Congregational Hospitality: The Risks and Rewards of Hospitality

 

Genesis 45:1-15
Psalm 133
Acts 10:23-48
Matthew 15:21-28

 

10: 23The next day he got up and went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa accompanied him. 24The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshipped him. 26But Peter made him get up, saying, ‘Stand up; I am only a mortal.’ 27And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; 28and he said to them, ‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. 29So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?’ 30 Cornelius replied, ‘Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. 31He said, “Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.” 33Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.’ 34 Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’  44While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days. (Acts 10:23-48, NRSV)

 

 

This is the third sermon in the series on Hospitality.  Today we have a couple of long readings form the New Testament.  This sermon will focus on the reading from Acts and more specifically the movement that takes place in this scripture passage.  Peter moves from Joppa to Caesarea, he also moves from clean (Judaism) to unclean (Gentile), he moves from guest to host and from risk to reward.  Cornelius, another character in this story moves from a position of power to a position of powerlessness, from host to guest and from outsider to insider.  There is also another much more subtle movement that is deeper and behind this story; it is the movement of God.  As we have seen throughout this sermon series God is active and on the move throughout the Bible and the world.  God is active and on the move spreading his love, grace and mercy through individuals and communities and through the offer of hospitality.  Specifically in the book of Acts we learn that the gospel spreads from the Jewish world into the Gentile world and on to the ends of the earth. God’s activity continues today and sometimes it happens through our sharing hospitality.  We the church bear witness to God’s hospitality when we share God’s welcome with others who may be new to us.

 

Let us pray: Holy One of Israel, covenant-keeper, you restore what is lost, you heal what is wounded, and you gather in those who have been rejected. Give us the faith to hear your word and to live it out so that all may be welcomed and all people may be blessed. Amen.

 

Darla and her daughter were living in their car, because they had been evicted from their apartment.  They came to the church for worship one Sunday, and they were welcomed and respected and a relationship was started.  Without going into all the details of how it transpired, and it took several years for the outcome.  Darla became an active member of the church, she sang in the choir, she has a job and home.  No one person did all of this, but rather a community of people extended the hospitality of God and together with the work of the Holy Spirit, Darla and her daughter found a church home.

 

Mike and his wife and daughter were new to the church.  Mike was raised in the faith but never really “bought into” the church and its teachings.  Over time he became more inquisitive and, through what can only be the work of the Holy Spirit, he recently asked to be baptized.  Again it is hard to quantify how this transformation happened in his life.  But I cannot help but point and affirm the work of the Holy Spirit and the hospitality of the congregation in sharing the transforming love of God with Darla and Mike.

 

These are but two examples, among many, of how hospitality changes lives. The lives of both the ones receiving it and the ones extending it.  The point of hospitality is to invite others to experience the living, welcoming and transforming God.

 

But sharing God’s gracious hospitality is not without risk.  I shared two positive stories of sharing hospitality but I could share more stories than I care to count of hospitality being extended in honest, faith filled ways, and the outcome not being so positive, happy, and fruitful.

 

Some of these outcomes were rejection. “What if we offer a warm welcome and hospitality, and it is rejected?” “What if they don’t come?” Jesus own life and ministry was an invitation to new life, and it ended on the cross in the ultimate act of rejection by those he came to serve.  Another risk of offering hospitality could be we get no return on our investment? “We did all of this work, and we have gotten no new members?” There is a danger of seeing hospitality as a means to gain new members or more “pledging units,” and we miss the point of God’s hospitality all together.  Another potential risk could be our gracious hospitality works and it works well but we have welcomed “the wrong type of people”? In the biblical sense this is what I believe God’s hospitality challenges: a welcoming of all. “What will we do with those who don’t fit in?”

 

Offering hospitality or inviting someone into your life can be difficult.  It is much more than what we think of today as having family or friends over for a meal or hosting guests in our home for a night or two.  Luke, the writer of Acts, and the other writers of the New Testament, had a very different understanding of hospitality.  The ancient custom of hospitality revolved around the practice of welcoming strangers or travelers into one’s home and providing for them provisions and protection.  Hosts were also obligated to meet their guests’ needs by supplying them with meals, water for cleaning their feet and with new clothes if they needed them.  When the guest was ready to leave the host would also “send them off” with enough provisions for at least a day’s journey and where possible they would provide a guide to accompany the guest until the guest traveled safely out of the region.  Over time, this biblical understanding of hospitality has become skewed.

 

In the Greco-Roman world, citizens lived with a great fear that the stranger requesting help on their journey could be Zeus, the god of hospitality, in disguise presenting himself as a test of one hospitality.  There was also a strong desire to create political alliances with others by offering them hospitality on their journeys.

 

In Hebraic and Christian contexts, however, the motive for hospitality more often grew out of the desire to please God by showing love toward a fellow worshiper. The Jewish and early Christian followers of God showed their love for God and others by extending hospitality to complete strangers.  Then in the New Testament we read of Jesus turning the concept of hospitality around as he commissioned his followers to minister to their host families and communities. Rather than merely receiving provisions and protection, the traveling missionaries were to meet the needs they encounter along their journeys and to proclaim the Kingdom of God.

 

In our passage today from Acts, Peter accepts the hospitality of Simon the tanner in Joppa.  This is quite remarkable because tanners work with leather, animal skins.  Tanners were thought to be extremely unclean and one would not interact with them.  For Peter, a good Jew, to stay in the home of a tanner was unheard of.   Then when Peter is invited by messengers to come to the home of Cornelius Peter extends hospitality to them.  He accepts their invitation and travels to stay at Cornelius’ home.[i]

 

Once Peter arrives at Cornelius home he explains the good news of Jesus Christ to him and the gift of the Holy Spirit falls upon Cornelius and the other Gentiles gathered there.  Through this wondrous act of God Cornelius and the members of his household who are also Gentiles asked to be baptized.

 

These stories of hospitality become the vehicle through which God acts to open up the church to the Gentiles and from there to the ends of the earth. Hospitality throughout the book of Acts functions as the bridge through which Jewish Christians are able to see Gentile converts in a new way — no longer as “profane or unclean,” but rather as partners in the community of faith.  If ever so slowly the extension of hospitality is the bridge that covers the gap between people of different regions and cultures and their being integrated into the life of the Church.

 

So what does this mean for us, here today?  We do not find ourselves in the same situation as the early Christians, nor do we have as many barriers but we still very much live in a world of insiders and outsiders. It is vitally important for us today to offer hospitality to one another.  We must keep risking, even when all signs say it won’t make a difference.  We must share hospitality not because we will be able to get new members or because God will smile upon us or because we will get another pledging unit.

 

And we don’t do it to put another notch in our belt of conversions or increase our number of baptisms. No!

 

We offer hospitality because it is who we are as Christians.  We do it and we trust in God because it is God at work in and through our lives and our hospitality. Sometimes it won’t work.   People won’t respond to even our best efforts.  But sometimes it will.  But not because of us for we are mere mortals, but because of God, the creator of heaven and earth, and all that is, God is the one who can change hearts, transform lives and even raise the dead! So let us trust in God and share God welcome because you just never know what might happen.

Thanks be to God.

 

Let us pray:

 

[i] Reverend Dr. Andrew Arterbury the Ancient Custom of Hospitality, the Greek Novels, and Acts 10:1-11:18. Reverend Dr. Arterbury is Assistant Professor of Christian Scriptures at George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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