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TEXT: I Peter 4:9

SUBJECT: Gospel Changes #42: Hospitality

Fifteen years ago, a friend and I spent two weeks in Russia where we were given the Royal Treatment. Every night we went to a different home for dinner, and every table was beautifully set and piled high with delicious and well-presented food. Even though most of the people didn't speak English, they all communicated the joy they felt in having us to dinner, and the honor we were doing them by coming. Their hospitality was both impressive and humbling.

Near the end of our trip, I asked our host if the people typically ate this well. Smirking at my innocence, he said they didn't, and that they'd eat oatmeal for a week to make up for the expense of the dinners they served us.

I felt bad about this until my host assured me that the people were happy to have us, and would have been keenly disappointed if we hadn't come. Was this a distinctly Christian thing-I wondered-or a Russian thing?

He told me it was a Russian thing, that the people of that great country pride themselves on their hospitality, and if they don't have enough to eat themselves, they'll make sure their guests have more than enough.

This got me to thinking.

Why are Americans less hospitable than Russians? More to the point, why are unbelieving Russians more hospitable than believing Americans?

I'm not sure I have a positive answer to the questions, but I have some negative answers. It's not because they have more money than we do, or bigger homes, or nicer things, or more time to plan for their dinners. Their per-capita income is about 20% of ours; the homes we visited were all small apartments-and some really small ones; most of the dishes and napkins and silverware were mismatched, cracked, or heavily worn; and there's no such thing as a housewife there! Everybody works or goes to school and most of them commute for hours morning and evening by slow and unreliable public transit.

Yet they open their homes to people they have never met and treat them like Commisars!

Why aren't we more this way? By 'we' and I don't mean all American Christians are inhospitable, but, why aren't we better known for our open homes and love of visitors? Why is showing hospitality more of a burden than a privilege? Why do we do it, sometimes, in the way Peter tells us not to do it-

With grumbling?

THE DEFINITIONS

One reason is because we confuse 'hospitality' with 'entertaining'. Entertaining takes time and money and planning and good taste, and not everyone has all these things. Because we don't have much room or know where the salad fork goes, we shy away from hospitality.

But, as good as it is to have a large dining room and to cook well, hospitality does not depend on them! One of the most charming and hospitable women I ever knew lived on welfare and in a studio apartment. She wasn't a great cook and didn't have a lot of nice things, but was godly and welcoming--and we went home blessed.

The word, 'hospitality' simply means, 'the love of strangers' and depends only one thing: an open heart!

THE DUTY

Should we be hospitable? Of course we should be, in part because the Bible tells us to! Not every verse is equally clear, but I Peter 4:9 is awfully hard to misinterpret-

Be hospitable to one another without grumbling.

Romans 12:13 seems equally plain-

Distributing to the necessity of the saints; given to hospitality.

Then there's Hebrews 13:2-

Be careful to entertain strangers, for some have entertained angels unawares.

You add to these particular commands, the general commands of the Bible, the Golden Rule, for instance-

Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you?

Has anyone ever made you feel unwelcome, unwanted? If so, don't make others feel that way. Did you like it when people opened their hearts and homes to you? Then open your hearts and homes to them.

Most of all, the example of Jesus Christ confirms the high duty of hospitality. In 1st Century Israel, nothing was more admired than hospitality or more despised than its absence. This was good as far as it went, but it didn't go far enough. Under the proud and nitpicking influence of the Pharisees, 'hospitality' was limited to worthy men, by which they meant, people like themselves. Jesus one-upped them by reaching out to all kinds of people, Pharisees, yes, but also publicans and harlots.

His teaching matched His example. He often compared the Kingdom of Heaven (that is, the Rule of God on earth) to a dinner party with God as the host and all sorts of people welcome guests.

This is something we need to think about when we're tempted to close our hearts to others and roll in the welcome mat! We are living on God's hospitality-both as His creatures and His People. Every day He welcomes us to His heart and sets the table for our sustenance and pleasure.

THE LAW

How do we become more hospitable than we are? One thing's for sure, shame and guilt and commands won't do it. Knowing I ought to welcome people into my home won't cause me to want to. I may 'go through the motions', but I'll be reluctant to have them and happy to have them go home!

If the Law fails to make us what we ought to be, shame and guilt are even less effective. At their best, all they can do is move us to short-term and half-hearted obedience. And this is not what the Lord wants. He says-

My son, give me your heart.

THE GOSPEL

The only thing that's going to make us hospitable-from the heart and all our lives-is the Gospel. How? Here's what I thought of:

Without the Gospel, all you've got is law, either God's Law, social norms, or personal expectations. Law always turns you inward, to how well you're keeping it, or, more likely, on your failures to keep it.

Applied to hospitality, it makes you nervous, and not want to have people over because-after all-what will they think of me if the table's not set properly? Or the house is a mess? Or the kids acts up? Or the soufle doesn't rise?

The Gospel turns your eyes away from your performance. Of course you want to cook a good meal, but you're doing it for your guests' enjoyment--and not to 'justify' yourself! When it's about others-and not about you-you can serve them in love and not worry about forgetting the salad dressing! You can chuckle about the dry salad and you don't have to kick yourself later.

This will make hospitality less of a burden, at least, and maybe a real joy.

The early Christians were famous for brotherly love. The Pagans hated them and their doctrines, but they had to admit, 'How they love one another!' Why did they love each other so lavishly? It's because God loved them even more lavishly. How did they know God loved them? It's because He sent His Dear Son to cross to save them. As they believed and meditated on God's love in Christ for them-unworthy as they were-they were enabled to love others, even the ones who didn't deserve it!

When you love others, you enjoy their company, and serving them becomes a pleasure and not a nuisance. When this happens-guess what follows? Hospitality.

God is both the Creator of hot dogs and, in Christ, their Redeemer. This means, 'hot dogs' are good, and good enough to serve your guests. The moment you realize this, you stop feeling embarrassed that you can't afford or don't know how to cook delicacies, and you can have a good old time with the cheapest and easiest to cook food in the world.

Add to this the meaning of the Dinner Table. Dinner Tables, in a certain way, are sacramental, that is, they're visible signs of invisible grace. As you share the table with your friends, you point to the Supper of the Lamb, and when you do that, it changes the character of the little dinner parties or barbecues or brunches you have for your friends.

This makes hospitality more than a chore; it makes it a harbinger of the good things to come.

OBITER DICTA

Let us, therefore, learn hospitality and practice it. For the good of our own souls, for the good of our friends who join us, and for the glory of God.

Amen.

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