By Olin Sletto
Her name was Una and she was 82 years old.
Every week she came to worship with her daughter-in-law. Every week she heard the invitation: “Everyone is welcome to come to the Lord’s table for communion. Jesus is the host of this banquet, and all are welcome.”
Every week she accepted the invitation to “come.” Every week she heard the words, “The body of Christ, given for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you.” Every week Una felt welcome at the Lord’s table.
One day she said to me, “Pastor, I am ready to be baptized.” My response: “Great! We will have coffee together and talk about what this means for you.” I emphasized to her that God had loved her all of the years of her life as much as God would love her on the day of her baptism.
Baptism is not about whether we are ready; it is about what God promises to us — forgiveness and eternal life.
The day of her baptism came.
She slowly made her way down the center aisle of the sanctuary using her walker.
A chair had been placed near the baptismal font so she could sit during the baptismal liturgy.
She leaned her head over the font, I poured the water, and spoke the words, “Una, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Back in her pew, her face literally beamed with a new spiritual light.
After the service, she said to me, “This is the happiest day of my life.” I asked her, “Una, you are 82 years old. Why did you decide to be baptized now?” Her response was, “No one has ever invited me before.”
I almost cried.
For 82 years the church had been an unwelcoming place for Una. Because of the restrictions that had been place on who could come to the Lord’s table, she had never felt invited.
What if, on the first occasion of coming to the Lord’s table, I too had excluded her by saying, “Oh no, Una. There are restrictions for communion. You need to follow the rules of the church before you can receive the body and blood of Christ.” Would she still be coming?
I preach God’s unconditional love from the pulpit. How then is it possible to move from the pulpit to the communion rail and place a condition on God’s love?
I assume nothing about the members coming to the table. I simply extend the invitation.
Would not Jesus, who sat at the table with tax collectors and sinners, also welcome an 82-year-old woman who wants to receive his body and blood in her hands?
This is only the beginning. If we are to be a truly welcoming church, that welcome must be felt in every part of the church’s life.
It means doing funerals for non-members. It means doing weddings for non-members. It means hospital visitation for non-members. It means the baptism of non-members. Jesus welcomes them, so we should place no restrictions on our welcome!
I served at Una’s funeral. Like the parable of the workers in the field, where the last workers received the same reward as those who had worked all day, Una had come to Christ at the end of the day.
But God’s promises to us are true, whether we are 8 or 82, and Una rejoiced in knowing that.
The words of Una will always haunt me. “No one has ever invited me before.”
Who else has the church failed to invite? Can we commit ourselves to an unconditional invitation? Can we, as the church, make the commitment to welcome all who come through our doors?
Olin Sletto served the global mission of this church for 28 years before taking a call to parish ministry. He is pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Elgin, Ill. Holy Trinity is a Reconciling in Christ congregation.