Eucharist Sermon - 9 May 2021

The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 10:44–end, John 15:9–17
The Venerable Stephen Pullin, Archdeacon of Berkshire
'Love and Hospitality'

‘While Peter was still speaking’ said Luke, something extraordinary happened.

  • it wasn’t just that the Holy Spirit filled a large group of people;
  • it wasn’t just that inspiring spontaneous praise and worship erupted;
  • it wasn’t just Peter’s quick-thinking about what to do next.

Part of what was extraordinary, was who it was happening to.

The Holy Spirit was bursting out across social and religious boundaries rendering the well-known and well-practiced divisions between people irrelevant.

The action of the Holy Spirit was not subject to human convention or restriction:

  • it reached across boundaries;
  • it was effective in bringing change;
  • it included the excluded;
  • it invited participation by the onlooker.

There is a similar thing going on in our gospel reading. Jesus, in the context of the hospitality of a meal, reaches out across a relational boundary. He said:

I do not call you servants any longer … I have called you friends … go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.

With these words, there is a fundamental change in their relationship.

The divine purpose is to dissolve relational boundaries, and in reaching across those boundaries, to effect change.

Even the disciples – those who already considered themselves to be close to Jesus – even they are welcomed closer still, to deeper inclusion and greater participation.

The divine purpose is to dissolve relational boundaries and, in reading across those boundaries (or barriers if you like), to effect change.

There is a lot of boundary-crossing going on here. Letty Russel characterises this boundary-crossing activity as expressions of hospitality. She said this:

  • Hospitality is the practice of God's welcome …
  • by reaching across difference …
  • to participate in God's actions …
  • bringing justice and healing to our world in crisis.

It’s no surprise, then, that hospitality plays a hugely important role in biblical ethics and mission. In Scripture we find numerous encouragements to the Israelites and the early Christians to practice hospitality, from Abraham in Genesis to church leaders in Timothy and Titus.

And in the overall arc of the biblical narrative – in that story of the relationship between God and his people – we discover hospitality is an attribute of God. It is not only human, it is divine.

Hospitality in the ancient world focused on the alien or stranger in need.

  • The plight of aliens was desperate. They lacked membership in the community, be it tribe, city-state, or nation. As an alienated person, the traveller often needed immediate food and lodging.
  • Widows, orphans, the poor from other lands lacked the family connections or community status that provided a landed inheritance, the means of making a living, and protection.

In the ancient world the practice of hospitality meant graciously receiving an alienated person into one's land, home, or community and providing directly for that person's needs.

For the early church, hospitality remained an important expression of lovingkindness, and expressed a repeated principle within Jesus’ teaching.

Hospitality took several forms, not least of which was the act of sharing the communal meal, with all its symbolic significance. In the ancient world, to share food with someone was to share life. Such a gesture of intimacy created a bond of fellowship. Hence:

  • God's meal with the elders of Israel in Exodus;
  • Jesus' meals with tax collectors and sinners;
  • the Lord's Supper;
  • Jesus' post-resurrection meals;
  • Peter's meal with Gentiles; and,
  • the common meal of the early Christians.

Each one communicating a powerful message of intimacy and unity, of love and hospitality. It is a consistent theme within our faith, repeated over and over again.

As it was then, so it is now. The principles of hospitality – of sharing life together – should continue to inspire the way we become more Christ-like; the practice of hospitality should continue to inform and shape the communities of faith of which we are part.

Hospitality isn’t only pleasurable, it’s powerful. It is exemplified in a meal, but it takes many forms and it effects change, making the kingdom of God known.

What are those other forms?

How might hospitality express itself here and now? Here are four suggestions.

First, we might think about hospitality as welcome.

I recall a conversation with a bishop in another diocese who said that when he visited a church on a Sunday morning, he would ask them what they felt their strength was. He soon came to realise that, almost always, the answer was that ‘we’re a really friendly church’. As he got them to unpack that answer, a distinction often emerged between being friendly and being welcoming.

The most useful definition of a welcoming church I’ve heard is that a welcoming church is one that, ‘joyfully adapts to the needs of newcomers’. Is that us? Do we joyfully adapt to the needs of newcomers? How are we doing that? How might we do that? Is this something we might want to reflect on further?

Second, hospitality as inclusion.

Speaking personally, I hugely appreciate the contribution that liberation theology has made to the life of the Church. As some of you know well, liberation theology was a movement that grew up in South America as a response to the poverty and the ill-treatment of ordinary people.

Other expressions of liberation theology have since developed amongst communities which experience both this and related forms of poverty, such as the poverty:

  • of opportunity;
  • of participation; and,
  • of respect.

Many of us will have seen the Panorama programme recently about racism in the Church of England.

This is not a thing that just happens elsewhere. Our minority ethnic clergy colleagues and church officers – including in the week when the Church of England’s anti-racism taskforce published its report entitled ‘From Lament to Action’ – received messages from their colleagues and congregations that undermined or minimised the legitimate cry for racial justice. The very cry which that report heralded and which Christian ethics demands.

It makes me wonder that if these things make us Anglicans feel uneasy, then it might be time to reflect on our attachment to our own experience of privilege.

If we are serious about the gospel imperative of hospitality, perhaps we could take a moment to see who is missing from our communities of faith; and then go on to ask how we might address the poverty of our experience due to their absence.

Third, hospitality as participation … and thinking about that quote I offered at the start, participation in God's actions bringing justice and healing to our world in crisis.

A young person died of stab wounds in Reading recently.

If you go to the diocese’s website, you will find a great music video which addresses the problem of knife crime. It illustrates one particular way of reaching out to bring justice and healing in our communities. The video was produced in Reading for the charity ‘Redeeming Our Communities’ with the support of Bishop Olivia and the diocese.

That campaign is just the beginning of something, but it offers an encouragement to church communities to notice when and how young people may feel threatened; and challenges us about being brave enough to welcome them in and show them something different – courageous, transformative hospitality.

Finally, hospitality as invitation.

Following on from Come and See, Bishop Steven is inviting people to Come and Eat.

Through his current series of podcasts, he addresses how many of us find ourselves languishing in the wake of the pandemic. The series reminds us that Jesus came to bring life in all its abundance. The bread which Jesus gives, and is, is more than the food we need to stay physically alive. It is the nourishment we need to have life, and to flourish again. I encourage you to listen to Bishop Steven’s podcasts.

Hospitality: as welcome, as inclusion, as participation, and as invitation.

As Christians, we believe that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is transformative and it’s our job to call people to faith in him. A compassionate and courageous faith, also recognises that hospitality, practiced in its various forms, powerfully expresses the kingdom of God and welcomes people in.

I close, perhaps inevitably, with the words of theologian and writer, Henri Nouwen:

Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.

Hospitality: as welcome, as inclusion, as participation, and as invitation.

Hospitality which makes known the kingdom of God.

Amen.