What’s Radical About Hospitality?
Some years ago – it might have been within the last five or six years, but I can’t swear to that – Greensboro Urban Ministries tried a social experiment. On December twenty-third, a young couple went into and among various neighborhoods in the city. They were a man in his twenties, a man who worked construction and carpentry; and a young woman who was many months along in expecting a baby. They spoke English, and they spoke it with the accent of their native country.
They didn’t ask for shelter, or money, or a ride to the hospital. They told their story to people they passed. Was there anywhere in the city that the couple could go for a night’s sleep? She’d been having contractions all day.
This was, of course, a fiction, a social experiment. The organization operating Greensboro Urban Ministries wanted to find out how many people – and in which neighborhoods – knew what services the city offered to people in need.
And, of course, they were intentional about recreating the Nativity story.
It turned out that only about half the people knew what social services the city offered, and where. Of the ones who knew, some people gave them correct and simple directions for how to get there. One or two offered to drive them.
I don’t remember how many people simply decided not to engage with the couple. And, of course, there’s no telling how many people were braced for a scam, a shakedown, and didn’t want to have anything to do with the couple. How many people saw through the ruse? How many people figured – correctly, of course – that someone was pulling their leg?
And why is the pastor talking about Christmas Eve in the middle of August, when Christmas is … (counts on fingers) eighteen weeks away?
Because our text for today, from Third John, addresses hospitality. Radical hospitality. Scriptural hospitality. The kind of hospitality that is shaped by the norms of time and place; the instructions and expectations of Old Testament law; and the teachings of Jesus. And the Nativity story from Luke chapter two, the Christmas story we know and love so well, shows us from even before Jesus enters the world in human form what radical hospitality looks like – and what it does not look like.
In Third John, our epistle reading and our text for today, John writes: “Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the friends, even though they are strangers to you; they have testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on in a manner worthy of God; for they began their journey for the sake of Christ, accepting no support from non-believers. Therefore we ought to support such people, so that we may become co-workers with the truth.”
You will do well to send them on in a manner worthy of God.
Is this the hospitality that Christ demonstrates at the moment of his birth?
When I hear the word, “hospitality,” I usually think of the tents or booths or hotel rooms at conventions and other public events. Places where drinks flow freely and corporate sponsors give away swag – more properly called “logo-branded items.” It’s fun, it’s harmless, it’s a steady supply of ballpoint pens. The health care and senior care industries are great for that.
But this passage from Third John is challenging even when it appears to encourage the radical hospitality of Christ.
It appears that John is advising believers in Ephesus to welcome graciously travelers who are following Jesus, travelers who are acting as missionaries. These missionaries, John points out, are refusing to accept support from non-believers. Always a wise guideline if you hope to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, if you don’t want anyone skeptical that you’re part of a cult – or a scam.
Remember that social experiment a few days before Christmas? I will admit that I would have been skeptical of a scam. I might have pondered in my heart that here were people trying to get something for nothing from me. And so it’s significant that the couple were very intentional about not asking for money, shelter, or a ride. They just wanted directions.
That’s sort of what’s happening in this third letter from John. He’s urging them to welcome fellow Christians who are traveling in the region, helping to share the good news.
He makes a point of calling out a member by name, saying that Diotrephes refuses to welcome these friends, and is expelling from the church anyone who does.
We might call that radical inhospitality. And I think it’s safe to say that none of us would be unwelcoming to visitors. But how is our walk the rest of the week? Do we behave in all aspects of our daily living in such a way that people look at us, freed by Christ to love one another, and see Jesus?
What words come out of me, what words come out of you, in discussion about current events, or family members, or going to the grocery store? Do I criticize other people to make myself feel better? Do you get into online arguments?
I have no doubt that John the Evangelist is concerned, when writing this letter, about the behavior of Diotrephes. I would be too – especially if I were Diotrephes. And I’d like to think that I am nothing like him. Except when I am.
It’s no coincidence that the Nativity story that you and I know and love so well begins with a census, a disruption, some necessary travel, and a crowded city center with no room in the inn.
It’s significant that Luke tells us that Joseph knocked on a lot of doors. Quite possibly he resorted to stopping strangers in the street, at municipal wells, in shop doorways. Do you know of anywhere that we can sleep just for tonight? My wife – she’s been having contractions all day.
Not asking for money. Not asking for a ride. Not asking for you, yourself, to shelter us. Just please, do you know where we can go?
John the Evangelist closes this portion of the letter with a plea. Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good.
Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.
These are sobering words for me and for you. They are a reminder of how often I welcome the friend and give the rough side of my tongue to the stranger, or to the person with whom I disagree, or whoever or whatever might be fueling my exasperation in the moment.
Whoever does good is from God.
That’s the radical hospitality to which we are all invited. To welcome the friend and the stranger. For Christ’ sake. Amen.