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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I wonder if any of you have been to a local farmer’s market? I love going see what’s on offer, although to be honest it would probably be better if I left my wallet at home. There are so many wonderful culinary delights. Once you’ve tasted they’re so great you feel you must buy!

But think of our New Testament reading from Acts 11:1-18. If St Peter had seen such food in his vision he would have been horrified. Delicious black pudding, spare ribs, bacon sandwiches, moules mariniere, or even any sort of meat cooked together with cheese – all these would be out of bounds to an observant Jew like St. Peter. Religious law would not allow him to eat them.

And there were good reasons for that. When God gave the Jewish food laws to his people it was partly for their protection. In the days before good farm hygiene, pigs lived off rubbish and so pork products were notoriously unhealthy; before clean water and refrigeration, anyone eating shellfish risked poisoning. Scientifically speaking, many of the Jewish food laws made excellent sense in the conditions of the time.

Not just that, but God gave the food laws to bind the Jewish people together. Sharing food is a communal event. Like halal or kosher today, having particular rituals around food helps a community to stick together and keep their identity. Not eating pork, say, marks you out as different and factors like this enabled the Jews to keep their religious and ethnic identity despite being scattered worldwide. In the Book of Maccabees obedience to the food laws is a test of faith, people were persecuted, burnt alive rather than taste ham. By the time of Acts, God’s people have been keeping these laws for hundreds of years. They were really important: one of the things that defined who you were. The attitude to food wasn’t restrictive either: family celebrations around Sabbath were joyful events.

Some of the best times of fellowship we have as a church are when we share meals together. I think it would be lovely to do it more. Imagine how difficult it would be though if some people wouldn’t join in! And that was the problem. God’s people, the Jews, wanted to obey his laws. To be sure of doing so, they stayed clear of any risk of compromise.

So, at the time, strict Jews would not eat with Gentiles, even items that should have been ok, because they couldn’t be sure what the Gentiles had done to the food. And if you won’t eat with people, it’s rather hard to get on with them. In fact, if you feel that someone else’s food is unclean, it’s a very short step to imagining that the person is unclean.

And this is exactly what some strict groups thought at the time of Christ. There’s a very revealing text in John 18:28 where the Jewish leaders go to see Pilate but ‘they themselves did not enter the headquarters so as to avoid ritual defilement and be able to eat the Passover.’ They wouldn’t even be in the same room because they felt they would become unclean.

Now if Peter had been like that, how on earth was he going to be able to take the good news out to the world? Jesus said in Luke 24:47 ‘forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in my name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’ That’s what Jesus intended. But unless something changed, Peter wouldn’t get very far at all. How could he possibly preach the good news if he wouldn’t associate with foreigners?

In our story, God had to send an angel to a Roman called Cornelius, telling him to send for Peter who will give Cornelius a message by which he can be saved. Cornelius does just that, and as the messengers are approaching the house where Peter is staying, the apostle is deep in prayer. Like many of us when we pray, he obviously struggled with distractions. Perhaps dinner is late, and his tummy is rumbling!

Whatever the cause, God works with his distraction. He can use ours too. If you are distracted in prayer then make a subject out of the distraction. Pray about it. Pray for the thing or person that has popped into mind. I use a pen and paper to jot down ideas that come to me so I don’t forget because sometimes God actually uses those distractions to speak to us, lay things on our hearts.

That’s what happens here. Peter sees the vision of all these unclean animals being offered for him to eat. Peter knows it’s from God, but he can’t overcome his background. Horrified, he says in v.8 ‘By no means Lord, for nothing unclean or profane has ever entered my mouth’.

But the Lord replies in v.9. ‘What God has made clean you must not call profane’ – as if these animals are no longer forbidden. It happens three times, and just as Peter’s got the point, the messengers arrive.

Obediently, Peter goes. He enters the house, speaks to Cornelius, and in v.15 ‘The Holy Spirit fell on them just as it had on us in the beginning.’ The moral is clear, in v.17 ‘If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ God made his will clear: he wanted the Gentiles to hear the good news. No longer should the disciples regard non-Jews as unclean, because Jesus is for everyone. In forgiving Gentiles and Jews alike, God has made us all clean.

We can’t overstate the importance of this. If this had never happened, Christianity would have remained a minority Jewish sect. We wouldn’t be here. The openness of Jews like Peter and Paul means that we too can come to God and be free from any ritual requirement. The self-appointed guardians of tradition were ready to criticise, but Peter explains it step by step with patience and conviction.

Of course that was a unique, one off situation. Yet there is a sense in which the church today encounters decisions with similar principles. We find ourselves assessing new developments. The culture around us changes, what is seen as normal and acceptable alters over time, contemporary morality evolves and the church has to work out how to respond. Sometimes the right answer is to stand fast.

On the other hand this reading shows us that change can be possible. While Christian core beliefs remain the same, traditions and forms of expression may change, but it needs to be God’s will. How do we know? The reading gives us a fourfold pattern. These are the questions we must ask when something new is suggested:

Does it agree with Scripture? God’s will is made clear through his word in the Bible – in v.16 Peter recalls Jesus’ teaching. He might also have remembered how Jesus declared all foods clean, how Jesus healed Gentiles, and how he spoke of a mission to the world. Although it seemed a radical departure, it naturally flowed out of Scripture.

Other signs are that God’s will is shown in the fruits of the Spirit – does a proposed course of action result in love, joy, peace and so on? And God’s will can be discerned in people’s experience of his guidance – like Peter’s vision of the animals. Those different aspects work together and they need to be saying the same thing. Finally, can the church reach a common mind? God’s will is recognised by the church agreeing together, as happens in v.18 when they all say Peter has done the right thing. Easier said than done and sometimes the church’s attention switches to how we can live together even while disagreeing.

Those are the questions the church needs to ask and it’s not a quick process. Although the answer is reached quickly at first, the controversy about the Gentiles never really goes away throughout the New Testament. Reaching a common mind takes time.

It’s bewildering for onlookers. To a modern Westerner an issue like women bishops seems obvious. Non-Christians genuinely cannot understand why some issues are a problem – sometimes they see the church as bigoted. Christians need to hear that, and perhaps also get better at explaining how we do make decisions.

It was a huge change for Peter and the other disciples. But there’s something deeper going on here. More than the church making decisions. More than mixing with people from different backgrounds. I’ll illustrate it using an analogy:

I love Scotland. Imagine if I wanted to be a Scotsman, and went off to live in the wildest part of the Highlands, would that make me Scottish? No. If I ate haggis and neeps and drank whisky every day, I’d be happy, but would I be Scottish? No. If I wore a kilt I would not be a Scotsman, nor would I have the legs for it. The only way to be a Scotsman is to be born one, maybe one day there might be a citizenship process. What’s certain is that just doing Scottish type things doesn’t make you Scottish.

Similarly, doing Jewish things wouldn’t make the Gentiles into Jews. Peter’s church had to learn that if the non-Jews wanted to become God’s children, it wasn’t a matter of bashing square pegs into round holes. You had to be much more radical. Everyone would have to be born as a child of God. It had to go deeper than the surface things, it had to be in their very nature. All would have to start afresh. In other words, everyone, Gentile or Jew, would have to be born again.

As he thought about this, Peter realised this would have to be the case. After all, he knew that God accepted him, not on the basis of the outward religious actions Peter did, but because God loved him. Jesus had forgiven Peter when he denied him, not because Peter was such a good chap (he’d let Jesus down after all), but because Jesus loved Peter so much he had died so Peter’s sins could be forgiven.

And if that applied to Peter, surely it would apply to everyone? We are not God’s children because of our outward religious traditions, but because God the Father loves us and Christ gave himself to save us. Whoever we are, we are in the same position, depending on God’s grace. And that means things like the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the kind of music we use in worship, whether we like informality or solemnity, all the little things that divide Christians don’t really matter.

And all the things that might stop someone from outside venturing through those doors, are they really so important to us? Is there any human tradition in this church which acts as a stumbling block to visitors? Are there any customs that would be Christians must take on to belong? If there are, why? Even in-jokes and banter can cause offence if you’re not part of the group.

Should we not rather do everything in our power to demonstrate the central truth in our reading: that all people can have faith in Christ? That knowing God is not a matter of food or drink or special days, but receiving forgiveness in Jesus? That no matter what our race or background, the truths of the gospel apply to us all and each must make their own response? As we seek to reach out for Christ, let us be clear about what really matters.