Entertaining Angels

Hebrews 13:1-2, 15-16; Luke 14:7-14

“Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  (Hebrews 13:1-2, NRSV)

“The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor.  Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks.”  (Luke 14:12, The Message)

These texts this week reminded me of Eric.  I think about him a lot.  Eric showed up one Sunday night when we were doing Stories, Songs and Supper.  He stood at the church door and asked what was happening as he saw people gathering, greeting each other, laughing, and we told him, “It’s a thing we do called Stories, Songs, and Supper.  We share a meal then sing a bunch of old familiar songs, then someone tells a story, then we sing a little more.”  We invited him to come in and join us.  So he did.

I was pretty sure he was homeless, although to be fair, his clothes were neater and cleaner than most of the other unhoused people who came to the church.  Eric had a gift of gab and while we were eating he told us a bit about himself.  That’s when he told us that this dinner was special for him because it was his birthday.  So we all sang Happy Birthday to him.  After supper, he helped to clear the tables, then joined us in the sanctuary for the singing and storytelling. 

Eric showed up for worship the next Sunday morning and also joined in our Adult Education class.  He joined in with one of our small groups in the volunteer work they were doing with Lutheran Social Services.  In almost no time Eric became an important member of our little family of faith at Gloria Dei.

 “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” we read in Hebrews, “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Well,  Eric was no angel…but then again, maybe he was.  In ancient times the word angel had a double meaning.  It could refer to a supernatural being who served God, or it could simply mean a messenger.   Eric was, in and of himself, a message to us—a gift to us all at the little church with a big heart.

We learned a lot from Eric.  We learned a little about life on the streets.  We learned more than we wanted to know about our neighbors’ attitudes toward the unhoused.  We learned how the police and the justice system in our city respond to those who are experiencing homelessness.  We learned about our own attitudes toward those living rough.  Most of all, though, we experienced an energy and vitality that’s been missing since he left us.  All this because we welcomed one gregarious man into our party on his birthday.

“The next time you put on a dinner,” said Jesus,  “don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor.  Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks.  You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people.” (Luke 14:12-14, The Message

“You will be—and you will experience—a blessing.”  Eric taught us just how true that is.

Jesus loved sharing meals with people.  Think about all the stories in the gospels that involve eating!  Jesus distributed food to multitudes.  Jesus dined with Simon the Tanner and Zacchaeus.  And, of course, there was that last Passover meal with his disciples.  After the resurrection he broke bread with the Emmaus travelers and cooked fish on the beach for the disciples.  Jesus shared a table with Pharisees even though some Pharisees had criticized him for sharing a table with “the wrong kind of people.”  “This fellow eats with tax collectors and sinners!”  There are so many Jesus stories that revolve around eating that some have suggested that his primary work was organizing dinner parties. 

Sharing the table—issuing a wide and inclusive invitation—this was one of the ways Jesus embodied the kingdom of God. 

“The gospel,” wrote Rachel Held Evans, “doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out.  It needs a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, ‘Welcome!  There’s bread and wine.  Come eat with us and talk.’ This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy, it’s a kingdom for the hungry.”

In the earliest days of what we now think of as the Church, many—maybe most—groups of Jesus followers were dinner-party groups—they organized their fellowship and worship around sharing a table, and everyone brought what they could to the banquet.  We see hints of this in 1 Corinthians 11 when St. Paul chastises the Corinthians for bringing their divisions to the table, but even more sternly for failing to make sure that the have-nots were included in the celebration when the haves were feasting.

“When you meet together,” he wrote, “you are not really interested in the Lord’s Supper.  For some of you hurry to eat your own meal without sharing with others. As a result, some go hungry while others get drunk.  What? Don’t you have your own homes for eating and drinking?  Or do you really want to disgrace God’s church and shame the poor? What am I supposed to say? Do you want me to praise you? Well, I certainly will not praise you for this!” (1 Cor 11:20-22, NLT)

The practice of early Christianity was centered around the table.  When it worked it was egalitarian, transformative, and beautiful.  When it didn’t it descended into another bad example of classism.  But the evidence suggests that most of the time and in most places it worked.  

The table of Christ was the one place in their world where they were all equal.  It was the one place where it didn’t matter if you lived in a mansion or sheltered under the eaves of the town hall.  It was the one place where it didn’t matter if you were a slave or a free person.  It was the one place where it didn’t matter if you were male or female—at least not in those earliest days of the Jesus followers.  

At the table of Christ, all were equal and all shared in what was brought to the supper—but most especially, all shared in the bread and the wine of Christ’s presence.

In his book The Forgotten Creed: Christianity’s Original Struggle against Bigotry, Slavery, and Sexism, Stephen J. Patterson has recovered what is believed to be the earliest baptismal creed of the Jesus followers:

“For you are all children of God in the Spirit.

There is no Jew or Greek,

there is no slave or free,

there is no male and female;

for you are all one in the Spirit.”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because St. Paul quotes this creed in his letter to the Galatians with a slight twist at the end.  Instead of saying “for you are all one in the Spirit,” Paul writes, “for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

“The creed’s basic claim,” writes Patterson, “is that baptism exposes the follies by which most of us live, defined by the other, who we are not.  It declares the unreality of race, class, and gender: there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male and female.  We may not all be the same, but we are all one, each one a child of God.” 

In Journey With Jesus this week, Dan Clendenin described how a friend of his daughter wanted to invite everyone in her church to her wedding but the budget wouldn’t allow it.  So instead of having a fancy wedding meal for just a few family and close friends, they got the police to block off the main street in downtown Waco, Texas.  Guests danced in the streets and ate ice cream from a Baskin Robbins ice cream cart.  The wedding cake was under the gazebo in the park and they cut small pieces so everyone could get a taste.  The groom, a pastor, had worked a lot with homeless people and many of them showed up for the wedding,  then helped to clean up the streets afterward.  The little African-American girl who lived next door to the bride brought her mother and her grandfather along to the wedding.  The grandfather quickly became the center of attention as he danced to the street music and soon the college girls were lining up to dance with him.  Passers-by strolling on the street were invited to join in the party.  And everyone was welcomed as an honored guest.

This is what the kingdom of God looks like.  A celebration that’s open to everyone.

It’s a family of sinners, saved by grace, tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, “Welcome!  There’s bread and wine.  Come eat with us and talk.

This is what the church of Jesus is supposed to be about:  radical hospitality.   

A kingdom for the hungry.

So let mutual love continue. 

But don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers.

Who knows… they just might be angels.

image © Hyatt Moore