Welcoming with Open Arms

Welcoming with Open Arms

Many years ago, I used to have a book by Ita Buttrose which was all about polite etiquette. She described appropriate ways of behaving when out and about – table manners, what to wear.  Do you remember that book?  I haven’t looked at my copy for quite a while –  that is, if I still have it – but one thing I’m sure that would have been in there is in relation to polite conversation:  never talk about religion or politics …
Well, I don’t know about you, but it seems that wherever I go or whatever I read recently, the conversation is focussed on just that: religion and politics.
“Are you a Yes or a No voter?”, people ask!
In response to the current survey the government has asked the ABS to do on Australian Marriage Law, people are sharing their opinions in all kinds of ways.
Some of the conversations have been helpful – raising awareness for those who may not have considered the implications.
But many of the conversations have been very hurtful and offensive – to people who sit on both sides of the fence – if that’s a thing.
For many, because of the way the issue is being handled, because of the ways people are behaving and the things people are saying, this is a very painful time, ..some feel quite unsafe. Some people have chosen to withdraw from conversations, from social media, even from the church –not able to worship. (if you are one of these people I’m sorry if what I’m saying now is difficult – I hope that if you hang in there it will be helpful)
Christian leaders who have chosen to speak out publicly have faced criticism – both from within the church and from the wider community. Sadly, and this is common, the harshest criticism tends to come from within the church – from fellow believers.
The thing about religion is that it is all about the things that shape what we believe about yourself and our world and the values we choose to live by. When our beliefs are questioned by someone suggesting a different point of view, we can feel very threatened.
We only have to look at the way people reacted to Jesus, when he reinterpreted the orthodox Jewish beliefs of his day, to find examples of the violent reactions that can result. and when it comes to beliefs and values, even within the Christian church, there is a very wide range of opinions.
The thing is that we are all united in Christ. We all share joy in our faith and our hope. We all share the common symbol of the cross. And it is that symbol of our faith that shapes how we live.
Last week I spoke about the significance of our wooden cross. Called “Comfort and Joy”, it portrays the comforting arms of Christ’s love, care and protection and the outward arms of joy and celebration of life with Jesus and his victory on the cross”.
And I spoke of the word cruciform – cross shaped – and how Paul taught the Roman believers to live their lives shaped by the cross – a life of holiness and hospitality that is centred on the cross.[1]
Representing the life, death, and resurrected life of Jesus, the cross is the symbol at the heart of our faith and at the heart of who we are, and whose we are.  When the gospel is “of first importance” to us and “Christ is formed in us”[2] then our lives take on the shape of the cross:  arms back in reverence and awe as we worship God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and arms reaching out to others in love.
So what happens when we find it difficult to open our arms to others, especially fellow Christians who we might disagree with?
What happens when we find ourselves in those conversations about religion and politics?
I think we do need to find ways to talk about it. How else will we teach our children and grandchildren to think and debate and disagree with love and respect?  How can we learn to deal with conflict in healthy ways, if we don’t talk about the things that really matter to us?
We need to talk about such things in ways that demonstrate love and justice and mercy – in the way of Jesus.
In the Message paraphrase, Eugene Peterson puts it like this:

Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with—even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently.” (Romans 14:1)

Recently, our Moderator, the Reverend Sue Ellis wrote a letter to the churches, which she entitled, “Respectful conversations”.  You can read it here  
I believe that the church has an important role to play in this, by modelling safe, healthy debate; by listening to those who feel they have no voice; by allowing itself to be vulnerable and honest in its own decision-making; and ultimately by offering a hand of love and friendship to all, with the eschatological vision of hope that one day we will all be reconciled in Christ.
So, let us work to create harmony, respect one another, avoid being judgmental, avoid using labels in a divisive manner, and put our relationship with God first. Let God be the one who judges – we don’t need to carry that kind of responsibility or burden!
God, after all, invited us all to the table. From The Message again,

“Do you have any business crossing people off the guest list or interfering with God’s welcome? If there are corrections to be made or manners to be learned, God can handle that without your help.”  (Romans 14:3,4)

Let us experience the joy and hope that Paul speaks of that comes from living in harmony and extending welcome with open arms to each other –  joy and hope that bubbles over into the world around us.
If you would like to read more about this,  go here
[1] Gorman, Michael J. 2004. Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and his Letters. Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge, U.K.: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company. P390
[2] (1 Corinthians 15Galatians 4:19)
This is an excerpt from a sermon preached Sunday September 17th 2017