It’s pleasant to spend time with friends who have similar ideas to our own, or a similar background or lifestyle. Conversation flows easily, there is fun and laughter. There are often plans made to meet again, perhaps at a different house or another venue. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews challenged the Christians of his day to adopt a radical hospitality that didn’t just include those who seemed to be the obvious folk to welcome. This echoes Jesus’ teaching on hospitality also.
The readings on 1 September were Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 and Luke 14:1, 7-14. My reflection from the noon service follows:
Mrs Prior lived in a village in Wales. She was an elderly widow, no longer very strong, who needed to walk with a walking stick. The walk up the hill to her little terraced house perched on the mountainside was always a challenge to her but she didn’t let that prevent her getting out and about.
Every week Mrs Prior took the bus into Cardiff in order to visit her friends for tea. She combined this with attending the Bible study at her church afterwards. This meant that she needed to take the last bus to get home in the late evening.
One winter’s night she found that it was snowing as she travelled into her village on the bus. She was very concerned about walking up the hill in the dark with snow on the ground. The last thing she needed was to slip and fall as she walked home. She prayed that she would be safe as she approached the bus stop where she needed to get off.
Mrs Prior knew everyone who lived in her area as she had grown up there and lived the whole of her 80 years there. She was very surprised, therefore, to see a man she didn’t know waiting at the bus stop as she alighted. Rather than boarding the bus himself he took her arm and said, “Come along dear. I’m heading to the club at the top of the hill.”
Without asking for any directions from Mrs Prior, the man took her up the hill and right to her house. He waited with her while she took out her keys and unlocked the door. Once she was inside her hallway with the light switched on, he said goodbye and left.
Mrs Prior had no idea who the man was and never saw him again though she looked out for him in the area. It was only as she thought further about the incident that she came to the conclusion that the man was an angel sent to help her in response to her prayer.
The letter to the Hebrews was written to Jewish people who had embraced the Christian faith. When we read the Acts of the Apostles it’s possible to see the challenges that the early church faced when it had both Jews and Gentiles as part of it. The old rules about keeping separate from Gentiles were hard to let go of for the Jews. Yet the heart of the faith was meeting for a meal together in remembrance of the Last Supper. It was not possible to hold to the old ideas and live out a genuine Christian faith.
The writer of the letter urges his readers in this section to a radical hospitality which should be the result of love between believers. Whereas once Jews and Gentiles might have been strangers to one another that was all in the past. Jews were no longer to consider themselves as better than their Gentile neighbours as all were one in Christ. Christians were to offer a welcome to everyone, effectively counting no one as a stranger. In the process, the writer suggests that possibly one of those welcomed might prove to be an angel who might only be recognised later as had happened to Mrs Prior and as happened to people we read about in the Bible.
Even more radical was to be on the side of prisoners. Usually prisoners are people who have done something wrong, though not always of course. They are not the sort of people that law abiding citizens would normally take any notice of or be concerned for. Here Christians are told to remember them, presumably in prayer, perhaps in practical ways. It was not good enough to consider them to be different, ‘not like us’. It was not acceptable either to turn a blind eye when others were suffering torture. Welcome, acceptance, inclusion, love were to be the responses of Christians towards all, even those normally excluded.
The letter to the Hebrews is very much in line with Jesus’ teaching on this matter of hospitality. He was invited to eat at the home of a leading Pharisee, no doubt with many other Pharisees present. Although we are told that ‘they were watching him closely’, presumably to try to catch him saying or doing something for which they could criticise him, Jesus was doing some watching of his own. What he noticed was the way that social events were conducted. People were looking for recognition and position in society (even Jesus’ own disciples were caught arguing who was the greatest at times!). Social events were a chance to invite the right people with a view to being invited in return.
Jesus had a habit of turning things upside down. He was not constrained by the conventions of the day. Here he explained God’s way of doing things. What mattered was not the position or wealth of someone but how they were treated. People were to be valued even if they were different in status in society. It would certainly not be cosy and relaxing to invite people who were different to a banquet but that is exactly what God is doing. He invites all who live out their faith to the heavenly banquet that he is preparing.
For Jesus’ companions that Sabbath, his teaching was uncomfortable and challenging. For the readers of Luke’s gospel when it was first written it would have been equally difficult to cope with. They were Jewish Christians, similar to those addressed in the Letter to the Hebrews, who were learning to be generous to those who were not like them.
Jesus’ teaching is equally challenging for us. He still asks us to live out our faith in radical hospitality which welcomes all, whether or not they are like us. Welcome is one part of our vision statement here on Epiphany. It’s the reason we have a team of Welcomers. Who knows, maybe one of us will one day entertain an angel unawares as we tell them about our services or invite them to explore the island.
Even if we don’t meet an angel we will be amply repaid for our generosity at the resurrection of the righteous. We might be very surprised whom we will be sitting with at the heavenly banquet. It could be one of those people whom we welcomed in Jesus’ name when they visited our home or our church, either in SL or RL.