Our hospitable God
August 11, 2015
Four words in the English language that never fail to warm my heart: “Make yourself at home.”….”Kettles here, tea bags there, help yourself to the sunny seat in the garden – and did you need the wi-fi code?” My host is making me feel taken care of, and I can feel myself relaxing and starting to breathe more deeply. It’s going to be Ok here. Make yourself at home. Home is the place where we can be confident our basic needs will be met – getting fed and watered, washed and rested – in a way that we can be comfortable and at ease with. When we’re at home we can kick off our shoes, uncoil on the sofa and simply be ourselves. And the art of hospitality is the art of helping people re-capture that sense of comfort, of wellbeing and belonging when we’re not on our own patch, but somewhere else entirely.
Perhaps you know someone who has a real gift for hospitality. Our friends Joe and Kathy and brilliant at it. They’ve been having bouncy castle parties in their back garden since the kids were small. Now the kids are adults too but the bouncy castles are always a feature, as is a table laden with a huge array of cakes and a delightful crowd of friends and neighbours and folk from church from toddlers up. Joe is constantly circulating to top up people’s glasses of wine and later on large pots of tea start appearing. Kathy’s nephew is always there: he’s autistic and doesn’t join in with the games and laughter, yet his presence is part of the event. Kathy and Joe’s old friend Paula has been coming for decades; she struggles with her mental health and often she’s feeling down. Yet she absolutely belongs here, and at last month’s bash she was giggling on the bouncy castle with abandon. When Steve and I wend our way home from Joe and Kathy’s parties we don’t just feel happy; we feel somehow healed.
“Make yourself at home”. The words may be spoken or unspoken, but we know hospitality when receive it. It may be an actual invitation into someone’s home, or church, or it may be an invitation to share someone’s time: the hospitable conversation where we are genuinely listened to, where there is no sense of rush, where we are enabled to be ourselves, our complicated, mixed up selves, and still be accepted and affirmed.
As I came to meditate upon today’s readings from John’s gospel and the letter to the Ephesians, what struck me afresh was the way in which they both point us towards the hospitality of God. What I would like us to explore together this morning is that quality of divine hospitality. I want to suggest to you that hospitality in the very heart and essence of our triune God. To paraphrase the first letter of John, “If we are hospitable, it is because he was hospitable first.” The welcome which we show in our dealings with one another are prompted by the welcome we receive from God.
Perhaps it seems unusual to speak about the hospitality of God. We’re more used to speaking about the love of God, rather than the hospitality of God.
Yes God is love and those who live in love live in God – it’s all there in John’s first letter. The disadvantage of this kind of language is that “love” of our neighbour can sometimes seem to collapse into the abstract and nonspecific. Hospitality is never abstract. Can I make you a sandwich? Did you need a clean towel? Yes of course I’ve got time to chat. Hospitality takes us into the realm of the practical action. And of course that is God’s grace to us comes to us, in ways which are specific, lived and real: in the specifics of his created world, of faces and places, familiar rhythms and new opportunities, wine and bread, word and sacrament.
So what do our readings tell us about the hospitality of God?
Firstly, that God’s hospitality is abundant hospitality.
Let me remind you of our Ephesians passage. To make sense of it we need to rewind back to the previous chapter. Here Paul has spelled out what salvation in Christ means, the great act of reconciliation that spells an end to hostility between Jew and non-Jew. The barriers are broken down, and now all people stand on a level playing field with equal access to God’s grace. Having told us what salvation means, now in chapter three – today’s passage – Paul comes to step back and reflect. As Paul responds to the great liberating truth of salvation his words resonate with a sense of excitement, wonder and adoration.
“I pray that you may grasp…..how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled with the measure of all the fullness of God.”
Or, in Eugene Peterson’s “Message” translation:
“I ask that…. You’ll be able to take in with all the followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives in the fullness of God.”
The extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. There is nothing calculated about God’s love for us in Christ. The atonement is not, as some Christians seem to make it, a neat equation to solve with sin on the one side and forgiveness on the other. Paul wants us to catch a sense of the abundance of God’s love for us in Christ. . It defies our attempts to categorise it or quantify it. We can’t do an audit on the love of God. Like a universe that is continually expanding, God’s saving love spills out and spills out and spills out.
This sense of abundant grace, abundant hospitality is what we find in our story in John chapter 6. In this rather chaotic, unplanned scenario on a hillside Jesus takes charge. He takes the role of host and invites people to be seated. He takes the loaves, gives thanks, and distributes the bread; an improvised eucharist. There is bread and fish to feed the thousands, and not just that: there is basket after basket of left overs. The picture we are left with is not simply of immediate needs being met, but one of abundance, of extravagance. As Mae West said, too much of a good thing can be wonderful. Here on this hillside we are presented with the abundant hospitality of God.
And that is the second observation I want to make about God’s hospitality. It is abundant, yes, and it is also reconciling. The hospitality of God offers a space where conflict can be overcome and tension can be held and healed.
Conflict is an every present reality of our sinful human condition. We simply refuse to accept Paul’s assertion that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free. We live by our differences and are threatened by otherness. We perpetuate hierarches and power blocs and struggle for control of whatever resources are available – minerals, energy, wealth, food – and these power struggles erupt into conflict, or all-out war.
At a time when humankind seems every more driven apart by division we urgently need a vision of unity, of how it could look to be reconciled people. And Jesus’s feeding on the mountainside shows us exactly this. Here on this mountainside in Galilee we have a large hungry crowd, and not enough food. This is a scene of scarcity familiar from the TV news: the aid lorry that drives into the camp, the struggle for the bags of rice, ugly fights breaking out. There is the potential for real conflict here. Yet what we see is a picture of calm: this large group of people receiving abundantly from God in Christ. All are fed equally. There is no reason for struggle or competition. It’s an image of humanity redeemed, reconciled to God and one another. This is what the hospitality of God is like. As guest of the same host we can be at ease with one another. God’s hospitality enables us to flourish together with those different from us.
“Make yourself at home – come on in – you belong”. This is God’s invitation to us in Christ, the invitation of our hospitable God, most fully articulated in his sharing of himself, his life, with us in this meal of bread and wine. Let Christ be your host. Receive abundantly. Be reconciled with your neighbour. Live full lives in the fullness of God.
Frances Eccleston, July 2015