Let’s Be Frank About Strangers

Second in a Series on 3 John,
Delivered July 12, 1998 by Dr. Ronald W. Scates

Sermon Text:
3 John 5-8
5 Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers,
even though they are strangers to you.
6 They have told the church about your love. You will do well to send
them on their way in a manner worthy of God.
7 It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no
help from the pagans.
8 We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work
together for the truth.

We are all familiar with food critics and movie critics. Sometimes we won’t buy a book until we have read a review. What if they had church critics, people that went around and rated churches? Well they do. Every week I read Ruth Gledhill’s column in The Times of London. She travels around Great Britain and puts churches up against her five star rating. In America we now have the Rev. George Exus in Pittsburgh who has a radio show and on that radio show he rates churches.

What if there was a church rating service in Baltimore? How would they rate Central Presbyterian? How would we fare? Well that was a very real question before an early church congregation in the first century. We met that congregation last week. We met one of its leaders Gaius, the son in the faith of the apostle John.

As we continue our four-part sermon series in opening someone else’s mail – looking at this very intimate personal letter from the apostle to this church leader Gaius – we are going to see in the text before us this morning that John rates this church that Gaius is a leader of. How many stars is he going to give this early church congregation? Well let’s take a look.

Turn with me in your Bibles to Third John as this morning we look at verses five through eight. I would encourage you to keep your Bible open during the sermon as we will be referring back to the text. Third John, beginning to read with the fifth verse. This is the Word of God.

Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love. You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God. It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth.

Well, first of all, a little bit of background that will help you and me make a whole lot more sense out of those verses we just read.

Back in the First Century the chief evangelistic and teaching ministry of the church took place with traveling missionaries who would out of the blue show up on the doorsteps of churches and it was up to those churches to house them and to put them up for the night. They had to house them, feed them and maybe give them some money; this was very common in the early church. In fact we have a first century document called the Didache that laid out some guidelines for these traveling missionaries.

First of all they were not to stay more than one day with the church, possibly two days if there was an emergency, but if they tried to stay longer than that, that was evidence that they were false prophets.

Because of the scarcity of Holiday Inns and Motel 6’s back then, the second rule was that if one of these traveling missionaries showed up, the church was to provide them with room and board. All of their livelihood depended on the churches taking care of them. They were to give them food, a place to stay, and encouragement in their ministry; however, a third guideline was that these itinerant missionaries were not to ask the church for money. The church was free to give them money if they wanted to but if they asked for it that again was a sign that they were false prophets.

How well I remember some fifteen or sixteen years ago one late afternoon as I was by myself in the church, two bearded, sandaled, robed individuals walked into the door of The First Presbyterian Church of San Antonio. They told me that they were on a pilgrimage to meet Jesus. That Jesus was living in Boerne, Texas, which is a town north of San Antonio and they were on their way to meet him. Then they asked me if they could sleep in our sanctuary that night. I said “no – but we’ve got dorms in our youth building and you are more than welcome to spend the night there”. They said “No – we want to sleep in the sanctuary because that’s where God is.” As I was trying to reason with them, one of them noticed that I was wearing a wedding band and he said “Are you married?” and I said “Yes” and then they said “Ahhhhhh! We know that you are not a man of God because if you were truly in love with Jesus you wouldn’t be married.” Well I politely showed them out the door.

Now was I being inhospitable? That’s a serious question as John in the text before us lays out his commendation of Gaius because he has been hospitable to traveling missionaries. In fact in verse five John praises Gaius for his extraordinary faithfulness in light of the fact that these missionaries are complete strangers to Gaius. It’s one thing to be hospitable to friends and family and people you know and it’s a whole other thing to roll out the red carpet for total strangers.

This text reminds me and convicts me that if you and I are really serious about following Jesus Christ and if we are truly serious about making sure that Central is a place that ultimately glorifies God then you and I have got to work through a Biblical theology of the stranger.

We have all grown up as kids living on the axiom of “Don’t talk to strangers”, but then as we grow up most of us have discarded diapers and yo-yo’s and Barbie dolls, but many of us still continue to hang onto that axiom – “Don’t talk to strangers.” Now if you carry it to the nth-degree it is known as xenophobia after the word “xenos” that John uses in this text for the word strangers. Xenophobia is a fear of strangers. In lesser ways you and I manifest that in our lives when you and I tend to gravitate toward people that we know. I mean it’s much more comfortable to be around folks you’re familiar with, who look like you and dress like you do and act like us; that’s just a part of our human nature. But are we not to talk to strangers?

John praises Gaius because he has hammered out a theology of the stranger that in the name of Jesus Christ propels him toward people he doesn’t know. And he ministers to them and by so doing he builds up the body of Christ. Don’t talk to strangers – kids need to hear that because it’s necessary sometimes but it’s not Biblical, not when we are adults and we are committed to being a Biblical church. That’s why I am convinced that one of our goals here at Central has got to be to make sure that we’re not just a friendly church but a hospitable church. There is a big difference between the two.

A friendly church is where everybody is kind of like boiled potatoes. We smile at each other, we greet each other, we slap each other on the back but we kind of bounce off each other.

A hospitable church is a church where people are like mashed potatoes, where we seek out the guest, the stranger and try to enfold them and make them feel a part of us and who we are.

What about Central? How do we rate? We have a reputation as a very, very friendly church, but are we intentional enough about being biblically hospitable. You see I really believe that we have to hammer out a biblical theology of the stranger. In Genesis, God commends Abraham for the way he treats strangers, the good way he treats them by showing them kindness and hospitality. In Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy God mandates, weaves into the very faith system of the children of Israel that they are not to treat aliens and strangers like the surrounding culture does, which is to treat them with suspicion and neglect. Instead God says “You are responsible physically and spiritually for the welfare of every alien and stranger within your gate.”

In Matthew 25 Jesus says “As you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.” Then in Hebrews 13:2 and you will find that at the top of your bulletin, we are reminded that all of those mundane nameless, faceless strangers that you and I bump in to could actually be nothing less than an angelic being. Well we better treat them right. Gaius had this theology of the stranger pretty well worked out. He moved toward the stranger and apparently that theology had permeated that early church of which he was one of the leaders. So that church became known as a place where itinerant missionaries could come and be encouraged and built up and taken care of and launched into ministry.

What about us? Are we a friendly church or are we a hospitable church? I know how tough it is being a part of a church like Central, a church where God graciously and generously every week blesses us with great numbers of visitors, guest, aliens and strangers who wander in here. I know how discomforting it is because you’re always bumping into someone you don’t know. I know how it is to sometimes take that risk and go and introduce yourself to someone you don’t know and you ask them if they are visiting and they tell you that they have been a member of Central for seven years. All of those strangers that wander in here and lo’ and behold you come into the sanctuary some Sunday morning and they are sitting in your pew. But God continues to bless this congregation every week.

Every week these blue cards come in and I write them letters. I know how many strangers and guest are in our midst, it’s a whole bunch. And God continues to bring them because he wants to see what we are going to do with them.

Some of them are Christians from other places who we need to come along side of and encourage and love and build up and really undergird them in their ministries elsewhere. Others are those who have not yet come to know Jesus Christ but God has something up his sleeve and God brings them here in our midst. Oh if we were a congregation full of men and women who are like Gaius!

Hey do you remember when Gaius was a member? Actually he was an elder here – do you remember that? He was – I’m not kidding! Gaius was a member of Central Church. If you have been around here longer than five years you know who I’m talking about don’t you? Frank Meeder.

Frank Meeder was a Gaius. He was a guy who had hammered out a theology of the stranger. Frank Meeder was like a heat seeking missle going around these buildings gravitating toward people, anyone who was not familiar to him, introducing himself and making them feel welcome, calling them later that afternoon trying to connect them with other people at Central; remembering their names so that the next time he saw them he could greet them personally. I mean the parallels between Frank and Gaius in this passage jump out at me.

What was Frank’s other great passion besides the stranger in our midst? What was it? Missions! Look at the parallels here between Gaius and Frank. Frank’s love was entertaining visiting missionaries. Frank also became a missionary. Look at John’s definition of missionary in verse seven. It is one who goes out for the sake of the name, the name of Christ. Frank became a missionary, he went all over the world on short-term missions. You can be a missionary. You can go to Cambodia. That’s one way to be a missionary. Or it can be going across the aisle of this church and showing hospitality to someone who is a stranger. Hospitality for the sake of the name – the name of Jesus.

I can’t help but think when I look at this text before us to look at the link between Gaius’s hospitality and the larger world mission enterprise of the church of Jesus Christ as these itinerant missionaries come into Gaius’s frame of reference. That link is there and we are a big missions church. What does that mean to us as a church? I think that there is a real paradigm here for us. Now it might be too simplistic to say that our effectiveness in world missions is directly related to how hospitable we are and yet at the same time I think that there is a real clear relationship there.

Gaius was a leader in a church that had learned how to receive strangers and that’s called hospitality; however, note in the text that they were also a church that had learned to then launch those strangers back out into ministry for Jesus Christ – that’s called apostolicity – being a sending church. Gaius, Frank Meeder and our mission statement – (look at the mission statement on the front of your bulletin). It pretty much parallels this text. Frank, Gaius and our mission statement have grasped that part of a theology of a stranger that says that nobody comes into these doors by accident; that God brings strangers and guest and aliens and visitors into our mist, some as I said who are Christians who we need to help further their ministry and others who have yet to name the name who we are to embrace, love and move toward Christ so that they can come to discover who they really are and what ministries God might have in store for them when one day they are able to name the name.

So you’re here this morning and you spot somebody you don’t know, they’re a stranger – what do you do? Do you move toward them or do you think to yourself “No somebody else will do that?” What would Gaius do?

Hey I’ve got an idea – we could market a whole series of bracelets with “WWGD” what would Gaius do? I think that might fly! You’re in your pew and you see someone fill out one of those blue guest cards or the ministry of friendship pad comes by you and you notice someone’s checked “visitor” – What would Frank do? “WWFD” well we could have two lines of bracelets – this is getting good! Do you invite them out to lunch after worship? Do you write down their phone number and give them a call this afternoon and say “Man I’m glad you worshiped with us today. Do you have any questions or is there anyway I can be of help to you?”?

A businessman in Chicago about two decades ago called his wife and said “Honey I’m bringing home an international for dinner”. Now this is the last thing that women needed to hear. She had three kids in school, one preschooler at home and she had a jillion things she had to do but she said “Okay”. So she began to put together a nice dinner and this man brought this international home who was an official with the Spanish Government and they had a nice evening, a great meal. In fact it was a meal that Spanish official never quite forgot.

Years and years later a missionary couple set off for Spain where their ministry was immediately torpedoed by a bunch of government regulations and it looked like they were going to have to pack up and go home, until somehow in God’s providence that Spanish official got wind that the missionary couple were good friends with that family that had him over for dinner years ago. The Spanish official cut through all the red tape, opened the doors of Spain to that couple and there is a church planted in that Province of Spain this very day, due in part, to a meal of hospitality. Why not be “Frank” with strangers.

Join me as we pray –
Father, just when we find a great comfort zone of friends and acquaintances your infallible word pushes us out past that for the sake of eternal life. Lord God give us antennae that pick up strangers in our sphere of life. Give us hearts that care about them, give us legs that will move us toward them that this church would be a hospitable place where people will be encouraged and then launched out into ministry for the sake of the name, the name which is above every other name – Jesus Christ our Lord – Amen.