Proper 11c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
All of our Scripture readings today point towards the subject of hospitality, and what it means to be a perfect host. Of course, it’s best to start with what it means to be any kind of host, before moving on towards perfection. Anyone who has brought up children knows that you have to crawl before you walk.
So let’s start with the beginning, with the host. At its most basic and original, a host is someone who welcomes others into his or her home — even if it is just a tent, as we see this morning in the reading from Genesis. Abraham welcomes the Lord — who appears in the form of three men — to tarry and rest with him in his tent, out of the heat of the day, to wash their feet and take a bit of food before they continue their journey.
This is hospitality at its simplest and most direct. It is also hospitality at most ancient, and universal: it is common in many cultures as a sign of welcome and invitation — “please, won’t you come in and rest a spell.” There is a lovely old Eastern European Jewish custom that every guest must be welcomed with sweetness, and so a jam-jar and spoon are kept ready at the door to give a guest a taste of summer even in the coldest winter. From as simple a gesture as a welcome mat, a smile and an open door, all the way to the lavish welcome of a red carpet being unrolled, and a brass fanfare, hospitality is almost universal as a human phenomenon. As the song says, ‘Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome’ — to the tent, to the home, or to the palace.
However, in addition to this kind of hospitality there is another sort. And the clue to this lies hidden in the word hospitality itself — notice that it begins with the word hospital. The first hospitals were not just places for the sick and injured, but resting-places for pilgrims traveling on the road, in particular those pilgrims who traveled to the Holy Land. Resting places were set up along the way for pilgrims to take refreshment, and recover from any injuries they might have suffered. Most of these hospitals were operated by religious orders of monks and nuns, such as the Order of Saint John (of which both Brother James and I are members, still supporting the hospital in Jerusalem as part of our ministry).
The secular world also soon got into the business of welcoming people — although they tended to drop the letters S and P from hospital to end up with hotel — and yes indeed hotels and hospitals share a common history, as you can see from the fact that the uniform of even a twentieth-century nurse was not all that different from the uniform of a nineteenth-century chamber-maid. Both of those uniforms ultimately derive from the habits of the nuns and monks who served the original hospitals — as indeed some of the sisters and brothers in the nursing orders still do. I am old enough to remember being cared for by “God’s Geese” when I had my appendix out at the age of five — the nursing sisters gained that nickname because of the large, starched white cornettes they wore on their heads as part of their habit. These were the original flying nuns! Most nurses, by then, their headgear had shrunk down to a small starched cap — now, I’m not sure any nurses still wear even the small starched cap any more — but I remember God’s Geese: they had the whole nine yards.
The point in all this is that the hospitality is about welcoming someone in — into your home, your world, your life: whether they are guests or patients, they become the center of your concern.
For the point of welcome is to serve and comfort the one who you welcome in. There are few things worse than a poorly run hospital or hotel — and their bad examples can tell us a good deal about how not to be a perfect host. I am reminded of the comic irony in the character of Basil Fawlty, the worst hotel manager in the world, who once shouted at his guests in livid anger, “You people swan in here expecting to be waited on hand and foot — well I’m trying to run a hotel!” If anyone ever missed the point of hospitality more than Basil Fawlty, I wouldn’t want to stay in that hotel!
The perfect host is the complete and polar opposite to this — the perfect host is only interested in the guests — their needs, their comfort. One might well say, with our Lord, there is need of only one thing: to focus on the guest.
So, for the perfect host, the guest becomes the center of the host’s life. Of course, no one can do that perfectly — our own lives don’t grind to a halt simply because we have guests; in fact, if we are to serve those guests our lives can become busier. This is the side of hospitality that Martha experienced, busy with many things, resenting her sister Mary who grasped that what Jesus really wanted was to be heard — to be heard, and attended to rather than attended on. He wanted them. He wanted them to be one with him.
For in the long run Jesus is the only perfect host, the one who welcomes us, even as we welcome him. He has been there, done that, in a truly cosmic and universal way. As our reading from Colossians affirms, not only is it in Jesus that all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, all beings and powers — not only is he, in a very real sense, the host to all of creation — but in him “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” And it is because all things in heaven and on earth share in this hospitality of Jesus together with the fullness of God, in him, dwelling in Jesus, that he is able to reconcile all things, drawing them together in him, and making peace through the blood of his cross. He is the perfect host who has reconciled us with God together in him — literally in himself, in his body.
As Paul goes on to affirm — not only are we held in Christ, the perfect host, but he and his gospel enter into us. By the miracle of grace, we the members of the church are the members of his body in whom he dwells with the Spirit and in the Father. We become hosts to God — just as Abraham invited God into his tent that hot day thousands of years ago, we also, through the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations fro the foundation of the world, but has now been revealed to his saints in him: the glory of this mystery, which is “Christ in you” —the church itself, the blessed company of all faithful people, the body of Christ, in and with whom the Spirit of God dwells and abides.
This is the “one thing,” the only thing we need — not to be distracted by the many things of this world, but to open our hands and our hearts and our minds to accept our Lord and our God as our guest, as indeed he has accepted us — and in doing so we are made One in him.
I know we’re reading from the Luke’s Gospel, but the message here is similar to John’s: reminding us that we are in God as God is in us, made one in Jesus Christ the perfect mediator, the perfect host but also the perfect guest — the one who like Abraham washes his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, who feeds them not just with earthly bread such as that which Sarah baked, but with his lively Word that inspires us day by day, and with the bread from heaven that we receive in the Holy Eucharist — in that bread that is also called a host.
What more perfect host can there be than this, who invites us into his house — God’s house — this house, even with a red carpet — and gives himself to us his guests even as we invite him into our hearts. As the evangelist John quotes Jesus as saying to God the Father, “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” This is the one needful thing; this is the glory and the love of God, that Christ, in whom all things exist and were created, all things in heaven and on earth, can be our guest as well as our host. Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome.+