Sunday, January 15, 2017


For the six months or so before Christmas, Bethel sermons were mostly focusing on Jesus. And that, of course, is all well and good in a Christian church. Beginning in June of last year, the sermon series was called “Glimpses of Jesus”, and in those months, we saw Jesus change water into wine, heal the sick, calm the storm, raise the dead, drive out the merchants in the temple, and walk on water (among many other things). Immediately following that, we had a series of sermons on the Sermon on the Mount. First we witnessed Jesus in action, then we gave him the opportunity to speak to us. And having been immersed in Jesus’ life and teaching for six months, we hope that his example and instruction will take root in our lives and transform us into the people that God intended us to be.

But what, exactly, does that look like? Well, the present series of sermons is intended to respond to that very question -- to talk about the practical reflection of God’s work in our lives; to apply what we’ve learned in concrete terms. Last week, Andy challenged us to draw near to God. And as you see from your bulletin, the topic of this morning’s sermon is “hospitality”.

But how in the world did I get this assignment? After all, our church has a number of real experts in hospitality, and I do not pretend to be one of them. To tell you the truth, God put it on my heart as something that I need to learn, that I need to practice and that I need to develop. Knowing my own shortcomings in this regard, I suggested to Andy that this subject should be addressed… and, well, so here I am. Wow. That’s just how it goes sometimes. So I don’t come to you this morning as anything of an expert. Instead, I come as a student, perhaps as a student whose assignment was to study a topic and make a presentation to the rest of the class.

Now the first thing I discovered as I looked at the teaching on hospitality in the Bible is that it shows up much more than I had anticipated. In fact, the topic is addressed by almost every one of the New Testament writers (not every book, mind you, but all but one of the writers). Only Jude (the writer of only a single-chapter book) doesn’t address it. (Now we don’t know for sure who the author of the book of Hebrews was, so I’ve added an extra line for him, just to be safe). And some of these mentions of hospitality are quite explicit. For example, 1 Peter 4:9 says:

Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.

How do you like that? At one point, a command like this would be enough to make me start grumbling -- which isn’t Peter’s intention at all, of course. But very likely the reason for our discomfort over this directive is that the meaning of the word “hospitality” has drifted a bit since Peter wrote his letter. That is, when we hear the word “hospitality”, we often think of something different from what the Biblical writers intended when they used the word “hospitality”. So let’s take a few moments to understand that difference.

In our society, we often use the word “hospitality” to describe the business of hosting a dinner party: choosing the right guests, making sure that they are sitting in the right place, serving the right food, keeping the conversation going, and making sure everyone has a good time. To use another word (thanks, Ruth), this is the business of “entertaining”. And while entertaining can be an enormous blessing to both the host and the guests, entertaining is a blessing because of the hospitality shown in the process. That is, entertaining can be a vehicle for hospitality, it is not hospitality in itself. As this diagram shows, there is lots of overlap between hospitality and entertaining, but there can also be one without the other.

Entertaining without hospitality happens when it is all about social status and the exchange of social favors, with the priority going to the host. So if the instruction to “practice hospitality” makes us uncomfortable, it might simply be that “entertaining” can be socially awkward. But please be reassured: Biblical hospitality does not depend on social positioning. Instead, true Biblical hospitality is focused on those to whom the hospitality is offered and its purpose is to address their needs. This is made clear for us in Romans (12:13):

Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Entertaining without hospitality also happens when its basis is luxury. Let’s face it: dinner parties are expensive, and having the facilities to host such a thing to the standards of the day also represents significant expense. Just this last Friday, I was talking to one of the men in Esther’s extended family, who, with his father, run a high-end renovations company in X. He laughed at the fact that his clientele were all part of a wealthy group that regularly invite each other over for dinner parties. When one gets a renovation done, then all the others need to have renovations, all trying to one-up one another. So if the instruction to “practice hospitality” makes us uncomfortable, it might simply be that “entertaining” might be beyond our means. But please be reassured: Biblical hospitality does not depend on your financial situation. Instead, true Biblical hospitality is an opportunity for us to share the love that we have received from our Lord and Savior.

While entertaining can be a great vehicle for hospitality, we shouldn’t limit our understanding by it. I was made exceedingly grateful this last week but an expression of hospitality from the ladies of the church: a number of you sent over some baking that we were able to take for the visitors at Esther's father's funeral. Thank you for that! We can make others feel at home in public, or at work, or in church, or even at someone else’s house. In fact, when Jesus gives us an example of hospitality, it doesn’t involve entertaining at all. Rather, he tells the famous story of the Good Samaritan. There, the hero of the story has a chance encounter with a man near death: someone who has been robbed and beaten and left by the side of the road. He does everything that he can to look after this man, arranging for his rest and recovery, without playing host to him at all. And when Jesus is through telling this story, he says:

Go and do likewise (Luke 10:37b)

I fully suspect that the success of the early church depended in no small part on the fact that those early believers took these words of Jesus seriously. Hospitality does not require entertaining. In fact, we can also find Jesus’ instructions about entertaining in Luke (in chapter 14). There, we read:

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

Now between this and the Good Samaritan, our common thinking about hospitality should be quite shaken to the core. Jesus knows that only a fundamentally new understanding of value and social status will make us able to understand true Biblical hospitality. That’s why we also see this (following) teaching of Jesus in all four of the gospels:

Luke 9:48 “Whoever receives this little child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” (Matthew 18:5; Mark 9:37; John 13:20)

In the first century, children, particularly other people’s children, were on the lowest possible rung of the social ladder. They were the last people that anyone would spare a thought for. So when Jesus clearly connects our treatment of those children with our treatment of our Lord Himself, he is overturning the common understanding of status and value. And then, just in case we missed it, he makes it explicit:

For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.

When we are finally able to take these words of Jesus to heart, we will discover that hospitality does not depend on a large house, or even a clean one. Nor does it depend on an expensive meal. The poor and the hurting and the lonely have no interest in critiquing your interior decorating. They just long for a chance to connect with someone who cares for them.

In fact, last year, we had a survey go around to the congregation, and that’s one of the needs that many of you expressed. Connecting with the church as the family of God isn’t nearly as easy as it should be, and it isn’t nearly as natural as it should be -- even at Bethel. The church was never intended to be a collection of independent family units that just happen to share a roof once a week.
We are called to be a family. We are called to be the body of Christ.

About ten weeks ago, Esther had an accident while skating, the radiologists summary of the fractures was two lines long, including all those wonderful medical abbreviations. I can’t tell you what things were like for the first few hours, but by the time I got home to take her to the hospital, she was holding one arm with the other. All of her movements were a little more deliberate, and all of her movements were extra aware of risk to that one arm. If there was doubt, her body would turn to protect the suffering member. And much of her energy was devoted to immobilizing that wrist so that no further damage was done.  How well this illustrates how a high-functioning body operates! When one of our members is suffering, how critical it is that we all make special allowance for them!

We are called to be a family: to share with the Lord’s people who are in need -- and that’s not just physical needs, but social and spiritual needs as well. This, of course, is one of the reasons that we are looking at the topic of hospitality this morning. But just last week, we were given another great reason to consider hospitality: we were challenged to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds”, and hospitality is certainly a practical opportunity for good deeds among us.

But to fully understand Biblical hospitality, let’s consider a really interesting example from scripture. In his letter to the churches, the apostle James uses two stories from the Old Testament as examples of “faith in action.” The first of these examples is “the big one” -- Abraham himself! But the second example that James uses is the one I’d like to draw your attention to this morning. It is quite fascinating -- both for its choice and for its details. It is found in verse 25:

And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? (ESV)

You remember the story: Joshua, upon entering the promised land, immediately encountered the walled city of Jericho. It really didn’t look like anything the people of Israel had experienced before. So Joshua sent two spies in to check it out. The king of Jericho got word of their “visit”, and sent soldiers to capture them. But they had been welcomed by this woman named Rahab, and she hid them so that the soldiers couldn’t find them. And then, when the coast was clear, she made sure that they escaped unharmed.  

Imagine jumping from Abraham to Rahab! James is covering a lot of territory here, isn’t he? On the one hand, the father of the faithful, the patriarch of the patriarchs, the friend of God, the example to all the children of promise. On the other hand, a pagan, Gentile, prostitute -- ew! It would have been hard to have made a greater contrast between individuals in the minds of his listeners. But instead of a contrast, James is making a comparison! He is saying that both Abraham and Rahab were justified by their faith expressed by their works.

And in particular, Rahab’s faith is expressed in her hospitality to the Israelite spies. But let’s look carefully at the wording that James uses here: in describing her hospitality, he says that she “received the messengers”. And these words, “received” and “messengers” are critical to a Biblical understanding of hospitality. We’ve seen the first one (“received”) before, haven’t we?

Whoever receives this little child in my name receives me (Luke 9:48)

In Matthew, one expression is slightly different (Matthew 10:41):

Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me

And another expression of this is also found later in John (13:20), where Jesus says:

whoever receives the one I send receives me

So Jesus is making it clear: the way that we receive other people is the way that we receive Jesus. Whether it is the little child, or you, or the one he sends, that reception also involves how we receive not only Jesus, but also how we receive God himself! And, of course, Jesus doesn’t want us to limit our thinking here: we know from elsewhere in the gospel that whenever we show kindness to the least of Jesus’ brothers or sisters, he will take that kindness as being shown to him. But that word (“receive”) also shows up in another famous verse in John, doesn’t it (1:10-12)?

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

But what this implies is staggering: nothing less than that our inclination to be hospitable may be directly connected to our very salvation! No wonder so many of the New Testament authors make a point of calling it out!  So if we receive the marginalized; if we receive the hurting; if we receive the needy -- then we receive Jesus himself and, as a result, obtain the right to become children of God.

But let’s back up a bit. “The one I send”. Who are those that are sent? In those days, and even today, someone who was sent out is often a messenger. And that brings us to the second of those two important words.

...was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? (ESV)

But at this point, I’m afraid that I need to disagree with the translation that you have in the pews. In the (NIV) pew Bibles, the translation used for this word (that the ESV translates “messengers”) is “spies”. Now while “spies” certainly reflects the historical reality of Rahab’s experience, it isn’t accurately transmitting how James expresses it.

But don’t take my word for it. On Bible Gateway, there are 54 different (though not necessarily independent) translations of the New Testament. Of those, 65% translate this word “messengers” rather than “spies”. But don’t take their word for it. The Greek word that James uses is “angelos” which is, of course, the word that we also translate “angel”. In the ancient Greek language, there was no word for "angel", so the New Testament writers chose this word -- "angelos" meaning "messenger" -- for that purpose. An angel, of course, is simply a messenger from God. But this reminds us of another verse concerning hospitality, doesn’t it? -- Hebrews 13:2:

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.

And that word in Hebrews translated “angels”? It is also “angelos”, of course: the same word translated “messengers” in James. Now I don’t think that this is a coincidence. In fact, I’d be willing to go so far as to use it to define Biblical hospitality: that is, Biblical hospitality is simply treating those we encounter as messengers of God.

Please note that, in the world’s way of thinking, the hospitality referred to in Hebrews is being offered to strangers and the hospitality referred to in James is being offered to spies -- that is, Rahab’s natural enemies. But simultaneously, in God’s way of thinking -- the way of thinking that ultimately counts -- the hospitality is being offered to His messengers.

Now, if God were to send a messenger to you, and you knew it, I’m sure that you’d go out of your way to make them feel completely at home. I expect that they would make the transition in your mind from stranger to guest to family to VIP in no time.

But when John tells us that we need to show hospitality; when Paul tells us that we should practice hospitality; when Peter tells us to offer hospitality without grumbling; when James uses hospitality as an example of saving faith in action; when the author of the book of Hebrews tells us not to forget to show hospitality to strangers, they aren’t just encouraging us to be satisfied with society’s common forms of hospitality. I don’t think that it is inappropriate to extend Jesus’ words in the sermon on the mount to the present subject (see Matt 5:46-47) -- now my modifications are in brackets, but you can look up the passage and decide if Jesus could also mean this or not:

If you [invite over] those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you [look after] only your own family, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

Instead, we need to be challenged to go beyond all that - challenged in our thinking and in our habits of life. God really does looks at things very differently than we do. And He (as usual) is asking us to think more like He does.

Last week, we were challenged to first draw near to God -- and then to spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Practicing Biblical hospitality might be exactly the kind of good deeds God had in mind. And God knows how far it could go toward forming this church into Christ’s body for His glory. (Romans 15:7)

Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.