Welcoming Christ by Welcoming the Stranger

By Stephan Bauman 3-30-2013

The night was cold and dark as the family approached the border. Ahead of them were miles of desert that would test their will and drain their stamina. What they were doing defied the law. But they were a family, and families will do anything for the sake of their children.

The law they defied was that of Herod. The family: Joseph, Mary and the Christ-child.

As Christians prepare to celebrate Easter, let us remember that the life that ended on the cross began on the road. This Easter, let us remember that Christ the Savior began his life as an immigrant, fleeing the land where he was born to escape Herod’s wrath.

Easter is a holiday of new beginnings. It welcomes a new season. It is a time to start fresh. At the heart of Easter is a magnificent reservoir of grace. Of this holiday, Katherine Lee Bates reflected, “It is the hour to rend thy chains, the blossom time of souls.” Easter is a time to set people free, fix things that are broken, watch souls blossom — all for glory of the risen Christ.

“The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it,” N.T. Wright wrote. Easter is also a season of unmerited belonging. This spring our nation will be wrestling with immigration reform. As the debate heats up, let us allow Easter to set the tone.

Let’s begin by confessing that all of us have been blessed with things we don’t deserve. By God’s grace and by Christ’s sacrifice, “We who were once far away have been brought near.” The story of Christianity is one of orphans becoming heirs, of strangers becoming citizens, and of lost sons coming home to a welcoming father.

We must also remember how critical the incarnation is to the story of Christ. He didn’t fix the world from a distance. He didn’t stay where it was safe. Christ tasted humanity on our behalf so that he could identify with all our trials and temptations. He was questioned repeatedly about what mattered most, and on each occasion he said that loving God and loving our neighbors are the ultimate measures of a godly life. Regardless of one’s position on immigration, we cannot claim to be followers of Christ without recognizing the humanity of those impacted by a badly broken immigration system.

Another quote captures well our charge. “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin,” theologian Frederick Buechner wrote. Once we have experienced empathy and compassion, “there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”

We are a nation of immigrants who bring talent, ambition, and resolve that bless us all. But our strongest, most unrelenting reasons for seeking a better immigration process are not political or economic. They are spiritual.

Jesus calls us to turn the other cheek, to welcome strangers, to go the extra mile, and to give those in need the shirts off our own backs. In Christ’s most noted sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, he told us that people will know that we are God’s children when they see us loving people who haven’t had the chance to love us first, and when they see us greeting people who are not our own.

The week before the crucifixion, in the very shadow of Gethsemane, Jesus called his disciples to his side and spoke a parable about his coming kingdom: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” His audience responds, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?” And the King responds, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

This verse is but one inspiration for the ongoing “I Was a Stranger” prayer challenge, which invites us to reconsider how we treat our immigrant neighbors by reading a brief passage of related scripture daily for 40 days. Easter is an appropriate time to take up this challenge.

We need not guess that God cares about immigrants. We need not infer this from the parables or the example of Christ alone — 92 references in the Old Testament mention the stranger, including passages that call us to treat immigrants with compassion and justice.

As we celebrate this Easter season, let us honor God our father by welcoming the stranger.

Stephan Bauman is President and CEO of World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals.

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