Tom writes... Had I not been sick last Sunday I would have "delivered" the final message in a 4-week conversation we've been having at our church. When it was initially conceived, the series was supposed to wrap in three weeks, but I soon realized that I needed two weeks to talk about healing. And, frankly, two weeks was insufficient. But I made it work by talking about healing words the first week and healing actions the second. I kept the two together under the rubric of "practicing the presence of Jesus," which I described as healing words and healing actions performed in the context of a healed life.
Anyway, the tyranny of Sunday's inevitable dawn and my failure to "deliver the goods" last weekend has me thinking about the final installment in what has proven to be one of the most enjoyable sermon series I have ever been a part of. And I'm not overstating the joy I feel. The subject matter — hope, healing, and hospitality — is important to me, and, I believe, expressed repeatedly in our Scriptures and in the life of our Lord.
But what has me stunned — again, not an overstatement — is the biblical concept of hospitality and its implications for our church. In Romans 12:13, Paul says, quite emphatically, "Practice Hospitality." My first thought is: That's a nice sentiment, especially for Christians in Rome, but what does that look like today. What does it look like to pursue hospitality, or, to put it more literally, to seek after it eagerly? The "it" being "love to strangers," because that's what hospitality is.
As hospitality becomes more and more institutionalized by the hotel and restaurant industry, and, sadly, the church, it loses its primitive edge, its radicalness. Hospitality is the prevailing disposition of the new heart and new Spirit given to us by God and spoken of by the Prophet Ezekiel. When reduced to a technique for attracting or retaining guests, it becomes something it was never intended to be: a commodity to be sold and, eventually, consumed. And what gets lost in that transaction, the one between a host and a stranger, is the real essence of what hospitality is: equalization. The generosity, not to mention grace, required to make a stranger equal to the host is not something that can be learned and then employed by a cadre of staff or volunteers. It's supernatural, born of God. Take God out of the equation and hospitality becomes another strategy for creating a loyal customer base — it keeps people coming back but it remains powerless to initiate people in the way of Jesus. And I think that misses the heart of what hospitality is all about.
Hospitality is derivative. It doesn't originate with us. It's genesis is mired in the mystery of creation, in the establishment of a place called Eden, an environment so hospitable that Adam and Eve communed with their Creator, not as strangers, but as friends. Of course, those familiar with the story know that this didn't last long. Eden collapsed under the weight of human infidelity, and Adam and Eve — now strangers, in a sense, to both themselves and God — were expelled from the very place they (and we) were created to inhabit. Humanity has never recovered. And hospitality, the governing ethos of creation, became elusive, transitory, something we long to experience and to be experienced in, but something that, nevertheless, continually escapes us.
Jesus is the antithesis of and antidote for humanity's chronically inhospitable behavior. What we lost in Eden, we find in Christ. In order to liberate hospitality from its current cultural captivity, I would posit that we need to rediscover the Jesus of the Gospels. No one did hospitality better. And no one did more to engender equality between host and stranger than Jesus did. He was and is the perfect demonstration of the hospitable God. Lose sight of Jesus and you get a form of hospitality that is God-less, and therefore unable to quench every human being's insatiable thirst to be known and heard and, ultimately, loved simply because she exists, and for no other reason than that.