I love going to church in different places. I remember attending a church in China, singing along to “What a friend we have in Jesus” while the rest of the church sang in Mandarin and the smiling elderly ladies behind me patted my shoulder and passed me a much-needed fan (I’m not built for intemperate weather). I once attended a tiny church in the interior after a week of camping with my sisters. We smelled like campfire and the congregation still greeted us with smiles and said how much they enjoyed hearing my sister’s harmony during the hymns. I remember chatting after a service in Austin, Texas and playing a particularly successful game of “Hey, do you know so-and-so?” The Christian world can be comfortingly small.
Most vividly, I remember sitting in a pew in a new church, feeling more than a little anxious and beginning to suspect that I had made rather a bad decision. It was my third day in England, having arrived with two suitcases and a teaching job for the term. I had no acquaintances, nowhere to live, and three days before the start of classes. But I got up, put on an ever so slightly strained smile and headed to the church that I had chosen, one that had a functioning website and looked reasonably close to what I was accustomed to in Vancouver. I arrived that church feeling completely alone, but I left that morning with an invitation for lunch from a friendly family (Roast beef and Yorkshire puddings, no less) and the reassurance that God’s family is also mine, no matter where I happen to be.
There’s another meal by which I know I’m among my family, when we take communion together. Along with the words of institution, there is often a bit that goes something like this: ‘this isn’t St. Peter’s table, it’s the Lord’s table. Come and be fed.’
Think on that. All the different tables in all the different churches around the world, from highly ornate gilded altars to a hand planed oak. All the tables belong to God and we are invited guests at each of them. Come and eat. You are welcome and valued. Come and join your family for a meal.
The communion meal shows us who we are and how we are related to one another. The sacrificial love of Christ, embodied for us in the bread and the wine, is the means by which we can have a relationship with God. This love is also the means by which we can truly love each other. The welcome of God exemplifies how we can welcome one another and those who come to visit our family.
The bread and the wine demonstrate the costly and loving sacrifice of Jesus. The fact that we serve them to one another reminds me that we are to be vessels and examples of the scandalous hospitality of God.
Ken Shigematsu, in one of his books, tells the story of Brother Alphonsus, who “served as a doorkeeper in the seventeenth century at a Jesuit college in Majorca, Spain. Each time someone knocked at the door he would reply, ‘I am coming, Lord!’ This practice reminded him to treat each person with as much respect as if it were Jesus himself at the door.” It inspires me to me consider my actions and attitudes with greater care. How would I greet Jesus if he came to Sunday services? If he showed up at my community group?
I’m not sure that I would be content to offer him what we so easily offer each other and the guests that wander into our subterranean foyer, the easy and slightly reserved Canadian politeness, the well-meaning small talk and awkward smiling. Don’t get me wrong! These can be beautiful and often come from the heart (my slightly formal, reserved, and introverted heart…). Often these overtures are the place to begin.
Thomas Long puts it this way, “We show hospitality to strangers not merely because they need it, but because we need it, too…” We were pilgrims and wanderers, aliens and strangers, even enemies of God, but we, too, were welcomed into this place. To show hospitality to the stranger is, as Gordon Lathrop has observed, to say, “We are beggars here together. Grace will surprise us both.”
To be clear though, this small beginning, this initial foray into relationship is only the start of living hospitable lives. A smile and a word of welcome are easy for most. They should be our default interaction as human beings. To be truly welcoming, we have to open the door into our lives. We have to spend the thing which is often more precious to us than money, our time. This is not easy! It takes vulnerability and courage to share our lives with others. For many of us, it takes the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit to shift our priorities and address our insecurities. Likewise, and sometimes even more difficult, we must learn to accept the gift of relationship when others offer it to us. We must learn to value our place in God’s family, to suspend our own judgmental natures and not to mistrust each others’ motivations. These interactions strive to move beyond friendliness, towards friendship. True hospitality involves the willingness to know others and be known by them.
This understanding changes how we view the ministry of hospitality. Making strangers welcome in our congregation is not merely an end in itself. It gives space for the Holy Spirit to bind us together as family. In that movement, we are reminded of the loving grace of the God who “puts the lonely in families” and who will gather the tribes and tongues together as one reconciled and united family.
As I serve God and my family by greeting people, handing them service sheets and Bibles, and answering questions about our church, I am reminded of the miraculous truth that God has welcomed me. Even more vividly, as I serve communion at our family meal, I am reminded that the grace of God flows to me and then through me. The bread and the wine demonstrate the costly and loving sacrifice of Jesus. The fact that we serve them to one another reminds me that we are to be vessels and examples of the scandalous hospitality of God.