When I was growing up in my family, there were a couple of days in the year which I always looked forward to. They were the special holidays, including Christmas, and they each had the extra special factor of having guests over for a meal. Each holiday had its own special food and ritual for getting ready, and I helped with the preparations. There were three particular families we shared these meals with. They also happened to be near neighbours, and had children my age. They were Christian, although 2 of the families attended a different church. Our four families took turns in playing host to each other for those gatherings. I remember the excitement of preparation that was generated by my mother, who loved trying to impress, and then the fun we had playing games: we did things like board games in the winter, and badminton and croquet in the summer.
As we look at the life of Jesus in the gospels, we see a pattern of his enjoyment and sharing in significant meals. We can easily say that Jesus spent a lot of his ministry in being a dinner guest. As Luke charts the progress of the Christian church in the book of Acts, he also shows us the importance of hospitality in the growth of the early church.
Today we think of hospitality as the custom of feeding family, friends, and neighbours in our homes, or maybe having house guests for a night or two. In the New Testament we are looking at a very different idea of hospitality. The ancient custom of hospitality meant that you welcomed strangers or travellers into your home, and you provided them with provisions and protection.
My favourite example of this in the Old Testament is the visit of God in the form of 3 men to the tent of Abraham and Sarah. They had come to tell the couple that they would have a child even though they were both in old age. Abraham eagerly jumped up to serve the visitors. He didn’t ask who they were or why they came until after they had eaten, something we would consider a very unsafe thing to do today. In the New Testament the first Christians were not quite as reckless. But they saw that without hospitality there was no love for God and neighbour.
In our reading for today from the book of Acts we are at the end of a story that involved three instances of hospitality. It happened like this. The apostle Peter was traveling around the country preaching the good news of Jesus after the resurrection, and he visited the town of Joppa, where he was offered hospitality by Simon the tanner. Number 1.
Meanwhile in Caesarea, a town about a day’s journey on foot from Joppa, there was a Roman centurion named Cornelius. He was a very good man who believed in God but he had never heard about Jesus. An angel visited Cornelius and told him to send for Peter in Joppa. So Cornelius sent two of his servants and a godly soldier to Joppa to ask for Peter.
About the same time Peter in Joppa had a vision in which he was encouraged to think of no one as unclean. When the 3 men sent by Cornelius arrived, Peter, even though he was staying in someone else’s house, offered hospitality to the three visitors for the night. Number 2.
The next day Peter travelled with the three men back to Caesarea, where he accepted hospitality from Cornelius. Number 3.
This 3rd instance of hospitality is probably the most important one in the book of Acts, and maybe even in the whole of the New Testament. The reason is that previously it would have been unthinkable for a Jew like Peter to accept hospitality from a Gentile. Jews considered Gentiles to be unclean, much like any racial prejudice in today’s world. Yet this wrongful prejudice had to be removed if Christianity was going to become more than just a little Jewish sect. The good news of Jesus had to be taken to the whole world, Gentiles as well as Jews.
Hospitality in that way became the means through which Gentiles first became part of the Christian community. When Peter accepted hospitality from Cornelius, he was able to explain the good news of Jesus Christ to Cornelius and his family and whole household. The gift of the Holy Spirit then came upon Cornelius and the others, and they were baptised in the name of Jesus.
What has happened is that Luke the gospel writer has created a direct link between the custom of hospitality and bridge-building between people of different regions and cultures. He has also created a direct link between hospitality and the bringing in of Gentiles into the life of the church.
Another thing Luke shows us in the story is that Peter the apostle both gives hospitality and receives hospitality. In one of the parishes in which I served in the course of my ministry word got round that I liked to have food on every occasion. What they did not quite understand was that it is not just that I might like to eat. It is because the offer of hospitality is so enriching in people’s lives. It is a means through which the Holy Spirit can work to bring about changed lives and reveal the kingdom of God. And hospitality is not just a one way street: God calls us to function as both host and guest in a relationship of giving and receiving hospitality. Peter moves seamlessly from guest to host and back again. Meanwhile God provides the gift of the Holy Spirit that seals the relationship among those who worship him.
Ultimately this passage teaches us that Jesus’ disciples in every generation must allow God to move us past our prejudices and into bonds of love amongst his followers, and also with those who have previously been strangers, all through the ministry of Christian hospitality.
I encourage us to think how we might do hospitality ourselves here at St Mary Magdalene. Sunday lunch is certainly a good beginning.