s House”
One Sunday a few years ago, Becky and I visited a church that, at one time, was known as a thriving congregation. Their website was up-to-date with information and photos and portrayed the church as welcoming and accepting of guests. We drove to the church, parked and then guessed which door to enter (there were no signs). Once inside, we spotted a small sign that pointed us toward the sanctuary. We walked a long hallway, past several people, talking to each other but ignoring us. At the door to the Sanctuary, a greeter handed us a bulletin and gave a perfunctory, “Good morning” without smiling. We found seats and waited for worship to begin. Finally, one woman walking toward the front stopped, introduced herself to us, welcomed us to church, and asked a few brief questions to learn a little about us. Later, during the formal greeting time, the people sitting near us awkwardly smiled and said, “Hi,” but quickly turned to talk with their friends. At the end of worship, the pastor invited everyone to stay for coffee and fellowship but did not mention where it would be. No one greeted us as we left the Sanctuary. There was no one to ask about fellowship time, so we left the building, got in our car and drove away, unsure if one warm, welcoming person was enough to overcome the lack of welcome by everyone else.
A key issue in the life of every church congregation is hospitality. At St. Andrew’s we understand it is so important that our discipleship pathway, how a person moves toward becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ, begins with “meeting Christ through extending Biblical hospitality.” This will be the focus of our next few weeks in worship.
In the Bible, God is clear that God’s people are expected to offer hospitality and welcome to others. In Deuteronomy 10:19, God said to the people, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” “Extend hospitality to strangers,” Paul wrote in Romans 12:13, and in Romans 15:7, he wrote, “Welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed you.”
Hospitality is more than simply welcoming; it is about building community, which is a radical idea, because we live in a society that emphasizes the individualistic life. Authentic community is outside our culture’s norm, yet it is a mark of our Christian faith that, though our relationship with Christ might be personal, we are designed to live our faith in community. So the goal of hospitality is to create a sense of welcome and Christian community. To make hospitality and community possible, we must first understand that God loves us.
In our scripture reading, we heard this: “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19). In other words, hospitality begins in the heart of Jesus as he offers each one of us his unconditional love. Paul Tillich, the great 20th-century theologian, wrote that one of the first steps to a relationship with God is that we must “accept that we are accepted.” In other words, before we can reach out to others with the hospitality, the grace and acceptance, of Jesus, we must first receive it for ourselves. But many of us – even those who actively participate in church for years – struggle with the truth that Christ loves and accepts us. The gospels tell us that Jesus welcomed and accepted everyone where they were. Jesus offered his love and hospitality without condition. His invitation to prominent leaders like Nicodemus was the same as to Peter the fisherman, Matthew the tax collector, the Samaritan woman at the well, or the blind beggar who called out to him. Everyone can come; everyone can follow. Even you; even me.
When we realize how God loves us, then grace transforms our lives. Grace often comes to us or becomes real to us at the most challenging times – when we are in pain, angry, empty, lonely, weak, worn or hostile. It often takes God’s amazing love and hospitality to break through and to wake us to the reality that Jesus offers us something quite different from what the world brings us. When we’ve been claimed and changed by God’s grace, we want nothing else than to offer the same kind of acceptance and hospitality to others. That’s what John meant when he wrote, “We love because God first loved us.”
Understanding that we are directed to extend hospitality or wanting to be welcoming to others is a start. The question is how to do it. That’s why each week, we’ll give some ideas to help us, as a congregation, to extend welcome. We definitely need to have systems and ministries in place to offer hospitality, but even more, we want every person engaged. The Bible makes clear that hospitality is the responsibility of every Christian, not just greeters, ushers, or church staff.
So today we’re introducing a strategy to help all of us become more aware and empowered. The strategy was created by Pastor Jim Ozier, a UM pastor in the North Texas Conference. It is called 5-10-Link. The ushers are going to come among us now and distribute reminder cards to help us recall this strategy, as we follow along on the screen.
+ 5 refers to time – We agree that the last five minutes before worship and the first five minutes after worship, we will break out of conversations with our friends and seek to engage guests and others we don’t know well. To help us with this strategy, you’ll start noticing a 5-minute countdown timer appearing on the screen before and after worship. That will be our visual reminder of this part of the strategy.
+ 10 refers to space – Wherever we are in the building at any time, when we see a guest within 10 feet of us, we will break out of our conversations and engage guests by introducing ourselves to them. It’s not always easy to visualize 10 feet, so we have a tool to show you. As you can see, 10 feet is _ pews before and behind you; across the aisle, etc. We want to be careful not to overwhelm a guest; if 10 people descend upon someone to welcome them, they will probably not feel very welcome; but no one should ever be ignored or missed if each of us takes responsibility for the 10-feet around us.
+ Link refers to connecting a guest to someone based on something they have in common. We’ll talk more in detail about this part of the strategy in coming weeks.
So, let’s say that we’re paying attention and notice it is 5 minutes before worship. We want to look in the 10-foot radius around us to see if there is someone we don’t know or don’t know well. We find someone, and then what do we do?
Think about it this way. When someone comes to our home, we greet them on the front porch. A couple of generations ago, people would hang out on their porches and engage with neighbors as they passed by. Today most newer houses have large decks or patios behind the house, often shielded from view. So when someone comes to our front porch today and we greet them, we keep the greeting pretty simple. We might share our name and ask their name. It is the beginning of a relationship, just as the front porch isn’t the whole house. So it might sound something like this: “Good morning, I’m Jeff. Welcome.”
What happens many times when you introduce yourself to someone else? They say “thank you” and often they introduce themselves to you. We aren’t best friends yet, but we have acknowledged each other as a worthwhile human being. Because we have been accepted by God, we extend welcome to another, and God’s love becomes a little more real.
Let’s practice that. In a moment, I want you to turn to someone sitting next to you and say this, filling your name in the blank: “Good morning, I’m _____. Welcome.” Then switch so they can greet you. Ready. Go? Very good. Now, turn to someone else near you and do it again. Ready. Go.
One concern that people sometimes raise is this: “What if I’m not sure if I have met the person already and just don’t know their name?” The temptation is to avoid greeting them, in order to save yourself embarrassment. But I remember one dear saintly lady at a church I once served who every week sat behind a young couple in worship. After several months, she asked me as she was leaving worship, “Pastor Jeff, can you tell me the names of the young couple in front of me?” She went on to say that she’d never asked their name because she felt bad that she couldn’t remember if she knew them or not. For months she hadn’t asked their name. Can you imagine?
Some of you have heard Pastor Becky and I ask you your name, and we are just honest. If we just can’t remember a name, we say, “Could you help me remember your name?” or “I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of meeting you. I’m _____.” And we’ve always found people to be gracious and tell us their name. That’s a good way to ask, because people generally want to be helpful to others. Let’s practice saying it together: “Could you help me remember your name?”
If you stop and think about it, all of us are here today because there was someone who at some time offered hospitality and shared God’s love with us. If you are our guest here today, I hope you have felt welcome and our joy that you have come to be part of this community, and I invite you to come back again.
Hospitality is like God’s front porch; it extends God’s love and welcome into every life, no matter where they might be. “We love because God first loved us.” So to put that into action we will remember 5-10-Link, and we agree to be sure that anytime we are anywhere in the building, we will strive to share God’s love by greeting everyone warmly – whether they are here for worship, a meal, a meeting, an activity, to drop off or pick up children, or any other reason. Our hospitality becomes our act of worship, praising the God who loved us first.