You will see a shift in focus at St. Patrick from now through Christmas. The shift will be in our moving from thinking about truth to practice. Or, to use the theological lingo, from orthodoxy (right belief) to orthopraxy (right practice). Surely, right belief is necessary to live well. Unless we know who God is and what the Bible says about truth, how will we know how to properly order our lives? That is the thinking of the Bible, at any rate. Over one thousand times the word “therefore” is used in the Bible. After laying out some knowledge of God or an understanding of reality, the writer in the Bible will then say “therefore” in light of what is true—how shall we then live?
We will start with the subject of hospitality. Of course, as southerners, we are known for this. We have all heard of “southern hospitality.” But does hospitality, as we know it, look anything like what we see in the Bible? For the average person, hospitality is the most benign, tame, and pleasant practice, is it not? And yet when we look in the Bible, hospitality might be the most controversial and subversive of all the Christian virtues. For instance, in the Old Testament a certain view of the “stranger, newcomer, or alien” and how they were to be treated was rooted in the very person of God. All knowledge we have is “…first of all, a realization that we indwell a world in which we have been reconciled to God as host. His reconciling hospitality grounds all our knowledge of the world in which we live.” (David Kettle, Western Culture in Gospel Context) In other words, we can’t even think properly about God except in terms of hospitality!
In the world we live in, God is our host and we are guests, rebellious guests to be sure, but we recognize that we live at God’s good pleasure. Beyond that, our view of the “other” or the “stranger” that comes in our midst is grounded in how God treated us when we were strangers. For instance, when Israel was on the verge of the “Promised Land,” God does not just give arbitrary instructions, but ones that flow from the inner workings of his own gracious being:
He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen. Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven. – Deuteronomy 10:18-22
So, Israel is to bless the sojourner (stranger, newcomer, alien) because when Israel was a stranger in a strange land, God was so gracious to them that they went from a large family to a nation. Talk about blessing!
Also, God grounds hospitality in Israel’s own experience—you know what it is like to be a stranger and to be oppressed: “You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9) So the practice of hospitality and whatever that means is bound up in who God is and how he treated us when we were strangers and apart from him.
When truth becomes flesh (Jesus), we see the ultimate fulfillment of “knowing and doing” as Jesus turns hospitality on its head. Most hospitality in Jesus’ day was transactional: you used hospitality to get something—to get in the right circles, to be seen by the right people, or to expand your economic or social capital. However, in shared meals Jesus exposed this kind of hospitality as not hospitality at all but a form of self-promotion. “Jesus was the guest in the home of tax collectors, dined with sinners, and taught hosts to welcome those most likely to be excluded…Many of the early church’s struggles over recognition and inclusion surfaced in the context of eating together.” (Christine Pohl, Making Room) Jesus’ goal in hospitality was to turn strangers into neighbors and neighbors into believers. Jesus was not afraid to be with sinners and “others” because, while Jesus was with “sinners,” he didn’t sin with “sinners.” I know of nothing that will challenge the worldview we inhabit of comfort and consumerism like hospitality the way we see it on display in the Bible by God himself. Oh, and this is not just for the “gifted,” but for all of us. All of us have a home and we all eat meals. Nothing says hospitality like a great meal around your dining table or backyard!
In the fall of the year, we will work our way through the book of James. Martin Luther almost threw the book of James out of the Canon because the emphasis is so much on practice—the way we live out our theology, our “knowing.” The Book of James is sort of the New Testament equivalent of Proverbs in the Old Testament. It deals with suffering, widows, orphans, our mouth, how we are to reconcile, etc. In short, it shows us a “faith that works.” It demonstrates that while “grace is opposed to earning, it is not opposed to effort.” It challenges all of us to a cross-bearing life. The good news, of course, is that “truth sets us free.” That doesn’t mean it is easy, nor does it mean that it is always fun, but it does mean that, as we run in the way of truth, we are running in the way of human thriving and joy. I will be honest, the last three years have made me think hard about this and have made me confront my own love of comfort like never before. And yet, in the midst of the cross and life laid down, I have at times known the sweetness of the gospel like never before. May it be so of all of us at St. Patrick. May we be a “blessing” and see strangers turned into neighbors and neighbors into people who love Jesus.