The Hospitality of God
Published by Calvin Seminary
Over the years I’ve dipped into etiquette books quite often, particularly those of Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners. I do it because the books are deceptively important. On the surface they are about domestic niceties—how to eat (in many cultures, no audible slurping, please), what to wear (no sleeveless tees to a funeral), and when to send out a wedding invitation (earlier than you think).
But good etiquette rests on deeper foundations than we might suppose. Most of etiquette is
good manners. And most of good manners is
good morals. What the etiquette books are really talking about is justice (don’t cut in line) or respect (don’t disgust other people unnecessarily). And, of course, striving for justice and respect stems from the call to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Half of what Miss Manners says belongs in a sermon.
In no case is good etiquette more plainly about neighbor love than in the case of hospitality. It’s obvious, isn’t it? Hospitality is all about making room for others and then helping them to flourish in the room you have made. You welcome them to a meal and feed them. You welcome them into your home and house them. You welcome them into your life and embrace them. A symbol of hospitality is open arms. So, the hospitality industries (principally restaurants and hotels) teach their employees never to fold their arms in the presence of guests because this move is unwelcoming.
Etiquette is good manners; good manners are good morals; good morals stem from love of neighbor. And hospitality is classic love of neighbor. That’s why it’s all over the Bible. Welcoming sojourners. Welcoming Gentiles. Welcoming tax collectors. Welcoming sinners.
Remarkably, our acts of welcoming register in heaven. It never fails to surprise me that in the most vivid portrait of final judgment in all the gospels, namely in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, Jesus’ interest centers where we aren’t looking. It never fails to surprise me what Jesus Christ points to first. What’s the standard for dividing people? How do you tell whether somebody is fit for heaven?
You look for hospitality. “I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
The readiness to welcome a stranger. The readiness to hand somebody the food or drink they need. Who would ever have thought that a person’s destiny could seemingly hang on this homely virtue?
The truth is that we human beings were created to spend ourselves. The truth is that we thrive only when we help others to thrive. And the reason is that we have been created in the image of God. Even at the center of the universe, life hums with the glad give and take of hospitality.
Let’s see how this is so.
In John 17 Jesus’ hour has come. He’s only one chapter from the place where Judas and the soldiers will meet him with their torches and weapons, and what does Jesus do? He prays for his disciples. He thinks of them and prays for them. He thinks even of the next generation of disciples who will be gathered through evangelism, and he prays for them too. Protect them, he prays. Holy Father, protect them. Sanctify them. Unite them. Fill them with joy. Let me be in them, and you in me, and they in us. Let your love, which has been my own life’s blood from before the foundation of the world—let your love be in them and I in them. Let your love be in all the generations who will believe the truth on account of the disciples’ evangelism.
Etiquette is good manners; good manners are good morals; good morals stem from love of neighbor. And hospitality is classic love of neighbor.
So, Jesus says (vs. 20ff) ”I ask not only on behalf of [the disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
In, in, in, one, one, one. Starting with Gregory of Nazianus, and spreading all over the place, Greek and Latin fathers reflected on this mysterious in-ness that partly constitutes the Trinitarian persons’ oneness and developed a doctrine of the persons’ perichoresis, or circumincessio. The fathers were talking about the divine persons’ interpenetration. The idea, especially on the Greek side, is that each divine person envelops the other two. At the center of the universe, self-giving love is the dynamic currency of the Trinitarian life of God. The persons within God exalt each other, commune with each other, defer to one another.
I know it sounds a little strange, but we might almost say that the persons within God show each other divine hospitality. Each person harbors the other two at the center of his being. In a constant movement of overture and acceptance, each person envelops and encircles the two others.
Supposing that hospitality means to make room for others and to help them flourish in the room you have made, I think we could say that hospitality thrives within the triune life of God and then spreads wonderfully to the creatures of God—“that they may be one as we are one,” Jesus says. The one who spreads the hospitality is a mediator, a person who “works in the middle.” We ordinarily think of Jesus Christ as the mediator of redemption, but I think we can say that those mysterious places in the New Testament that speak of creation happening “through Christ” reveal that the mediator of redemption is also the mediator of creation. Christ is the person designated to work in the middle both times.
The act of creation itself fits the pattern of hospitality. In creation, God expands the realm of being, making room for billions of galaxies, each galaxy comprising perhaps 100 billion stars, and most of the stars with their own orbital systems. God generates all this galactic wealth, and inside it, the one planet that we know, a planet inhabited not only by salamanders and sandhill cranes and fringed gentians, but also by human creatures who are living icons of God himself.
In the Incarnation one of these creatures, the fierce and blessed Virgin Mary opens herself to the God who comes as a stranger. Mary makes room in her heart and in her womb for this holy stranger and helps him to flourish there. God comes so often as a stranger, and not the least as the child of Mary. Advent and Christmas therefore celebrate the hospitality of the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of the incarnate Son of God.
Maybe that’s why the gospel of the Son of God is like the gospel of the law and prophets: it makes room for strangers and for sojourners, for people with disabilities and people with a past. As the saying goes, “even the best people have a past; even the worst have a future.”
The New Testament gospel brings a lovely novelty: in Christ there is room now for Gentiles and for slaves and for women. In the brave new world of Christ, people defer to each other, welcome one another, make room in their hearts for each other. In Trinity, creation, incarnation, and redemption, the seemingly homely virtue of hospitality shows up as a first-class virtue of God and therefore of the image of God.
That’s why we want it, and that’s why we celebrate it.
President Emeritus of Calvin Theological Seminary
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