Year A Proper 17: following the story

I feel as though the lectionary has been leading us on. It started a few weeks ago, with the feeding of the multitude, and the reminder that the Eucharist was given not only for us but for all of those left over, for whom baskets of broken pieces were gathered up and saved, in order that no one should go hungry; neither those on the grass beside the Sea of Galilee nor those left behind; and the disciples were charged with taking care of the distribution.

Then we had Peter stepping out of the boat, and the woman of Canaan coming out to her own borders, both taking their faith in their hands and stepping out of their comfort zones to meet Jesus at least halfway; one with a little faith and one with a lot, each did what they could and each caused a miracle to happen.

Last week, we stepped outside and sat together in the shade, on the grass, and we talked about what Jesus means to us, who he is to us, and whether we should tell anyone else about him.

And now Paul tells us, the church,

Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Love one another; contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

The other week, I posted an article on facebook which was roundly damning of churches that look only inward, doing only in-reach, instead of looking outward, offering outreach. 

The consensus on our facebook page is that this critique was all well and good in a way – but a church surely needs to take care of its members as well as its mission. It is by being a community of the Holy Spirit that we get the inspiration to share our spiritual and material gifts with the world. We need to pay attention to Paul’s exhortation to love one another with mutual affection, without lagging in zeal, being patient and persevering.

But one of the reasons that we need to do it is that it is excellent practice for extending hospitality to strangers. A few weeks ago, there was plenty of giggling and whispering around the changing of seats after the Peace – and a few new introductions were made. Out of forty-three people in the building, three of whom were the priest, the musician and an infant, each of whom had arguably less freedom in their seating choice than the other forty – so out of forty people in the building, a few had never even met, although they’d worshipped within sight of one another week by week. We can think, perhaps, of loving one another with mutual affection, in this safe and small community, as practice in reaching out, introducing ourselves, loving our other neighbours.

And it shows on the outside, too. When you show up to visit one another in the hospital or at home; when you drive one another to doctor’s appointments, or sit with one another waiting for news, people notice. They notice who shows up. They know whether or not this is a real community of mutual affection by who shows up on the outside, when a neighbour is in need.

We do it for ourselves, for our own community of saints; but it also lets others know that we are open to mutual affection, that there is a chance of a welcome here, hospitality to the stranger.

William Temple, a rather wonderful twentieth-century Archbishop of Canterbury, is often quoted as saying that the church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members (although there are so many variants of the quote that I have to wonder what he really said; also, I wonder if he considered God a member?). Likewise, a book on Missional Church noes that, “We have begun to see that the church of Jesus Christ is not the purpose or goal of the gospel, but rather its instrument and witness,” that is, as wonderful and sacramental and good as the church is, it is not an end in itself.

We’ve taken some baby steps. We are praying for the city through the Euclid prayer walks. We are, largely through the dedicated zeal of Cyrus and his band of volunteers, forging ahead with re-starting the community meal: in fact, that’s a great example of the intersection of the gospel and the world, our servanthood and our leadership. We are serving food to anyone who needs it, regardless of religion or demographic or any other human marker of worth or values. That’s important. Showing hospitality to strangers has to be unconditional. Conditional hospitality is not hospitable at all. We offer this food, this meal to our neighbours because Jesus told us that when we do, we feed him. We offer this meal because we have promised at our baptism to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and would we see him go hungry? We do not ask for anything in return – not even a prayer. And yet that very act of self-giving, of unconditional laying down and giving up raises up disciples. It raises us up first. We re-learn what it means to be disciples, distributing the bounty that Jesus has provided for us, dividing it among the multitudes. We invite others to help us – in working with St Bartholomew’s, we are acting out and actively building those bonds of mutual affection, that we all may be one as Jesus and his Father are one. When we say that we do this for the sake of God’s love for God’s world, then we preach the gospel in word and deed. And people see that. They see whether this is a community that lives its faith, that loves God and neighbour.

We tend to think in terms of either/or. Serve the community within or the community without. Us or them. Peter was afraid to choose one way over another; he was afraid that Jesus, heading towards Jerusalem and the cross, was narrowing his options. The resurrection proved otherwise. But the thing is, when it comes to the gospel, we really can have it all. We can feed the five thousand and have baskets of broken pieces left over. We can get out of the boat and walk on the very water. Given that we worship one who can both die and live forever, we really should be able to understand that we get to have it all.

Where is the gospel? We have it. It is right here. It is in our heart, in our hearts, it is in our souls and in our singing, it is in our bodies and yes, in our building, in the memories it holds and the music it emits and the spire silhouetted at sunset. And it is out there, in the empty horizon and in the knowledge that God’s Spirit breathes over the whole earth and not only over us, that there are baskets of broken pieces left over, that we carry with us, to distribute within a broken, hurting and ever-hopeful world. A world full of strangers reaching for a little holy hospitality.

So where is the gospel leading us? Wherever we choose to preach it.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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