Hospitality, Genesis 18v1-15

A farmer went to the big city to see the sights. Checking in, he asked the hotel receptionist about the time of meals. ‘Breakfast is served from 6 am to 11 am; lunch from midday to 3 pm, and supper from 5.30 to 11.00 in the evening’. ‘Look here’ enquired the farmer in surprise, ‘when am I going to get some time to see the city?

The hospitality industry is big business in Britain, providing jobs for many people. So much so that when we hear the word hospitality we might well think first of a commercial transaction – paying to stay a night in a room. Or companies which provide receptions at weddings, that kind of thing. Hospitality is incredibly valuable in oiling the wheels of business, politics, estate agency, you name it.

And of course there is the hospitality that is offered to close friends and family. One wag once defined hospitality as ‘Making your guests feel at home, even when you wish they were.

In many parts of the world hospitality is still as it was in the days of Abraham: extremely generous. A stranger turns up announced, and no matter what the time of day, everything stops. He or she is warmly welcomed, given the best seat and a cold drink while the fatted calf is killed so a generous meal can be served

I heard of a man in an Africa village who was due to welcome guests from an English Diocese to his home as part of a link Diocese scheme. He had heard that Westerners were used to a different sort of loo. So he planned to install one. This man was going to blow his life savings on fitting a WC so that his guests could enjoy home comforts for a week.

Why such incredible generosity? In many societies, caring for your guests and giving them the best possible hospitality is a point of principle and honour. You disgrace yourself, your clan and your community if you do not welcome the stranger. 

After all your fellow human being is made in the image of God. Entertaining guests is a way of serving God. As Hebrews 13:2 puts it: ‘Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by doing so some people have entertained angels without knowing it.’ Or as Jesus said in Matthew 25 ‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.’ 

Many cultures have tales about divine beings arriving in human form, and the dreadful things that happen if they are turned away. Here v.1 informs the reader that the Lord appears to Abraham, so we know who the visitors are. But v.2 makes it clear that Abraham has not yet recognised God as he only sees three men. Interesting isn’t it that God appears as three – from very early on the church has seen this as a pointer to the Trinity and you may be familiar with the Orthodox icons on this theme like Rublev’s Hospitality of Abraham

Even by Middle Eastern standards, Abraham is exceptionally welcoming. Barking orders to Sarah and the servants he rushes round organising a meal with an extraordinary amount of bread and an entire calf just for three people. Surely it is no coincidence that these are also the offerings made to God in Old Testament worship? Like modern Bedouin they sit and eat yoghurt as their host respectfully stands by.

In v.9 there’s a hint of supernatural knowledge – how do they know that Abraham’s wife is called Sarah? The promise of a baby follows, Sarah laughs to herself. But nothing is hidden from their guest, and his true nature is revealed as v.13 uses God’s name: ‘The Lord said to Abraham ‘why did Sarah laugh?’

She laughs because of God’s amazing promise – the promise of a baby. Hospitality enables them to hear God’s great blessing. We’ll come to the promise later, but for now, what about hospitality? What can we learn from Abraham’s ministry of welcome

Firstly, hospitality is a ministry. It brings people together, it makes peace, it serves communities. Those who offer hospitality are bringing a great blessing and we need to thank them.

Secondly remember the words of Jesus about not seeking returns. When you give a party, don’t invite those who can repay you, Jesus said, invite those who have nothing. Hospitality that is given freely, that is offered to the poor, that includes the marginalised is hospitality that honours Jesus. He loves it when we step out from our friendship groups to greet the person who’s standing alone and unsure. When we serve those in need we serve him.

Thirdly, in Romans 12:13 St Paul says ‘Practice hospitality’. Practice makes perfect. Practice means doing it – offering hospitality isn’t just the responsibility of the few but for everyone. Practice means keep on doing it. Practice means be ambitious, have aims so you get better

For the reason behind hospitality is that each person matters to us because each person matters to God. Our needs, our hopes, our dreams matter to him. I wonder what you would do if God came to your house today? If Jesus came to my house I know that I would be like Jairus. I know the healing I would seek, the one whom I would bring to Jesus for him to heal and bless. Who or what would you bring to Jesus?

In the story, God knows Abraham and Sarah’s deepest longing. He knows the pain they have felt over many years. He offers hope even when they do not ask. 25 long years they have lived with this promise – God said you will become the father of many nations and they will inhabit this land. Over a quarter of a century Abraham and Sarah have become rich, but they do not possess the land God promised. During that time Abraham has become a father to Ishmael, but the mother was Sarah’s servant. Hope quenched seems to have become bitter

But here, God keeps his promise. What I love about this story is the way that God’s promise weaves together the big picture – the salvation of the world – and the personal blessing for an elderly couple. There’s the overarching story: how God promised that Israel would be a light to the nations, showing God’s love and giving rise to the Messiah, our Saviour. And there’s the personal story, how all this will happen when Abraham and Sarah have their longed for child.

God is able to include our lives in his creation-wide plan. Sometimes we may feel as if we are very small cogs in an enormously large machine. But actually we are God’s beloved children, hugely important to him.

A better picture might be a flower bed, a riot of colour. There are groups of plantings, blocks of blues purples and reds following the gardener’s plan. Yet this happens because each individual geranium or rose is following its destiny, being fulfilled in flowering.

God weaves a tapestry out of history and we should not be surprised if we surrender ourselves to him and then find that we are fulfilling our own purpose while playing a part on a greater stage. The key thing that has to happen though is our obedience: just before this reading God had appeared to Abraham. He gave Abraham the ceremony of circumcision – an outward sign to distinguish the Jewish people, and Abraham obeyed God. It’s that commitment and obedience which opens the way to finding God’s will

So if we ask God to steer us, then we must be prepared to hoist the sail. If we seek God’s guidance then there will be surprises on the way. As God weaves our story into his great tapestry, even our disappointments will be transformed by his grace.

It was such a shock and surprise that Sarah laughed. ‘Yeah right’ she thought – and God knew. She laughed again nine months later, and so Abraham and Sarah’s child was called Isaac – which means ‘laughter’. Laughter, joy, promise kept. The God who watches over us includes us in his plan –and laughs with us in our surprise.

 

 

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Trinity

Today is Trinity Sunday. Traditionally, it’s a week when the Vicar has the day off from preaching. Instead trying to explain the Trinity is handed over to the poor curate in training. For the next three years we’ll have a curate. But in the meantime, it looks as if it’s still down to me.

I wonder what you think of when I say Trinity? Trinity may be a university college, a lighthouse or a newspaper group. It’s become a girl’s name – spiritual, a bit mysterious, kind of traditional but also modern. But for most of us, the Trinity is a bit like this: E=mc2.

We recognise it. We know it’s important. But I suspect few of us know what E=mc2 means. Or what difference it makes. And even fewer people could say why it is true. For most of us, the Trinity is similar – we know about it, we know it’s important, but what is it and why?

In essence, the Holy Trinity is the Christian belief that there is one God who exists as three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If we look at the Creed it explains that each member of the Trinity also has a role. The Father is the Creator, the Son is Jesus, the Spirit is God within us. All together, they are one God: Father Son and Holy Spirit.

How on earth can that be? Christians throughout the ages have used illustrations. You might like the clover leaf –one single leaf, with three lobes, or the Toblerone: chocolate, nut and nougat in one three sided sweet. Everyday pictures where an item is both three and one. Analogies for how God can be one in three persons. Yet they are just that: pictures from creation which give us a pattern. But how could we expect to understand God? God is so far above us, he is so majestic and awesome, we surely can’t expect to get our heads fully around him.

Christian theology tells us that we can know God because Jesus shows us what he is like. But ultimately, we cannot fully understand God. There is a difference between knowing and comprehending, experiencing and mastering. And that goes for the Trinity too. Surely, if our minds could fully grasp him then he would no longer be God!

Perhaps we need to take that on board more. Sometimes we think of God in a way which is far too cosy – my spiritual friend, or a kind of Santa up there, a father figure whose job it is to answer prayers and protect good people. God is far bigger and deeper than we imagine. It is easy in worship to try and explain everything. Often we make our God too small. Let us come to God’s presence knowing that we stand on holy ground. Trinity Sunday reminds us he is greater than we can ever imagine.

But is it a Biblical belief? Sometimes people object to the Trinity doctrine and say that it isn’t in the Bible. Certainly, if you look up the word Trinity in the index, you won’t find it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a Biblical grounded idea.

Just look at the Gospel reading. Please turn Matthew 28. In v.19 Jesus says: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.’ This is worth a closer look.

The Father, Son and Spirit are each mentioned, so they are separate individuals. Jesus puts them in an order of priority. But he doesn’t distinguish between them as if one is God and the others aren’t. He doesn’t say, ‘the Father, who is God, and then the Son who is something a bit lesser, and finally the Spirit too’. No, they are all on an equal footing. And he says ‘in the name of’. Not ‘names’ plural. But ‘name’ singular. Meaning one God. One God. Three persons.

The reading from 2 Corinthians 13 is similar. In verse 13 ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’. Again, all three mentioned, again seemingly put on a level with one another, again all working together. Paul gives each a different attribute and interestingly he puts Jesus first – but again it’s obvious that the belief in the Trinity is Biblically founded. It took the early church a long time to hammer out precisely what it meant – but there was never any real doubt over whether it was true.

There are many Biblical passages which support the Trinity. It’s so Biblical, that the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who don’t believe in the Trinity, actually change the words of their Bibles to make it fit their beliefs.

So if you ever hear anyone say the Trinity isn’t Biblical, you can put them right. Don’t be worried either if you can’t understand it – that’s natural. Doubt too is o.k, if we bring it honestly to God. After all, in v. 17 of the reading, the disciples doubted even while worshipping Jesus.

So the Trinity is Biblical and a mystery. But what difference does it make? What does it mean for us today and tomorrow, out of that door?

Well, it tells us that God loves this world, he’s doing something about it, and he wants us to join him. The Trinity means God exists in a kind of family, bound together in love. And that love overflows to share with the whole universe. God’s love is so generous, like a champagne fountain, overflowing from the top most glass all the way down.

I wonder if there was much champagne drunk on Thursday night? Some politicians would be celebrating, others less so. Many of us might be excused for thinking ‘Thank goodness it’s all over!’ The television crews have disappeared, the door knockers have gone home and posters are coming down. All of a sudden, we get news from the rest of the world. I expect that many people, whatever their views about the result, are breathing a big sigh of relief that it’s all over for a while.

Elections are a reminder of the importance of relationships to humanity. We belong to a society with responsibilities to one another, where our actions have effects on other people. We depend on others for our day to day existence, and they depend on us. Men and women find themselves in other people – in those intimate relationships like marriage or true friendship we find out who we really are and are given the freedom to grow. There are tradeoffs between the individual and society as a whole – a lot of political debate revolves around this. We exist in relationship with others, and, like it or not, without them we would be lost.

Christianity says the reason that we are like this is that we take after God. A God who lives in relationship. Whose very nature is Trinity. That’s another reason why the static models of the Trinity fall short. Of course the Trinity is deeper than a Jaffa cake! But it’s also much more dynamic than that. The Father, the Son, they’re words used of a family. God exists as three persons in mutual relationship. Society is the nature of God.

Think about how the Trinity shows us God in relationship: God the Father made the universe, created beings who could love one another and love him. God the Son, Jesus, came to earth. He taught people, showed us the right way to live, brought healing, and through his death forgave us our sins. God the Holy Spirit lives within us, giving us power to change, and transform our world.

In other words, God is already at work in our world, and in the gospel reading we hear that he wants us to join him. God’s on a mission, and he calls us to his side. Don’t imagine that the church takes God into the world – as if he’s strapped into a baby carrier and needs a bit of help to get out and meet people!

God’s already there. The world is his, it belongs to him. As Jesus said in v. 18 ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’ It’s Jesus’ world. He’s already there, already at work. People may not recognise him but he’s there. ‘Go therefore and make disciples.’ Go and join what the Spirit of God is doing. Share in his work. Help people to perceive him, help them to understand and make sense of where God is in their lives. Help them to recognise Jesus.

God calls us to join him in that task. Sometimes we give it a name: Mission. The danger of giving the task a name is that mission sounds like an add-on activity for a few keen people. That’s not the case. Mission is what God does, and he commands his church to join him. Mission is intrinsic to God’s very nature. So a church cannot exist for itself and by itself. It must be outward looking.

In doing that, we have a wonderful promise, right at the end of Matthew’s gospel in V.20 ‘Remember I am with you always, to the end of the age’ Jesus is with us. Not because we’re taking him with us from inside the church. But because when we go out, we’ll meet him already in the world. Because it’s his world. Because he is already at work there, drawing people to himself. Because he is the risen and ascended Lord, before whom one day all creation will bow. Let’s therefore have confidence in his presence and our relationship with him. Amen.

 

 

 

Evangelism Series 4, Father’s Day, Trinity and baptisms

I wonder where your favourite place is? It may be somewhere real or perhaps a fantasy place you go to in your mind when you get stressed! Mine is a sunny beach, sloping towards a gentle surf, there is sand and rock pools. Bracken covered hills encircle the bay and a stream running off them can be made into a dam. This ideal beach really exists – we found it in mid-April in North Devon, a place called Croyde. What’s more it had something you’d never imagine by a beach – it would sound too far-fetched. It even had a National Trust café!

I say ‘we’ because I don’t think that the perfect place is somewhere I’m alone. It wouldn’t be perfect without people; family and friends. When first married, my ideal holiday was the Swiss Alps – but that doesn’t suit toddlers or wheelchairs. Now the seaside works for us and our friends– it’s their presence and enjoyment that makes the joy complete.

Of course there is value in solitude, we all need time alone to an extent. But human beings are social animals, we live and thrive in relationship. Christians believe this is because we are made in the image of God – we are God’s children, created to be like him, and he has relationship at the very core of his being.

Today, as Father’s Day and Trinity Sunday combine (with a baptism), we remember that God himself exists as one God but three persons in relationship with one another. Our affirmation of faith that we’ll say later in the service has three parts: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Although the word ‘Trinity’ is not itself used in the Bible, Scripture reveals this mysterious threefold nature of God, as in the readings, and we may also see the pattern in our experience of life.

We are asked ‘Do you believe in God the Father, source of all being and life, the one for whom we exist?’ As the Isaiah reading reminded us, God is the creator of all that is, he brought us into being out of pure love, not to meet any need or lack in himself. He is the ultimate example of Fatherhood, a perfectly loving father who cares for us.

 

Being a parent is a great joy. There’s nothing quite like returning home and being greeted by the smiles and hugs of the children. Sometimes you may find you need reminding of that – at something past five o’clock in the morning as two small children bounce on the bed, or that particular scream tells you that someone has pulled someone else’s hair.

That is a reminder of human brokenness. It’s part of the human condition that none of us manage to attain the ideals we set ourselves, let alone God’s perfect will for us. More seriously, many people’s experience of an earthly father has been bad so that it can be difficult for them to think of God as a ‘Father’. Our relationships with one another and with God fall short of what they could be. So our next question asks ‘Do you believe in God the Son, who took our human nature, died for us and rose again’.

There’s an old Indian saying that if you want to get alongside someone you first have to walk a mile in their shoes. That is what God did. Rather than try and help from a distance, God enters the world in Jesus, becoming one of us and sharing our life. He shows us the way to live.

Jesus also bears the pain of forgiveness. As any parent knows, love involves sacrifice. Anything worthwhile does. There is cost, in time and labour, children grow up and you have to let go. I’ve heard it said that the hardest thing is watching them make the same mistakes you made – and even if you try and advise them you may be brushed off. And inevitably there is the need to forgive. God’s love for us is freely given, but there is a cost to it. The cost of love given without limit in forgiving. We see that cost on the cross as Jesus bears human rejection and dies for our sin.

But he rose again at Easter and in the gospel reading we hear how Christ returns to God promising the Holy Spirit to those who accept him. So the final question in the affirmation of faith is ‘Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, who gives life to the people of God and makes Christ known in the world?’ God wants us to be in a relationship with him, and the Holy Spirit makes that possible. He is God present within us.

It’s an amazing thing, that God seeks relationship with us. God doesn’t want servants, or converts or our good deeds. He wants us. Sandy Millar, who was the Vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton, home of the Alpha course, wrote this:

 ‘Some years ago I was at a conference in California. We had a wonderful evening and when it was over I went for a walk along the ocean. I was caught up with the excitement of all that lay ahead and just the thrill of the spirit of God. I was praying ‘I will give you anything you want…I will do anything you want me to do’ And I confess I was rather immodestly listing one or two of the things I thought he might want me to do.

Sandy continues: ‘I can honestly claim to have only heard the Lord speak about three times in this way, but as clearly as I have ever heard him speak, he said ‘All I want is you’.

‘All I want is you’. What can we offer God who made the universe? All he wants is you. God calls us to know him, and through us he calls others to know him. Those of us who have found God have a duty to tell others. It’s natural when we’ve found something wonderful to share it with others – as I mentioned at the beginning when thinking of the beach at Croyde.  

In the gospel reading, Jesus tells us to pass on our faith which is what we’re doing today in the baptism. He tells the apostles: ‘Make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’

I just want to spend a final couple of minutes thinking about that and how we put it into practice. Jesus says ‘make disciples’ and then goes on to explain what that means. Firstly, he says ‘Baptise’ and this is important because it’s a visible commitment. Not everyone chooses to get their children baptised nowadays, I think it’s about one in five, so it’s a positive choice when a family does. Perhaps you are saying ‘This is important to me, I want my children to be brought up this way, and later on they can make their own decision.’

But let’s not just apply it to children. Is there a challenge here to adult Christians to be willing to stand up and be counted? How do we continue to live out our baptism promises today?

Secondly, Jesus says ‘Teach’. We take it for granted that children need to be taught. They might learn about Christianity at school, but I don’t think you can rely solely on that. School can only supplement home, which is the most important place for learning and living out faith. The example and teaching given by the adults in their lives are crucial – parents and godparents are vital…

Teaching is not just for children either. Adults learn throughout our lives. A disciple is always learning. Our Christian growth should not stop at confirmation, and it may be that many of us have questions we would like to ask. That’s why I’m running a Foundations course this coming Autumn for anyone who wants to find out more about faith.

Thirdly, Jesus says ‘Obey’.  G K Chesterton once said ‘It’s not the parts of the Bible I can’t understand that trouble me. The parts of the Bible that trouble me are the parts I understand only too well.’ A faith that’s lived out is a faith that’s real. Faith has to make the transition from something we believe in our minds, to something which affects our hearts and is lived out. It needs to make a difference when you go out that door.

But one thing is absolutely essential: the focus on God and his love. Whether we are bringing up a child in the Christian faith after baptism, or sharing our faith with someone we know, it is about helping them to know God through Christ and the Holy Spirit. And that God is a God who wants to know them.