Saturday, 13 February 2016

Hospitality to the stranger

Today we are looking at a story of hospitality shown to some strangers.

This is a story that comes from a different world: a different place and a different time. About 4000 years ago in what we know as the west bank today. We would find it a far less ‘busy’ world than the one we live in. The day would begin at sunrise and finish at sunset. There would be far fewer things pressing in on us and demanding our immediate attention: imagine a world without phones, or TV, or electricity or even books. And there would be far fewer encounters with strangers.

So we need to beware of taking this story and transplanting it into the C21st.

But there are several principles that we can draw from this story about hospitality.

1.    Abraham is eager to show hospitality

Notice how the theme of speed runs through the passage
V2: when Abraham sees the three men standing there, he hurried to meet them
V6: Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah
V7: Abraham ran to the herd, and the servant hurried to prepare the calf

Now it may have been because Abraham had been sitting at the entrance to his tent at the heat of the day and he had nothing else to do. He was bored.

But I suspect the reason that Abraham was so eager was because he was delighted to be able to show hospitality to another.

We don’t know what Sarah or the servant thought – they had to do the cooking and may not have been so enthusiastic. To be fair to Abraham he did go out into the field to get the calf and he did do a bit of the serving. But we don’t live in the sort of society that Abraham lived in, and today you find yourself in Abraham’s situation, could I suggest that it might be diplomatic to ask Sarah if she is OK about it! If you are married this sort of hospitality has to be a joint thing.

But we are not focussing on Abraham’s way of operating, but his eagerness to offer hospitality.

I am aware that there are some people who love to offer hospitality. They are really good at it. And others of us struggle.
But actually this is something that we are all called to do. I had always thought that hospitality was one of the gifts that is mentioned in those lists of spiritual gifts. But it isn’t. Rather it seems that the whole church, every member, is encouraged to show hospitality.

Romans 12.13: ‘Practise hospitality’
-       Hospitality to the stranger, as in Abraham’s case: Hebrews 13.2 ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers’
-       Hospitality to your Christian brother or sister: 1 Peter 4.9 ‘Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling’

And I do appreciate that some of us are not in a position to open our homes or put on a meal for someone, but we can invite them out for a meal, or take something round to them, or meet up for a coffee or a drink in town.

Some of the very earliest commentators make use of the connection between the word Mamre and vision. Origen writes, ‘Mamre in our language is translated ‘vision’ or ‘sharpness of sight.’

So could I urge you to be eager to offer hospitality. Be on the lookout for the stranger, for the person in need, to whom you can offer hospitality.
2.    It was Abraham’s choice to offer hospitality

I notice that the three men say nothing. They don’t come to Abraham and ask him to provide a meal for them. They don’t ask him for money. They simply are there. They give to Abraham the freedom to invite them or to ignore them.

When I was at university there were 3 or 4 characters who would do the cycle of universities to sponge off students who were part of the Christian Union. They would approach them, and ask for help. And if they didn’t get help, they would quote verses at us and make us feel guilty for not helping them.
It is the same game that I saw people play in Holloway. They came to the church to ask for, or more accurately, demand help. ‘You are Christians. You should help me’.
And we occasionally get people here who come into church trying it on, to see whether they can get money out of us.

Jesus does say, ‘Give to those who ask of you’ (Matt 5.42), but I note that it is in the context where believers are being forced to do something. And given that hospitality is a matter of opening our home and heart to another, it is not hospitality if it is done out of guilt or fear. We can only give hospitality if we give with absolute freedom.

In my experience, those who are really in need will rarely say anything. They will be there, but they will be silent. We can choose to ignore them (because of who they are, they are very easy to ignore) or we can choose to help.
3.    Abraham offers hospitality with no strings attached.

There are many reasons for offering hospitality.

There is the hospitality that is offered because it is what society expects. You would be shamed not to offer it. The society that Abraham lived in was such a society, although what he did, the lengths he went to, shows he was not doing it simply because it was the done thing.

There is the hospitality done to impress. Is ‘Come Dine with me’ still on? Guests go to each other’s houses for a meal and then rate it. Who can put on the best evening? That is a game that the world constantly plays; it is not Christian hospitality.
And then there is the hospitality offered because you want something back from it. It is Uncle Vernon trying to impress the boss. Dudley, you greet him at the door. Petunia, you bring out the starters. Harry – as we have said to our children on many occasions – you go up to your room and pretend you don’t exist!
Or there is the ‘you rub my back and I’ll rub yours’ hospitality. I’ll look out for you and you look out for me. Jesus warns us against that. Don’t invite those people, he said, who will invite you back – because then you have your reward. Invite, instead, he said, the people who can’t invite you back (Luke 14.12).

Abraham offers hospitality with no strings attached. He doesn’t want anything from the three strangers. It is not done from fear or the hope of reward. He is not offering it because he wants them to join his church. He doesn’t even offer it because he wants to get to know them. If you notice, he stands aside while they eat. At the end of the meal they could have got up, not even said thank you, and moved on.

Abraham offered these strangers hospitality because he saw three people in the middle of the desert. They had, he assumed, been walking for quite some time. There was nothing else around for miles. The next service station on the Desert Motorway was 150 miles in that sort of direction. He saw three people who had a need.

When I was between school and university, I spent several months working in Manchester. I went to the local Anglican church. I was on my own and quite lonely and, because I didn’t have a role, shy. I went for about 10 weeks. In those 10 weeks the vicar said hello occasionally as I went out of the door, but nobody else approached me, nobody else spoke to me. I gave up. I had committed my life to Christ, and I knew that I had to find a place to worship, so I visited the nearby URC. At the end of the service somebody came up, spoke with me and invited me back for lunch. They weren’t doing it to get me to come to their church – I had told them I was only going to be in Manchester for 4 more weeks. They did it because they realised that I was lonely and would really appreciate being part of a family for a meal.

I pray to God that no church of which I am vicar will be like that Anglican church that I first went to.

4.    Hospitality is disruptive

Abraham was sitting in the shade in the heat of the day. That is my dream of a great day off – just add in a good book and a glass of white wine! He had probably been out in the field in the morning, and now he was having a breather. And he sees these three people, standing there. He hadn’t invited them. He didn’t know them. And he already had plans for his afternoon: patch the tent, mend the fence.

I find that the main reason that I do not go out of my way to offer hospitality to people in need is because I am unwilling to have my plans disrupted.

‘This is time for me: I have set my heart on watching that recording of Endeavour’.
‘I’ve really got to send that email. I can’t help now’
‘If I invite them round it is such an effort! We’ll have to tidy up, and make sure the house is presentable’. That is an excuse, and it is pride speaking. It is not about us putting on a show. This is about us opening our home and heart.

There is a tradition in some places of always setting a place for the unexpected guest. I wonder how it would change our mentality if every time we sat down for a meal, we set an extra place.

Please do not get me wrong. I am not suggesting that we invite every person we see who has a need back to our home for a meal. Unless God has specifically called you to a ministry like that, it is the way to serious burn-out.
We need to be wise.
Those of us with children need to give time to our families – and not always have other people there.
And we need to know ourselves, and what we can take. I’m someone who needs space; if I don’t get good cave time, I will crash
And we need to keep safe

But having said all of that, we must be prepared for the fact that this ministry of hospitality to those in need will be disruptive, it will be costly and it will involve taking risks. John and Angela took a risk when they invited M. to their home for lunch.   But it was a Jesus-shaped risk, and when we do step out, we learn to be dependent on God.

We need to be open to the fact that, if we are a follower of Jesus, there will be times when we see people in need, and we will know we have to do something.

And it will disrupt our plans. 

5.    True hospitality honours your guest

Abraham honours his guests. He goes far beyond what would have been expected. He runs to them, bows before them, provides choice flour and chooses a tender and good calf. He stands while they eat.

Abraham treats these strangers as messengers of God.

And this is where we get to the heart of the matter.
Hebrews 13.2 tells us that when we show hospitality to strangers, we may without realising it be, be showing hospitality to angels (messengers) of God.
And for those who have read on in Genesis 18, you will have seen that these three strangers are messengers, angels of God. In fact, at least one of them is God in human form.
They have come to Abraham for a purpose. They have come to bless him.

Jesus says something similar in Matthew 25.35. He tells us that the person who welcomes the stranger welcomes him. [There is a delightful story by Tolstoy, called Papa Panov's special Christmas. If you haven’t read it, it is a must!]

This is not about politics. It is not about EU migration or how many refugees we should take in. Those are really important decisions. But this is not about that.

This is much more personal.
It is not about people somewhere out there. It is about people who are here.
It is about the elderly person who lives opposite us, and who never sees her family.
It is about the man in the same club or who sings in the same choir or works in the same office who is lost or lonely and who needs a friend.
It is about the three Polish young men who live a few doors away, one of whom has got himself in trouble.
It is about the person who, with heart in mouth walks into this building for a service. It is their first time. It is a weird experience, and they know nobody.

We are the ones who are at home. They are the stranger standing nearby.
It is about praying that God will give us the gift of ‘mamre’, of vision, so that we see them with the eyes of Jesus. It is about treating them with deep respect and reverence. God would use you to bless them.

But it is more than that; God at Mamre identified himself with the stranger. It is about looking at them and seeing Jesus. And if you, like Abraham, open your heart and home to them, God will use them to bless you. 

Friday, 5 February 2016

What communion means.

Luke 22.14-23

We have now moved from the left to the right hand side of the church of St Apollinare Nuovo. We are not going to look at all of the 13 mosaics on this side, but as we prepare to remember the events of the first Good Friday and Easter, we will look at some of these mosaics which focus on Jesus' journey to the cross

There is an immediate difference between the mosaics on the left and on the right: The Jesus on the left is beardless and the Jesus on the right has a beard. There is a debate about why! Most seem to say that beards were a mark of maturity - or a mark of grief. It is the mature Jesus who goes to the cross.

There is also a different style. The mosaics on the left hand side of the church are simple, quite iconic, usually showing Jesus with one subject and one disciple. The mosaics on the right are more complex. There are multiple figures.
And today we are going to look at this image: Jesus is reclining at the table, together with his 12 disciples. Four of them are looking at Jesus (the white haired one we can identify as Peter), and seven of them are looking, in a very accusing way, at Judas.

This particular mosaic comes from the early C6th and is one of the first illustrations of the last supper (although there are some C3rd illustrations in the catacombs).

What is odd to us is that it shows a meal at which there is not bread and wine, but bread and fish.

The real last supper would have been a passover meal: with bread and wine, and lamb and herbs. Not a fish in sight!

So what is going on here?

Is this a collapsing of the last supper and the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes - bringing the two stories together in one picture?

That would not be surprising. There are connections.

1. In John's gospel, Jesus feeds the crowd with the loaves and fishes. He then immediately claims that the bread he has provided is not the real bread that people need. He is that bread.

2. Jesus takes the loaves and the fish, he gives thanks to God for them, he breaks them and he shares them. And that is what he does at the last supper: he takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it (Luke 22.19)

So we will look in more detail at our passage, Luke 22.14-23

Is there anything that struck you as odd about the description of the last supper in Luke?

Jesus takes the cup twice, probably once at the beginning and once at the end. But in our communion service we only take the cup once.

This is the Passover meal that Jesus is eating with his followers. There would probably have been not 3 but 4 liturgical refillings of the cup.

The Passover is the annual meal when the Jewish people gather together and remember how God rescued them from slavery in Egypt and brought them to the place where they could worship God freely.

Jesus now transforms that meal. The central theme is the same. It’s about God’s great mercy and deliverance. But for us, when we gather together to eat bread and drink wine, it becomes a celebration of how God rescued us not from literal slavery, but from the slavery of sin and death. He rescued us so that he could be our God and that we, together, could be his people.

So three things about this meal, as told by Luke.

1. This is the meal that gives us hope

Jesus says to the disciples, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer: for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God’. Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes’ (Luke 22.15-18)

Jesus has longed to eat this particular Passover with his disciples. ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you’. And that is the case even though he knows what will come after. He knows he has to go through dreadful pain and death. But he is eager to eat this Passover because he knows that it points forward to something amazing: to that time when, because of his death, he will eat together with his people in the Kingdom of God.

I guess it is like a top class athlete about to run a major race in front of a TV audience of multi-millions. They know they can win and they will win. They also know that to win, they will need to give everything, to almost literally kill themselves. But they are tense with excitement for what comes after the suffering.

Jesus went to the cross out of obedience to his Father. He went to the cross out of love for you and me. But Hebrews tells us that Jesus endured the cross, with its shame and pain, for the joy that was set before him.

And so, when we eat the bread and drink the wine, we remember that one day we will eat this meal in its fullness in the Kingdom of God. I like to think of it as the hors d’oevre, the taster for that heavenly banquet. Here we may have a tiny piece of bread and an even smaller sip of wine – there we will dine in abundance in the glory of the kingdom.

This is the meal that gives us hope because it tells us that the kingdom is coming.

2. This is the meal that reminds us of Jesus

Jesus takes a loaf of bread .. saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’. (Luke 22.19)

We eat the bread and drink the wine to remember Jesus.

· We remember this command. Communion is not an optional extra for Christians. Jesus has commanded us to do this.

· We remember that Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life’.

We think that the fluffy stuff we make in a bread maker is real bread. That is because we think the real world is what we can see and smell and taste.

Jesus said, ‘I am the true, the real bread. The world that you think is so real is actually just a shadow world. The fluffy stuff is just shadow bread. If you feed on me, if you take my words deep into you, if you allow me to come deep into you – I am the real bread’.

· We remember that just as the loaf is taken, given thanks for (the Greek word for that is eucharisteo – from which we get the word that is used in many churches for the communion service, eucharist), broken and shared, so Jesus was broken and shared on the cross. He gave his body for us, so that we can live. He took our sins onto, into himself, and he dealt with them. He died for our forgiveness.

And as for the words, ‘This is my body’: far be it for me to resolve 1000 plus years of debate. Traditionally Roman Catholics are said to argue that this means that the bread literally becomes the body of Christ. But that is not actually the teaching of the fathers of the Church. They lived at a time when there was a philosophy which said that what something was on the outside is not what it necessarily is on the inside.

So what people like Aquinas meant when they said the bread becomes the body of Christ can be explained a bit like this:

My wedding ring. What is it? It is a gold ring. Yes, that is what it is on the outside, but it is more than that. What is it really? It is a symbol of my marriage. It reminds me of the one who gave it to me; it reminds me of my marriage; it tells others of my marriage. It stands for my marriage. What is it? You could say it is my marriage.

Or if you have a beloved teddy bear. What is it? A stuffed rag. Yes it is. But it is actually far more than that. It has a name. It is your companion and your comfort.

So the bread and wine.

What is it? It is bread and wine. Yes, that is what it is on the outside.

But what really is it? It reminds me of Jesus, of the Jesus who loves me and whose body was broken for me. It tells others of Jesus. It stands for Jesus.

What is it? For the person who has faith, who puts their trust in Jesus, who receives the bread and the wine, it is Jesus. We receive Jesus.

I like to put it like this. When we receive the bread and wine through our mouth, by faith – through our head or our heart – we receive Jesus.

This is the meal which reminds us of Jesus

3. This is the meal that celebrates our new relationship with God and our new relationship with God’s people.

With the final cup, Jesus says, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’ (Luke 22.20)

The old covenant was based on a promise of God.

It was the promise that God would be the God of the people of Abraham and that they would be his people. It was a covenant that was sealed by the blood of a sacrificed animal. It was a bit messy. The animal was sacrificed and the blood was thrown over the people (Exodus 24.8 cf Heb 9.19-22). And if you wanted to be part of that covenant you allowed the blood to go over you, to cover you.

Jesus here is making a new covenant. It does not end the old covenant. God never goes back on his promises. But it extends that promise so that it now includes not only the descendants of Abraham, but all people. It is the promise that God makes that he will be the God of all people and that they can be his people. And this new covenant is sealed not with the blood of an animal, but with the blood of Jesus. And people do not need to allow that blood to be thrown over them, but they do need to be willing to receive the cup which Jesus gives.

So when we drink the cup we celebrate the promise of God that he is our heavenly Father and we are his people. We celebrate the fact that those we eat and drink with in this meal are our brothers and sisters. And we recognise that it is Jesus’ death on the cross which has made all this possible.

In the early church, the believers would gather together not just to eat a small piece of bread and drink a shared cup of wine. They would have a meal together. They would be family together. Masters and slaves, mothers and sons, soldiers and shopkeepers. All the believers in a town (and at first there would not be many) would gather together, and they would eat together. It even had a name, the ‘agape’, ‘love-feast’. And then, probably at the end of the meal, they would share bread and drink wine specifically remembering the words of Jesus.

It was how they lived out the reality that they were members of this new covenant, this new promise of God, that he would be their Father and they would be his children

The mosaic from Ravenna probably is a depiction not of the sort of communion service that we have in church, but of one of those special meals. So there may well have been fish.

And when they ate, and when we eat, we eat the meal which gives us hope, which centres us on Jesus and which celebrates our life together as the family of God.