(Sermon Preached for All Nations Heritage Service, Grace Christian Reformed Church in Scarborough, Ontario, Canada on October 3, 2010) Texts: Leviticus 19:33-34; Luke 10:1-12; Acts 10:9-48; Hebrews 13:1-2; Revelation 3:20
These days when we think of hospitality, one of two things usually come to mind. One of the first things that come to mind is Martha Stewart. Martha Stewart is the guru of how to be the perfect host – from making the perfect appetizer down to having the right shade of color for your curtains. Hospitality here is about entertaining your guests. The second thing that comes to mind when we think about hospitality is probably hotels, restaurants and cruise ships. We think about the hospitality industry – hospitality as a consumer product, something to be bought and consumed.
Well, the Biblical view of hospitality is radically different than these contemporary versions of hospitality. Biblical hospitality is radically different in at least three ways: Biblical Hospitality includes God’s Inclusiveness, God’s Mission and God’s Giving and Receiving of Hospitality. Let us take a look at each one of these more closely.
Biblical Hospitality Includes God’s Inclusiveness
Contemporary hospitality is usually about entertaining people who are your friends – people you already know very well – whom you invite into your homes, and chances are, they are also people who can invite you back to their homes to return the favor.
Biblical hospitality first of all is not just about entertaining guests. It’s about an attitude, or a lifestyle, both for individuals and for a whole community. You remember the story of Abraham who saw three strangers approaching, and decided to give them hospitality and it ended up that the strangers were angels or God himself who promised that Abraham’s wife Sarah will be with child the next year. (Genesis 18:1-15) How many of us today would invite total strangers walking up the street into our homes for dinner? We don’t do that. Our hospitality is normally reserved for respectable friends we know. But hospitality in ancient Israelite is an expected norm. If you don’t do this, it would be “shame on you”. Even in the New Testament, in our Luke 10 passage, we see that if a village or town lacks hospitality, the disciples were justified to show their displeasure by shaking the dust off their feet and even pronouncing God’s possible judgment on the village.
It’s not only individuals who are supposed to be hospitable to strangers but a whole community should be hospitable to strangers in their midst. As we read in Lev. 19:33-34, ancient Israel was called to love the strangers or aliens in their midst. They must be treated as one of their native-born.
God’s inclusiveness is wide-ranging. Hospitality is not reserved for only our friends but hospitality should be an individual and a communal way of life for anyone made in God’s image. Even the stranger in our midst, someone who is a foreigner, someone from a different cultural background, someone who doesn’t understand our customs, who is different – our hospitality needs to embrace them.
How do we as Churches and Christians incorporate God’s inclusiveness in our hospitality for today? Can we think of some practical ways to treat the stranger in the congregation as if they belong? Of course, we should not only practice hospitality to church members of our own kind or to people who are only part of the church family. Cultural minorities in your church and newcomers to your church both can be very easily overlooked when it comes to offering the usual hospitality of inviting friends over to our homes.
Now, I know it’s not always easy to offer hospitality, especially to strangers or people we don’t really know very well. Even the apostle Peter recognizes this when he told the early Christians to “offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” (1 Peter 4:9) Peter knows that offering hospitality can be hard work and if guests abuse or take advantage of your hospitality it can be disheartening, and it’s not surprising if you start grumbling about giving this kind of radical hospitality. But we still have to do it. Maybe we could practice wisdom, some sanctified common sense, to balance out the need to be radically hospitable as a way of life and at the same time to protect ourselves from being taken advantage of.
Biblical Hospitality Includes God’s Mission
Being hospitable is not simply a nice add-on bonus that we do. It is an important part of how we carry out God’s mission as the people of God. We already see a hint of this in the Leviticus passage. Being communally hospitable to the aliens or foreigners in our midst is a way of fulfilling the second great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.
But we also see this in our Luke and Acts passages. We see that in the Luke passage, the 70 missionaries that Jesus sent out were required to rely on the hospitality of strangers. They were to go to a town, and find if there is anyone there who will be hospitable to them, to welcome them, to give them food and lodging. And that home will be their home base, as they bring healing and God’s kingdom to that town. Here, God’s mission strategy is to rely on the hospitality of those whom we seek to minister. So, often, we think of only giving hospitality to others but we rarely think about receiving hospitality from those whom we seek to minister to.
And in Acts, we also see how hospitality was the central vehicle by which God’s mission to the Gentiles was carried out. We see that Peter, first of all, played host to the messengers from Cornelius, and then later he became Cornelius’ guest – giving and receiving hospitality – and it is through this mutual hospitality that God’s Spirit works in breaking down the cultural barriers between Jews and Gentiles in his church, in breaking down Peter’s black and white notions of clean and unclean. Mutual hospitality is a key strategy in fulfilling God’s mission for the church.
How do we as Churches and Christians incorporate hospitality as part of God’s mission? We should start recognizing that hospitality is not simply a fellowship thing. It’s also an outreach thing. Do we only give hospitality to seekers but not accept their hospitality to us? Do we as churches allow seekers to give to us, to contribute their gifts of talent or time, to the church as well as simply receiving from us? Do we allow ourselves to learn from those we seek to minister to?
For example, hospitality is a key ingredient in campus ministry. The U of Toronto campus ministry, for instance, has a weekly Thursday evening meal gathering. And I am trying to do the same thing at York U as well, having open discussions over a light meal. We build community through hospitality. And in the open discussions, I learn from the students just as much as I teach them. And in some ways, campus ministries are also guests of the secular universities. The university shows hospitality to us by allowing us to be on campus. Of course, some universities are more hospitable than others. York U, for instance, is perhaps not as hospitable as U of Toronto to religious chaplains but I shouldn’t complain. Like Jesus’ 70 sent disciples, I receive whatever hospitality I get – I eat and drink whatever is set before me, so to speak. And I remain faithful in bringing God’s healing to York’s community, as best as I can.
When we get together as families to celebrate holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, do we think only of our families or do we also think about those who may not have a home to go? Whenever I am celebrating Thanksgiving at home, when not traveling to my in-laws in Ottawa, I try to invite students who are either from out of province or out of the country to my home for Thanksgiving Dinner. Because these students don’t have a home to go to for the weekend. Similarly for Christmas, my family and I have been involved in International Christmas Camp run by Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. It’s a way of showing hospitality to international students over the one week of holidays where universities close down.
We can even host meals in church buildings itself as a way to build community but also to invite newcomers to mingle with church members in an informal setting. Like tonight, for instance, when we share different cultural foods later. Or like Rehoboth Fellowship CRC, for instance, hosting breakfasts in church prior to the service. And Friendship Community CRC often has potlucks in the church after services. These acts of hospitality become opportunities for newcomers to feel included and to feel they belong.
Hospitality, of course, is not reduced only to sharing food. Ministries that care for the sick and for those who are grieving, these are also acts of hospitality.
Biblical Hospitality Includes God’s Own Giving and Receiving of Hospitality
Finally, we need to practice giving and receiving of hospitality because God gives and receives hospitality. God receives hospitality from us. It might surprise us to hear that. How do we give hospitality to God the almighty?
In two ways, I think. First of all, we can give hospitality to God when we give hospitality to others, especially those who are strangers, those who are needy, those who are in the margins of our community. We read this in Hebrews 13:2, that some who entertained strangers have unwittingly entertained angels, or messengers from God. Of course, we remember that Abraham and the three strangers story I alluded to earlier. But we can also point to Jesus statements in Matthew 25, where “whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me” (v.40). If we have ever fed the hungry, or gave a drink to the thirsty, or invited in a stranger, or clothed someone who needed clothes, or visited someone in prison, Jesus said, you have done this to me. Giving hospitality to those in need is counted as giving hospitality to Jesus Christ himself.
Secondly, we also see that we can give hospitality to God by inviting god into the center of our lives and into the center of our church communities. Our Revelation 3:20 passage reads: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” This is an amazing image. Jesus, here, is the stranger outside the door, asking for hospitality! Christ as the stranger. Will we be hospitable to Christ, to invite him into our lives, and to have communion or fellowship or friendship with him – sharing a meal together? And remember, this text was part of a letter to the church of Laodicea. So, Jesus was asking for the church community to invite him into their midst! It is sad that a church could have left Jesus outside the door rather than having him in the center of their community to begin with.
Ultimately, hospitality is not about entertaining or about sharing food. Ultimately, hospitality is about sharing our lives. We share our lives with God and with each other, even with those who are different from us. And we do this because God himself shares his life with us. God is the model host. God gives us hospitality. Throughout this worship service, and all our other worship services, we experience God’s hospitality. It is God who gathers us here, God who invites us to worship. It is God who speaks to us, to bless us with his presence. And God shares a meal with us in the bread and the cup. The bread and the cup symbolize God’s or Christ’s sharing of his life with us – his flesh and his blood. It is in sharing our lives with God and with each other – this mutual hospitality of giving and receiving – that we partake in God’s way of life, in God’s mission of reconciling the world, and in God’s inclusiveness of all peoples.