Sunday, 29 May 2016

Welcome and Worthiness: the hospitality of God

First preached as a sermon at Guildford Cathedral 29th May 2016

The gospel of the healing of the centurion’s slave (Luke 71b-10) is fascinating on many levels: intercession to Jesus on behalf of another; the nature of authority; quality of faith. And there is an insight into the relationship between Jesus, the Jewish elders and the Roman authorities. Far from the notion that each of the three parties had nothing to do with each other, other than be antagonistic, here they work together. The Roman centurion asked the Jewish elders to ask Jesus to come and heal his slave.

Another aspect, though, is worth deeper pondering. That is the question of worthiness and welcome, a better word would be hospitality.

On worthiness, the Jews say to Jesus about the centurion, ‘he is worthy of having you do this for him’, yet the centurion says to Jesus, ‘I am not worthy’.

On hospitality, Jesus starts to go to the centurion’s house, but the centurion says he cannot receive him because of his, the host’s, unworthiness.

There is something of the etiquette and religious sensibilities of two thousand years ago here, but it still speaks today. People who consider themselves unworthy, for example, to enter a church, or consider themselves unworthy to engage in society, who consider themselves unworthy of love, joy or hope, or feel themselves unworthy of time or interest from people they respect. And today there are people who feel unworthy about receiving guests: ‘what will they think of my house?’; ‘if only we lived somewhere more splendid/bigger/glamourous…’ delete as applicable…then we could entertain.

Hospitality and worthiness works out today in other situations too. Who is more or less worthy, the host or the guest? How do we treat a guest? What does it mean to be a guest? The letter to the Hebrews reminds us, ‘do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it’ (Hebrews 13.2).

It is in a gracious welcome and hospitality that we can show a guest just how worthy they are. But welcome is not just about saying ‘hello’ to someone. A good motto is this: ‘Welcome is what happens after we have said hello’.

In other words it’s not just enough to acknowledge a visitor or guest at the door; that’s the first step, but a superficial one. True welcome, true hospitality is about taking the guest as they are and enabling them to feel at home, seeking after their needs: counting the guest a blessing. Christian hospitality always supposes the guest to be Christ himself.

An example of this in St Benedict’s Rule for monks when he says, ‘Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, "I came as a guest, and you received Me" (Matt. 25:35)’. Later Benedict writes, ‘In the reception of the poor and of pilgrims the greatest care and solicitude should be shown, because it is especially in them that Christ is received’ (The Rule, Chapter 53). Christ is most present in those who appear most unworthy of a good welcome.

This worthiness and hospitality is three dimensional: it’s about ourselves, our homes, our country: personal, domestic, national. Who do we welcome? Who do we show that they are worthy to be with us? Who welcomes us? How are we made to be worthy?

This all has a direct bearing on our actions: it’s ethical.  How do we as a nation give worthiness and hospitality to those coming into this country as migrants, refugees or asylum seekers? If we say ‘yes’ to them coming in, through the Border Agency, what is our real welcome like? Are we ready to give a welcome beyond the ‘hello’, a welcome that may be hard work and not without cost - but that says that hospitality and worthiness is profoundly important - be that in the provision of health care, housing, social care, education, jobs?

This is where our faith directly strikes at how we live our lives day by day. In the places where we spend time - in our homes, in school, in the workplace, or wherever it may be - how we receive the stranger, the new person or the difficult person is actually a measure of how we are a Christian.

It applies to church life too, here in this now cathedral now, today. I’ll aks it first of myself and invite you to do the same: who do I say ‘hello’ to but never really come to know, or seek to know, in other words never really welcome?

Welcome isn’t just about receiving someone on to your territory. The territory is shared and both guest and host have to change. If someone joins us at table, we all have to budge up.

Welcome is costly, because it demands from us that we give up something of ourselves and our preferences to go the extra mile; going beyond the superficial ‘hello’. Welcome isn’t just about receiving, it’s about seeking too; seeking out who someone really is, worthy to be loved, welcomed, as if we were welcoming Christ himself.

The centurion felt unworthy to welcome Jesus, but was shown worthiness: Jesus sought to meet him and paid attention to his deepest need in healing the man’s slave, thereby showing worthiness and dignity to the slave too. We learn that no one is beyond the worthiness of God, and all are shown hospitality should they wish to receive it.

The priority of the church today needs to be declaring and living out the worthiness of all people, such that they are ready to receive the hospitality of God.

And those of us here in this building today need to know that too. We need to know that when we dare to say ‘I am not worthy’ we are teetering on the threshold of refusing God’s hospitality. That’s why, like the centurion we say, ‘but only say the word and I shall be healed’. Or from the Prayer of Humble Access, ‘we do not presume to come to this your table, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies’. You make us worthy.

Both those lines come from preparation to receive Holy Communion, which is, for us, the ultimate act of the hospitality of God. In receiving Holy Communion we receive Christ, and each of us is declared and shown to be worthy: worthy for Christ to come under the roof of our lives in word and sacrament.  Curiously, perhaps, the proper name for the bread of Holy Communion is ‘the host’. So, today, who the guest; who the host?

© Andrew Bishop 2016

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