Sunday Reflection from our Lay Reader, Christina Heath

Queuing for Marks & Spencer recently and giving thanks again that I wasn’t doing so in lashing rain, I had leisure to read the signs displayed by the management. As well as the Health and Safety reminders about keeping my distance, there was a request that we “be kind to one another”.

            “Kind” is an old English word, originally Germanic, which signifies treating others like our own kin, or our own type. It means being gentle, sympathetic and hospitable as we would with our own nearest and dearest. Even toddlers understand the concept well. “Be kind to your little brother/sister.” may well be a phrase we remember from our own childhoods and we knew exactly what it meant even if we didn’t always do as we were bidden. We comprehend what kindness is when we meet it and when we display it and I believe it lies behind the Gospel reading set for today. Because the reading is short, I will quote it here:

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 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.” (Matthew 10: 40-42; NRSV)

            This speech by Jesus comes just after He had given authority and instructions to His disciples to go out into the world and preach in His name. Christ would have been well aware of the peril His disciples faced: animosity and persecution awaited them. It was important therefore that they could rely on the hospitality and kindness of those whom they met on their travels and this kindness would not be without cost to those who offered it either. Jesus made clear therefore that whoever welcomed them does no less than welcome Him, that is Christ Himself and the Father God who sent Him.

            The disciples would not have been called Saint Peter (whose feast day falls tomorrow) or Saint John at this stage. They would not have had any special significance for some time. The early church as now was simply made up of ordinary men and women and “saints” were just those ordinary people who were dedicated to Christ. Although they did not come helpfully labelled as saints or prophets or righteous persons to seek out, Christ was adamant that whoever received kindness represented Him. The same is true now. We rarely know exactly who we are encountering but everyone deserves our kindness and respect. Assuredly God works through all humanity and not just through Christians. Of course our fellow believers are our family. The church is the earthly body of Christ and its members our brothers and sisters. It should go without saying that we welcome them, support them and treat them as family. (Although we would do well to remember with remorse that Christians are not always kind to each other.) Beyond this though, everyone is part of the human family created in God’s image. Hospitality for all was and is a duty in the Middle East but in the West it has become ritualised (Come to a dinner party!) or marginalised (Let’s get together when time permits). Since Coronavirus, extending hospitality has been further limited by the necessary lockdown regulations. We need to relearn the welcome: the smile, the sympathy and the effort it takes to see the world from another point of view. We would take the time and trouble to do this with our own blood family and, recalling that we are part of God’s human family, we can this do for others too if we have the will.

            At the beginning of the pandemic much was made of its levelling effect: how the virus attacked anyone indiscriminately because everyone was equally susceptible. As time has progressed, we have learned that this is not the whole truth. The weak, the old, the poor and those from ethnic minorities as so often in life are far more vulnerable to it and its effects. Jesus said in v. 42 that whoever gives even a cup of cold water to a little one will not lose his reward. It is possible that “little ones” meant those young in faith like the new disciples but it also means the vulnerable whether child or adult.  By opening our hearts to those less fortunate than we are, by being kind, we are following Jesus in allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to what others suffer. Locked down in our own worlds it has become too easy to worry only about ourselves and our close circle. God demands more of us.

            Jesus talks of not losing a reward when we are welcoming. Do we then earn our way into heaven? Does God keep a ledger of our debits and credits? No. We misunderstand the largeness of God if we try to reduce Him to an accountant. In the Epistle reading for today, Romans 6:23, Paul makes clear that God rewards us freely: He bestows salvation as a gift not as a payback for services rendered. Nevertheless, God does recognise those kindnesses we bestow on others and He knows when we do them for Him.

            Many years ago on visiting Canterbury I observed someone sitting in a square begging. He was unkempt, inebriated and accompanied by a dog leashed on a piece of string. I remember saying to my friend; “I have nothing in common with him.” I am now deeply ashamed I said that or even thought it. It was unkind and untrue. We are all “kin”; we are all part of humankind and each of us is loved by God who is present in us all. The very least we can do is to respond to need by searching for what unites us and by being kind, that great old word which we can understand and take to heart. In being kind and welcoming others we are welcoming God Himself.