Not so long ago I was standing in a supermarket queue when a rather gushing lady asked me for my autograph. Surprised yet secretly flattered I reached for my pen. But deflation arrived, fortunately just before I signed her book, when the autograph hunter’s flow of compliments came to the unexpected crescendo: ‘Thank you so much – Lord Mandelson’.
Non-recognition is often with us. The powerful story in St Luke’s gospel describing the failure of the walkers on the road to Emmaus to recognise the risen Christ has an evergreen ring of truth to it. Yet how often do we fail to recognise the Lord’s presence in situations right on our own doorstep? In this opening essay for our website I suggest that we may not have recognised what I will call ‘The Resurrection of St Matthew’s Westminster’.
By the mid-1990s, St Matthew’s needed a new mission, having emerged from the immediate post-renovation period following the fire in 1977. Philip Chester, then university chaplain to King’s College, London, was appointed by the Bishop at a time when the church in London was being called to renew its commitment to mission and ministry. Father Philip and the church community responded to this call and adopted the following mission statement:
‘St Matthew’s Westminster is a church in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England where everyone is welcome whatever their background. The church seeks to develop an understanding of community in the heart of the city through our threefold ministry of prayer, hospitality and dialogue. The daily rhythm of Eucharist, Morning and Evening Prayer is at the heart of our common life.’
This is a mission statement rich in phrases which deserve theological reflection. To single out one or two of them:
‘Everyone is welcome whatever their background’ are words which visibly come alive every Sunday morning at St Matthew’s. Occasionally as I look at our diverse, vibrant and encouragingly full congregation at St Matthew’s I ponder on St Paul’s writings in his first letter to the Corinthians about the unity and plurality of the body of Christ. Or more irreverently I think, ‘Who else but God could have got us lot together?’ The mission is being well accomplished.
As for ‘developing an understanding of community in the heart of the city through our threefold ministry of prayer, hospitality and dialogue’, the discussion this essay will highlight is hospitality.
Father Philip, who is personally much ‘given to hospitality’ (Romans 12:13) and a ‘lover of hospitality’ (Titus 1:8) has devoted considerable theological thought to this concept having been much influenced by a remarkable book on Christian hospitality by Elizabeth Rankin Geitz, Entertaining Angels. The title is drawn from Hebrews 13:2 ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by so doing some have entertained angels unawares’. This verse is a reminder that hospitality has been esteemed as a virtue throughout Biblical history. The laws of Judaism were framed in accordance with the spirit of hospitality (Leviticus 19:33-34) and even before giving the giving of the law Abraham and Sarah provided a supreme example of hospitality (Genesis 18;2-9) when they welcomed three heavenly strangers offering them a meal of milk curd, calf meat, and cakes.
In the first century, Jews believed that the way they received a stranger was how God would receive them at the great eschatological banquet at the end of time. Jesus himself was a beneficiary of this tradition. To spread the good news he travelled and often stayed in the homes of hospitable people, sharing his wisdom with those who entertained him. Similarly Paul on his travels was entertained in homes as he preached the gospel. Without such hospitable welcoming the gospel message might never have spread beyond the borders of Palestine and there might never have been one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The 1st Century theological concept that hospitality embodies the grace of God is just as relevant in the 21st Century, and St Matthew’s makes a determined effort to live up to it.
At the end of every service, Father Philip exhorts his congregation: ‘Do please stay for some refreshments’, repeating his invitation again as he shakes hands with individual worshippers. The result is that about half the congregation do stay on for a glass of wine or cup of coffee and this gentle transformation of parishioners into party-goers makes its own special contribution to the relational cohesiveness and inclusiveness of St Matthew’s.
In this, and its many other forms of welcome, St Matthew’s becomes a link in a chain of hospitality that reaches back through Sarah and Abraham, through Jesus, through Paul, and through countless Christians throughout the ages. The theological cornerstone here is that a decision to extend hospitality in the name of Christ can be the entry to a sacred relationship where God is present. It follows from this that those who offer hospitality to strangers often receive far more than they give. This was the experience of the travellers on the road to Emmaus who urged their unknown companion: ‘Stay with us because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over’ (Luke 24:29). By welcoming the stranger into their house they discovered they had welcomed Jesus. In its own way the enlargement of the tent of St Matthew’s has brought several people of the parish into a close relationship with Christ because of their inter-reaction with those who were already walking closely with Him.
So this essay ends, more or less where it began, with the story of the walk to Emmaus. Just as the walkers were slow to recognise Jesus, so perhaps we the congregation of St Matthew’s have been slow to recognise that our church has had its own resurrection experience. We are blessed today with a happy, prayerful and growing body of Christ, transformed by a new sense of mission and purpose in the 21st cenutry. So when we next recognise our Lord at the breaking of the bread, let us also recognise the joy of the resurrection of St Matthew’s.