Sermon: "Holy Hospitality"


Delivered September 3, 2006 by Rev. George Antonakos.

Theme: Christian hospitality from a biblical perspective goes well beyond setting a nice table. It involves having a welcoming spirit that is broader than what we usually consider. This sermon explores God's welcome of us and how we can extend a more gracious welcome to others.

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Sermon Text: John 1:1-13

Yesterday we held the memorial service for Pastor John Murray Smoot, and many of you were there I would think, but those of you who did not know Pastor Smoot, of course, probably weren't there, but it was a beautiful service and in his memoirs he mentions preaching this mornings scripture text that I read part of already. He used it to preach about the importance of witnessing, of sharing our faith with others in Jesus. But, today I am taking a bit of a different angle with the text, but as I read I can't help but think of him because his name was John Murray Smoot; I can't help but think of him as well as John the Baptizer when I read this text. So I invite you to turn to page 750 in the red pew Bible or you can follow it on the screen, but this is the prologue to the gospel of John, probably written in the late first century to a community of believers that was second generation and was probably struggling in a certain cultural context, but this beautiful prologue, some of the most beautiful words ever written in the whole New Testament speak of the coming of our Lord to us.

Let's pray. Lord, we thank you that you have given us your word, that you have not left us as orphans. You promised to come to us, and we thank you that as we have sung this morning, that you sought us out when we were strangers and we were wandering far from your fold, but you came to us, and so we ask that as we read these words that if there is just one person who has never banked their hope on you, put their trust in you, turned their lives over to you in faith and received you as the true gift of God that even in this reading a seed would be planted or watered or perhaps fruit would be born. We ask it in Christ's name. Amen.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. 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 received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God- children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God."

Thirty-seven years ago two sophomore college students from Clemson University got in to a '67 Pontiac GTO on a Saturday morning and headed to Atlanta, Georgia for a weekend of fun and possible carousing. They spent the day at Six Flags over Georgia and afterward asked an adult to go in to a package good store to buy them a bottle of liquor. They stashed it in the trunk and headed off to an unknown destination; no particular destination at all. Their grand plans for carousing never materialized and being poor planners they ended up with no place to stay, and were too tired to drive back late at night to South Carolina. They decided to sleep in their car, but needed a secure place to stay in the wilds of rural, suburban Atlanta. What better place than a church parking lot that they had stumbled upon? Just as sleep was coming over them a knock came at the window and one of the church elders told them that they wouldn't be permitted to stay on the church lot, and that they would have to leave, but he also offered to guide them to a mall parking lot that would be well lit. Taking him up on his offer the boys thanked him and said goodbye and tried to get some rest.

About 30 minutes later as sleep was coming over them again another knock at the window. The same church elder reappeared saying something about not being a good Christian and invited the young men to stay in the travel trailer housed in his driveway. Off they went again and bunked down in the comfortable cots in the trailer. The next morning being Sunday the church elder invited them in to his home to join him and his family for breakfast of bacon of eggs, which was gratefully accepted. They declined an invitation to church, but one of the boys later recalled a religious TV program playing in the background. After thanking their generous host they headed back to their college campus feeling like the weekend had been a bit of bust.

Now, you may have already figured out by now that yours truly was one of those goofy college students. The incident that I just described occurred in 1969 about a year before I trusted Christ as my Savior and to this day I believe that that act of unexpected hospitality in combination with many other moments was used by the Spirit of God to eventually woo me toward his kindness found in Jesus Christ. In fact, I would bet that that kind gentleman prayed for our salvation that night while we were sleeping in that trailer and probably prayed in church the next morning for us.

In the opening words of today's reading, Jesus is described in many different ways. One way he is described as the word of God, the Logos, the communication of God's being to help us understand what God is really like. Another way he is described is the creator and the light of life for all men and women; that he is the way that shows us what life was intended to be like. He is the true light of the world who illumines our mind so that we might see ourselves in God more clearly. Later, just a couple of chapter's people who put their trust in him are described as those who come to the light versus those who run from the light. Verse 9 in John 1 states that Jesus the true light was coming into the world. Now John wrote this probably in 90AD, why didn't he say the true light came into the world? He said the true light was coming into the world. One reason I think this is is because in some sense the Lord Jesus Christ, the God of heaven and earth is always coming to us in some way.

We are always faced with a choice of whether we will allow him to come closer into our hearts, into our mind and into our world, to receive him into every area of our life. You know how that works, you come to know him, you receive him and then before long he shows another area where you need to receive him again. You need to invite him in again, not for salvation, but to say, "Lord, you know I have been holding this area in my life away from you and you are coming closer to tell me about it, and how I need to turn that over too." It goes on and on. He is always coming to us.

But, what I really want to focus on today is Verses 10 through 13, because there John's gospel states in effect that Jesus is the world's stranger; a stranger who wasn't recognized nor welcomed by the very people that you think would be the quickest to recognize him. It says in Verse 11 that he came even to his own people Israel, but they too didn't receive him. It's ironic to me that Jesus is God Incarnate who extends his arms and welcomes anyone who will come to him. He says, "Come to me all of you who labor and are heavily laden." He has his arms extended and yet this gracious, hospitable God is not always welcomed by us. I think you might agree with me that to feel unwelcome may be one of the most painful experiences that we can have as people. In fact, I want you to do just a little rewind of your experiences. I will give you just a second, and I want you to think and try to come up with an incident or a moment when you did not feel welcome in your own life. You may have to go all the way back to elementary school; you may go back to yesterday, okay? I will give you a second to think about it a minute. I am waiting. You can have the Jeopardy music, okay?

Okay, how many of you came up with something, I mean came up with in your mind a remembrance of not being welcomed or feeling even worse rejected? Raise you hand. I mean I am raising my hand. Yeah, it hurts doesn't it? It really hurts. And you know what hurts the most? When it happens in our families. When it happens in our church family. I am happy to report that from a couple of weeks back, six weeks ago, I don't know whenever I preached at the beginning of Philippians, remember I asked you to hold me accountable about trying to do some reconciliation by larger family. I know all of you had it down on your prayer list and you were praying for me, but I am happy to report that through your prayers we actually were able to sit down with some extended family and work through some stuff, and I think there was some great steps of reconciliation. And so when it's most painful to feel unwelcome is when it happens right in our own family, but also when it happens in the church family. There is a verse in the Old Testament, in Leviticus 19:33 and 34 that reveals the heart of God on this matter. Listen to this.

"When an alien", now they are not talking about somebody from outer space, but one outside of your kind and in this case a non-Jew, "when an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native- born, love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt."

From the very beginning when God called a people to himself he had them experience what it was like to be alienated, to be in a place where they did not feel welcome, and so as part of God's call through the people of God he was always trying to help them understand how important it was to welcome those who were different in their midst.

Now, I am going to put a Greek word up here, Philodelphas. Philo is not what you make Greek pastry with. It's a Greek word for love and usually the friendship kind of love. Adelphas; brother, right? We know a city kind of named like this- the City of Brotherly Love, that's Philadelphia. But Philoxenia is the Greek word for hospitality. Do you know what that means? If Philodelphas is the love of brothers, what is Philoxenia, love of what? Strangers. Have you ever heard of xenophobia? Fear of strangers, okay. I was going to show the movie clip, but I decided not too, because it was too short, but there is a place in the Big Fat Greek Wedding, one of my favorite movies, where the dad just cannot stand the thought of his daughter marrying somebody outside the Greek heritage and in one part he goes, "xeno!," she's marrying xeno!. She is marrying a stranger. She is marrying one-not-of-us". Okay?

Think about that for a minute. That the Greek word, Philoxenia is translated hospitality or hospitable. It's not just setting a nice table, it's not just having a nice room to come into, it's the attitude and the spirit of the people of God to communicate a sense of acceptance with those who are not like them. I put the word hospitality into a Google search and guess what I came up with? The School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University and there was all kinds of other things like that; the hospitality business, right? And yet it's in this arena that the church can learn. One leading restauranteur of New York City said that the key to his success is hiring hospitalitarians. Try to say that three times real fast. Hospitalitarians, what is a hospitalitarian? This is a person who understands that virtually nothing else is as important as how one is made to feel in any transaction. He goes on to define hospitality even further when he states, and listen carefully.

That hospitality exists when you believe that the other person is on your side, that you really believe that the person you have come in transaction with is on your side, they are for you.

It's interesting that one of the key qualifications of leaders in the church, if you look in 1st Timothy, if you look in Titus, is the characteristic besides all of the other things about temperance and everything, is hospitality; people being a welcomer of those unlike us. Romans 12:13 is another verse that tells us, "Share with God's people who are in need." Do hospitality one time, no. Practice hospitality as a way of life. Again, it's not just opening our homes. It's how we transact with other human beings. Hebrews 13:2 - "Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it." Now, that's not a great motive for trying to entertain people or you know maybe this is an angel and this... no. What this is referring to I believe is when Abraham, unaware that the people he was greeting in his tent were sent from God. But, I will go one further, even better than thinking that an angel might be on the receiving end of your hospitality and say that Jesus comes to us everyday through people we don't know; through people who are different, through people who we wouldn't naturally or comfortably invite into our circle.

And in fact this is what he said would be included in the litany of caring acts that will be on the judgment honor roll. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, you invited me in. Lord, when did we see you a stranger and invite you in. The king will reply, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." Right along side feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner is welcoming the xenia, welcoming those who are different from us into our midst." If Jesus came through those doors would you welcome him? I mean if we really knew it was Jesus, we would all fall on our faces, but if he walked through those doors and somehow we were kept from having to do that, would you welcome him? We would have to keep from knocking one another over just to get toward him. If Jesus comes to us right here every time we gather for worship, through the guests and the strangers, at least momentarily that he invites into our midst and it is our hope as a church that when they leave they will go away feeling like we are on their side.

I would like to minimize the times when I hear folks say and somebody said this to me this past week, that they felt like it was kind of tough to break in here. So, in that end we are developing, we are in the throws of developing right now a stronger, more organized hospitality ministry. And if you are in any way resonating with anything that I am saying, perhaps because you have the spiritual gift of hospitality, then I want you to know that there is a place for you in this ministry because it's going to require many many people to do the job well. And if you are thinking, you know what, I might like to be part of a hospitality ministry, you can just put on that pew card hospitality with some kind of contact information and I promise you someone will get in touch with you soon. But, you think about that mission statement on the wall - moving people toward Christ by being a community of love - well, one of the first ways that that's experienced as people walk through these doors is by a deeper sense of hospitality. That will move people toward Christ, but you don't have to be an official part of a ministry here on a Sunday, you can be living it here on Sunday or elsewhere other days wherever you go, because someone has said that even when we walk through a room we either leave or take something with us. When we come through a room and our attitude is positive and our smile is bright we leave something for someone. When we come in with a frown or we are kind of grumpy or whatever, we almost take something from someone.

You know the smallest things can change somebody's experience in a major way. In our hospitality gathering meeting, in our ministry meeting to try to organize this ministry that I am speaking of one person who was there, relatively new here at the church in the last few years said that he clearly remembers his first Sunday worshipping here at Central Church. He said he recalls a woman greeting him warmly at the door and then talking to him further afterwards. Beside that, she went ahead and just spontaneously wrote him a note thanking him for coming and telling him how glad she was that he had come. What he reported in the meeting last week was that he kept that note on his desk for a year. I mean that's amazing to me; how much that touches a hunger in people's hearts.

One time not too many months ago somebody wrote me a note on one of those pew cards, I have no clue. A few years ago during the interim time they said I was just about ready to leave and you had come up to me and shook hands and then you introduced me to somebody else and I stayed. I had no clue that that was going on in the heart of this person. Almost 200 years ago a man was seeking to cross a river but needed help. Just at that time a group of men on horseback came upon him and among them was Thomas Jefferson. The man on foot asked for a ride and received a ride across the river from Thomas Jefferson. On the other side, another man in Jefferson's party after he had been let off the horse asked the guy who had received help, do you know who is was that helped you? And he said, "No, I don't." He said, "All I know is that some people have 'yes' faces and some people have 'no' faces and he had a 'yes' face." So I asked him. I had no idea it was Thomas Jefferson."

Well, God wants to work in all of us, yes faces. God wants to use you and me to touch lives. I want to quote something from Murray that is another context, but applies. Someone and often you might hear this in other context; people came up to him and said, "Why should we even pray at all? I mean if we really believe what the Bible says, that God works all things after the council of God's will, that no one can force his hand or say to him, "What has thou done" and all things will work out according to his plan. Why pray at all?" It's a pretty good question. I have had people tell me that. I have had people come up to me and say they are not praying anymore. Christian people, because they have a view that well, God is going to do it all. Murray got from his brother Bob many years ago this phrase and it stuck.

God is not only the God of ends; God is also the God of means.

That in God's sovereign plan if the means by which God wants to achieve God's end has to do with our praying then we are to pray, and I would say that in the same way as hospitality that we underestimate the power that we have in an interaction with another human being when we do or don't communicate hospitality; that God is using the means of our communication and interaction to help people connect with God.

God didn't drop pamphlets from a blimp. God didn't do all kinds of stuff to zap people to make; God uses you and me the means to the end of salvation and Gods want us all to have yes faces in the power of the Holy Spirit. That doesn't mean we are not to say no when it's needed. It just means that we need to remember that hospitality is the heart of God. He is a welcomer of us. We all know what the term home field advantage means, right? The Ravens schedule is coming up; they haven't won away in like a lot of games. But, they have won at home, so we know what the term home field advantage means. You got your people cheering for you, and all that and there is just a little bit extra. Well, to become more hospitable we need to remember the home field disadvantage, what is that you ask? Well, let me tell you. If you have never had to relocate in while, if you have never had to shop for a new church home, if its been a long time since you have entered a church sanctuary and knew no one or have left a church sanctuary without feeling one gesture of welcome, then biblically speaking you are under the home field disadvantage. It's easy to lose sight just as Mandy was saying in the beginning about the MVA; it's really easy to lose sight about people and it's just a task after a while. When we put ourselves in a strangers shoes and show love, we never know what the impact will be.

The story that I shared with you about my trip to Atlanta, one of the most interesting things about that to me even now is that our unexpected host knows nothing of the rest of my story. When he was being hospitable to my friend and I, he had no idea how that would lead to a domino affect of grace to where a year later I would trust the Lord and think back on how God was coming to me in his care, I mean through the man's care, but in a sense Jesus was coming to him through us. I think one of the great delights of heaven will be discovering how what we may have considered throw away acts of kindness and hospitality were used by God in the life of another person to guide them into eternity. Our Savior was a visitor to this planet and a rejected one at that, and so he was and he is by the Spirit always conscious of the need for a hospitable spirit.

Now listen carefully because I am about to finish. We will never have the hospitable spirit that we can have until we have his Holy Spirit residing within us. That's why Verse 13 of John 1 is so important, and Verse 12. After it says that people did not receive him, it says, "Yet to all who received him" and then he qualifies it, "To those who believed in his name" you see how received and believed are connected? You see, faith in Jesus is not just knowledge, knowing that he is the Son of God, it's not even assent. The fact that he is the Son of God, there is a step of trust, of receiving him as the gift of God that is what salvation is all about. And it says that when we welcome him into our heart, the greatest act of hospitality ever, it is conferred upon us to be called to have the right to be children of God, born of God, that we are in God's family, that we are welcomed by God at that moment and forever.

When the Holy Spirit takes up residence in our life, God gives us the power to change and to welcome those who we would not normally welcome into our circle; to forgive, to knock down walls and to welcome those who we might be at odds with. In other words, we become a new person, we become a new creation, the old things pass away and the new comes. See, we can't be born into salvation because we are a member of a certain family or because we become a member of a church, we must receive the gift of God. That is what it says. He came to us; to those who received him he gave the right to become children of God. To not receive him in this way, to not turn ourselves over to him in this way, to not accept the light proves that we are alienated from God, and we would rather turn away from him and not have him control us, than have him control us. It emphasizes and proves our simpleness sinfulness. But one proof that salvation has occurred is when we welcome others outside our familiar circles and even more when we view others no matter what their human condition, the color of their skin, their background or whatever, when we view them and respect them as equal to ourselves.

In fact, if we come to this table and we don't have the attitude that I have just described, the Bible actually says that we eat and drink judgment onto ourselves, that we approach the Lord's table in an unworthy manner if we do not recognize that every other person who has named Christ is on an equal footing with us and deserves our respect. In fact, as we come to this table I am going to ask during prayer for just a time of silence so that you might think through who it is that I need to reconcile with in order to come to this table in a worthy manner. So let's do and you can check all that out in 1st Corinthians 11 sometime, but let's do what the apostle tells us to do before coming to the table; to examine ourselves before we eat and before we drink and then bask in the shared grace of God, which is available to each of us. As we receive these elements that they would be a strengthening for us, to welcome others and in turn help them be welcomed in the family of God.

Let's pray: Lord, we thank you for your goodness and grace to us. We thank you that you have come seeking us out when we were far off. We thank you Lord that indeed you are the greatest host of all time and that is was your shed blood, it was your resurrection and ascension into heaven and the promise of your coming again that has allowed us to be here; to worship you and to have the hope and peace of your Spirit. Turn all of our hearts toward you and help us to receive you as the true light of the world. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.

© 2006, Rev. George Antonakos
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145
www.centralpc.org