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The unwelcome in the welcome

Matthew 16: 13 – 23
Rev. Vladimir Korotkov
21 August 2011

1. The unwelcome in the welcome
Welcome, was the word on the mat outside his door in a multi-storied apartment block in the French port of Calais. Welcome, a visible cipher, a vehicle expressing conscious, generous invitation.

Welcome, until this tenant goes outside one evening to walk his dog and he sees his neighbour, Simon, with a young stranger, wearing foreign clothes. He becomes hyper-vigilant! "Who's that?" he aggressively questions.

It isn't long before Simon is visited by the police, who turn up at his door soon after this event. He is forced to report daily to the police for his association with the stranger.

What we notice about this tenant with the welcome-mat is behaviour that contradicts his intended commitment, his behavioural goal. On the surface, there can be observed controlled aggression and the need to inform the police. The strength of this aggression comes into focus when we realise that any national providing support to foreigners is open to five years imprisonment, which is part of President Sarkozy's policies.

This behaviour with its attending emotions is the external language of the unconscious. It is activated by the need to be in control, and to maintain a culture that has shaped his identity and satisfaction up to this point. Underlying and causing all this is fear and anxiety, within him and collectively, in his community. The unwelcome in the welcome reveals itself as the symbolic maternal superego: aggressively caring and protecting its own, in the disguise of deep concern for society.

This story emerges in the film, Welcome. As David Stratton writes:

The subject of Philippe Lioret's Welcome is nothing if not topical.

The setting is the Channel port of Calais. These days Calais is notorious for its treatment of asylum-seekers who have travelled from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and found themselves stuck in a mainly hostile environment.
Ships and containers are minutely searched and – in what seems to the outside observer a very strange and heartless policy – refugees unable to find transport to Britain are reluctantly allowed to sleep rough on the streets of Calais.1

2. Jesus welcomes the unwelcome
In our scripture reading in Matthew 16:13-20, and if we include the verses 21-23, we encounter a story that is replete with evocative images developing the social identity of Jesus' community. Yet, not without dimensions of unwelcome and unconscious contradictions.

Jesus has journeyed to the most northern part of Judea, away from the centre of Jewish life and religion. "It is on the periphery", Elaine Wainwright alerts us, which is "a [location] that deconstructs all notions of fixity and centrality."2 And since the geographical location of Caesarea Philippi is an image conveying the political and socio-economic power of Herod and Rome, we are witnessing the emergence of an alternative community being birthed in this unwelcoming symbolic location, which is founded on the values and expression of unconditional welcome and inclusivity.

The story of the Canaanite woman in last weeks reading graphically describes the unwelcome attitude offered to this outsider by both the disciples and Jesus. She is told to go away. She argues. She it called a dog. She staunchly states that the mercy of God is given even to the least in creation. And Jesus allows himself to be shamed –as Jewish males operated within in honour/shame culture structured around fixed gender, religious, age, class, race and culture lines. This symbolised a total reversal of normal social practice of exclusion and prohibition, which I described a symbolic ethics, compared to the popular common-sense notions of truth and society.

Our story today continues this transformative movement – interrogating and dismantling the unwelcome in the welcome.

Jesus speaks of rocks and keys, and of followers like Peter expressing a heavenly lifestyle against which Hades – the realm of shadows and the undead, which excludes, diminishes and divides society - will not prevail.

Our section begins with a dialogue between Jesus and Peter, as to the identity of Jesus. In Matthew's version, Peter's confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the One sent by and intimately connected to the Living God is affirmed enthusiastically. Not so in Mark's version, but that is next week's story.

Jesus affirms Peter's confession with enthusiasm! But not because of the titles or the confession itself. Such a confessionalist fixation would contradict Jesus' life and teaching. Central to Matthew's Gospel as to the identity of Jesus is Chapter 11.

When John the Baptist's disciples come to Jesus and ask him if he is the Messiah, the One sent of God, what is his answer? As Elaine Wainwright writes:

The reply of Jesus turned attention not to titles but back to what had been seen, heard, the deeds or the erga – the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear ... and the poor have good news ... (11:5). Jesus is a doer of deeds rather than a bearer of titles.3

Commentators note that such deeds and work are about the recreation of the whole order of life and society. Again, as Wainwright suggests:

"Matthew sees Jesus Christ continuing the work of reordering creation through a reordered religious and economic base, namely the household". Such reordering, a doing of prophetic deeds is indeed political, a politics of democracy.4

This is the rock of the new community Jesus is recreating. In this is God's desire for a new humanity. The community is only the community of Jesus when it identifies with, expresses and creates inclusive, compassion community of friends and companions. This is hope for the people overwhelmed with the weight of social, economic, religious and political institutions and their constraints. Peter as leader is to represent and create such community, but only in the liberating way of Jesus. This ekklesia was the word used for the new assembly established by God's liberating acts in the Exodus for the Israelites through Moses.

The image of being the "key" bearers is profoundly humbling and disturbing. I found little that was helpful in interpreting this. Yet for me, being given the "keys" conveys sacred authority and an awesome task, and I don't mean in the religious or the confessional sense. For we as Christians and leaders need to have had such a deep encounter with the life, teaching and Spirit of Jesus, and with life itself where we meet God in the most inexpressible ways, that we sense a profound commissioning to invite people into the realm of the new household of welcome, inclusion and compassion.

It is not just a spiritual role or activity. It is a powerful role of constructing a culture of inclusion, a politics of democracy. And this absolutely requires ongoing learning, discerning how we participate in Hades, and deeply knowing our unconscious, our anxieties, fear, aggressivity, as well as our amazing capacities.

3. Interrogating the welcome and disentangling the unwelcome
Discerning how we participate in Hades! What do I mean by this? It becomes clearer when we include the next few verses in our reading. Jesus meant it in a deeply symbolic sense. As when he says to Peter in verse 23, Peter you are Satan! You are a stumbling block, not seeing the divine but just human things.

Symbolically, this is a powerful interrogation of Peter. It feeds back to Peter that his words rebuking Jesus for choosing to accept suffering to bring new life contradict his former confession and recognition of who Jesus is and what he does. The way of justice, inclusion, and welcome to all will always contradict, challenge and draw the anger of those in power in institutions. It places Peter into relationship with his unconscious, his maternal superego, that with rebuke and aggression is entangled with notions of maternal care and support, but misrecognising that this is in his own terms and desires.

So Jesus is not saying the divine is more important than the human. It is that liberating the human to what it can really be, can be different to what is normal, which is misperception and entanglement. What is normal is procrustean, where we as selves, as communities and cultures are Hades-like, stretched into the undead, diminishing possibility and reducing our amazing potential.

As William Loader writes:

Matthew adds that Peter has become a 'skandalon’, a rock which trips people over. Peter has failed to understand Jesus' leadership and lowliness. He is espousing the common values of the time about power and worth and not espousing God's values.5

And the church has always struggled to offer unconditional grace and welcome, especially to those who don't fit into our views or culture.

In the first four centuries the church struggled with this issue of hospitality. With radical Christian clarity, Augustine challenged the alienation of the foreigner with the declaration of the universality of love for the other, any other: "there is nothing closer to a human being than another human being".

What transformed the otherness of the stranger, for Augustine, was love for every human being expressed in the image of Christly love, as we find in our story. The tragedy was, as Julia Kristeva notes in her book, Strangers to Ourselves, "the absolute aspect of this religious bond soon collided with human needs as well as with the demands of States and soon afterwards those of nations."6

At the core of such exclusivism, Kristeva suggests, is the fear or lack or recognition of the stranger in our inner selves and hidden in our community discourse. Without exposing our hidden patterns of thinking and cultural ideologies, we remain anxious and suspicious of strangers and what is different.

4. Conclusion
In the film Welcome, Simon is a terribly flawed and anxious person. Anger issues have ended his marriage with Marion. Before Simon met 17-year-old Bilal, the Iraqi refugee, Marion was unhappy with Simon's lack of interest in her protest against injustice, when undocumented immigrants are thrown out of a supermarket.

Through the film, however, Simon observes, relates to, and begins to gain a deeper understanding of the injustice that the undocumented refugees are experiencing. He builds a relationship with Bilal and his community, and grows in courage and generosity. Through this process he learns to welcome in a way he never understood before. As David Stratton concluded, "Welcome is a timely reminder that one should love one's neighbour, even if one's neighbour has a foreign accent and a different culture."

For such love to grow, we must experience the kinds of awareness and conversion experiences that deepen an understanding of ourselves and others, that learns to identify the discourse one inhabits and the misrecognitions that shape perceptions and habits, and enter the joy of complexity with its attended anxiety, living in brave, humble, honest relationship with the whole of life.

A Parting Reminder of the Path of Transformation
Dorothy Lee reminds us:

For us, too, turning towards God can mean misleading pathways and wrong turnings. Yet paradoxically the very mistakes we make can take us -- even if it seems like a tortuous and thorny path --to where we want to go. As in Dante's Divine Comedy, there is no short-cut to the garden of bliss and love; we must take the long road that passes through hell and purgatory, through pain and misunderstanding. As the church and as individuals we walk the stony path towards God, a journey made in the company of both heaven and earth; with all creation, we are engaged in moving towards the one who is sovereign over life and death.7

1 David Stratton, When asylum-seekers become stranded, The Australian, 3 April 2010.
2 Elaine Wainwright, Shall we look for another? A Feminist rereading of the Matthean Jesus, 93.
3 Wainwright, 69.
4 Ibid, 69f.
5 William Loader, Pentecost 10A, Matthew 16:13-20.
6 Kristeva, 85.
7 Dorothy A. Lee, Turning from death to life: a biblical reflection on Mary Magdalene - John 20:1-18. "Turn to God - Rejoice in Hope": Unfolding the Eighth Assembly Theme. Ecumenical Review, April, 1998.

© Rev. Vladimir Korotkov, 2011

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