Hospitality, the Heart of Discipleship
Today all our regular church activities resume with the beginning of Sunday School. We have just taken some time to recognize our mutual responsibility in the task of Christian Education. As we look at the task ahead – the children, the teens, the families and seniors that will be affected through the ministry of our church – we want to listen to God’s voice, how He wants us to open our hearts to Him through this coming season.
Over the next few months we want to think about Hospitality. And today I want to introduce the theme to us, and explore together with you what it means to offer hospitality to others.
I don’t know how you feel about having guests over, or extending hospitality to others, but sometimes hospitality has to be defined as, The ability to make your guests feel at home when you wish they were.
A woman was interviewing a prospective servant and asked "Can you serve company?" The applicant replied, "Yes, mum, both ways." The lady looked puzzled and asked, "What do you mean, both ways?" "So's they'll come again, or stay away."
At times hospitality is very much like the true story of a woman who had invited some people to dinner. At the table, she turned to her six-year-old daughter and said, "Would you like to say the blessing?" "I wouldn't know what to say," the little girl replied. "Just say what you hear Mommy say," the mother said. The little girl bowed her head and said, "Dear Lord, why on earth did I invite all these people to dinner?"
However you may feel about opening your heart and your home to strangers and guests, I believe that hospitality lies at the heart of Christian Discipleship. By receiving others into our own homes we receive them as we would receive Christ himself. In giving ourselves to those who come into our lives we share Christ himself – the one who has sent us – with them.
Our Bible Text for this morning is Matthew 10: 40-42
40 “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. 41 Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”
These verses come at the end of Jesus' missionary discourse to his disciples (10:5-42). Up to this point, Jesus has been talking about what the disciples should do and the difficulties that they will face - what others will do to them because of their witness for Christ. Jesus teaches them about hospitality in the context of discipleship.
These verses speak about Hospitality as receiving and welcoming the stranger. In today's gospel text, Jesus reminds us of a very profound privilege, and, along with that, a tremendous responsibility. He tells us that we represent and symbolize him before others. He tells us that the reverse is also true: namely, that others represent and symbolize him before us. Jesus assures us that he himself is present in our lives when we welcome others into our midst. He is also present when others do the same for us.
Jesus is present each and every day in the hospitality that we offer others and others offer us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it very well in his book, The Cost of Discipleship: "The bearers of Jesus' word receive a final word of promise for their work. They are now Christ's fellow workers, and will be like him in all things. Thus they are to meet those to whom they are sent as if they were Christ himself. When they are welcomed into a house, Christ enters with them. They are bearers of his presence. They bring with them the most precious gift in the world, the gift of Jesus Christ."
"And with them they bring God the Father, and that means indeed forgiveness and salvation, life and blessing. That is the reward of their toil and suffering. Every service people give them is service provided to Christ himself."
We bring Christ before others in our homes, in the church, in school, at work, at play, in the whole world. What would happen if, every day, we were always conscious of this truth and did our best to put it into practice? When we offer and receive hospitality Jesus is made present. This truly is the most precious gift we could give to anyone!
Most of us probably don't find it too difficult to offer hospitality to our family and friends, but what about the stranger, the youth playing basketball or hockey on our parking lot, the neighbor we meet across the back lane, the fellow worker on the assembly line that speaks a different language, the fellow student in a wheel chair? How often do we welcome these and similar people who have fallen through the cracks or who are labeled outcasts in our society? Do we give them the gift of Christ's presence? Or do we say to ourselves, they got their own people who look out for them? I don’t want to mess with them…
Hospitality is risky business. An open heart and an open home or church is a target for unpleasant experiences. But, it can also be the recipient of unexpected surprizes.
A seminary student drove about thirty miles to church on Sunday mornings and he would frequently pick up hitchhikers. One day he picked up a young man who noticed that he was wearing a suit and asked if he could go to church with him. The student said, "Of course you can." The stranger came to church and afterward was invited over to one of the members' home for lunch and fellowship. While there, he received a hot bath, some clean clothes, and a hot meal. In conversation with the youth, his hosts found that he was a Christian, but he had been out of fellowship with the Lord. His home was in another state and he was just passing through on his way back. Later in the evening, they bought him a bus ticket and sent him on his way. A week later, the seminary student received a letter from the hitchhiker. Enclosed with the letter was a newspaper clipping with headlines reading, "Man turns himself in for murder." This young man had killed a teenage boy in an attempted robbery and had been running away from the law for some time. But the kindness and hospitality of Christians had convicted him. He wanted to be in fellowship with God, and he knew he needed to do the right thing about his crime. Little did those Christians know that by their faithfulness to show hospitality they had influenced a man to do what was right in God's eyes and thereby help restore him to fellowship with his Lord.
Hospitality, however isn’t only about going some place and quietly hoping that the receiver of our hospitality will see Christ in us. A good friend of mine taught me a fundamental truth about hospitality. He said to me, “Ferd, when you’re going on a pastoral call, especially when it’s a difficult situation, don’t expect that you will always bring Christ to them. Rather, be assured that Christ is already there.” What a profound truth. Sometimes we do good to see Christ in the people that we want to reach out to.
Theologian, Kosuke Koyama, was correct when he observed: "Our society, even the religious community, works on the basis of mutual invitation. Lutherans invite Lutherans (Mennonites invite Mennonites – for that matter). As long as we conduct ourselves in such a way, we have the convenience of speaking our own religious and cultural language. Intellectually and spiritually we live comfortably. But Jesus is not enthusiastic about it. The real meaning of hospitality is found in inviting someone who cannot repay you, someone who is unfamiliar to you. Then the concept of invitation ~ hospitality ~ receives a Christ related meaning. Christ is the Hospitality of God toward us. He invites all of us,from all languages and cultures, to His great banquet, the feast which none of us can repay."
Christ is God’s hospitality toward us. God gives Himself fully to us in His Son Jesus Christ. In fact, He did not spare His own life to show us how much He wants us to be with him for all eternity. But, God doesn’t only give Himself fully to us. He also fully receives us and accepts us as we are. In Christ we experience both sides of the coin of God’s hospitality toward us.
Church growth experts say that healthy and growing congregations are generally friendly churches that offer hospitality to others. They are churches that live by the principle that, there are no strangers here, only friends whom we have not met.
To be faithful disciples, and to represent God’s heartbeat in our lives we need to push the boundaries of what we find comfortable and easy. I can’t express in words how proud it makes me feel to be a part of this church when I hear someone give testimony of the warm and friendly reception they had in our church. Whether these are visitors from far away or regular attenders who have become members.
In an article titled, "Where Are the Visitors?" Lyle Schaller says, "The most influential question that can be asked of a first time visitor is, 'Would you like to come home with us for dinner?'" For those not interested in "Knocking on doors," Schaller notes, "Just open your door."
You may be thinking to yourself, “Ok, we’re getting close to line here… It’s one thing to invite people to church, but a totally different thing to invite strangers into our homes.” It is hard for many of us… I’ll be the first one to admit that. But, if God has taught me anything in my personal faith walk in recent weeks, it is that God shows His face in the most unexpected places. Indeed, God shows up and meets us with a cup of cold water in the midst of the chaos in our life. God speaks to us His eternal Word of hope in the poem of a child. God shows his face through a song that touch your soul and gives you the courage to go on. Jesus is present in the life of a little old lady offering an understanding smile to the teenager who is playing his music way too loud.
"To be faithful disciples, we need to push the boundaries of what we find comfortable and easy. It is hard for many of us, but with God's help it is not impossible. So, the next time you give or receive hospitality, remember to rejoice in the other person's presence; remember that it may very well make all the difference in the world to the person who receives your hospitality. And remember the reverse is also true; someone may be the very presence of Christ for you in an unexpected time and place.
Remember that when you give and receive hospitality in the name of Christ, God Himself is present there.
As we continue to open our hearts and our lives to others let us not be concerned about outside appearances. Rather, as an expression of our worship and gratitude to God let us say, “I am a gift of my Master Jesus Christ to those people he sends my way. And, on the other hand, Hebrews 13:1-2 says, Keep on loving each other as brothers and sisters. 2 Do not forget to welcome strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Let us remember that it takes a true disciple’s heart to make our guests – whoever they may be: they don’t always come invited – feel at home when we wish they were. And let us also be assured that if they recognize the hospitality of God in us, it is because we have been a faithful representation of Jesus Christ to them.
It is my fervent prayer and deepest hope that we would grow as a congregation where there are no strangers – only friends that we have not met.