Jesus was hungry, not hospitable

I’m working on my sermon for Sunday. The Gospel is Mark 6:1-13. The passage includes Jesus’ visit to his hometown where he was unable to do any “deeds of power” but did heal some people. It also includes Mark’s version of the sending out of the twelve. Jesus instructs them on how to receive hospitality and how to respond if they are not welcomed in a village.

“Hospitality” is one of the key values of contemporary progressive Christianity, especially as mainline, mainly-white churches seek to welcome and include people of color, members of the LGBT community, as well as people of different socio-economic background. Often, such praiseworthy goals are connected with Jesus’ own practice of radical inclusion. Progressive Christians love to say things like, “Jesus practiced radical hospitality” or “Jesus welcomed all to the table.” Such arguments are made not just in our efforts toward great diversity and inclusivity, but also in the Episcopal Church in the ongoing controversy over inviting the unbaptized to receive communion.

Such statements may reflect central values in contemporary progressive worship and theology but as Andrew McGowan notes in a blog post, they don’t correspond to the gospel records of Jesus.

 the welcoming, inclusive, festive Jesus may be a common feature of many scholarly portraits; he is not, however, a strongly-based historical one. Jesus was most clearly someone willing to eat with diverse company, less an inclusive host than an undiscriminating guest. Jesus appears as host only in quite different and more historically contentious material, relative to that where he is depicted as keeping bad company or being a wine-bibber. The “guest” traditions about him are generally defensible; the “host” traditions tend to be more influenced by later reflection than material that scholars in general would actually attribute to the historical Jesus.

He concludes:

Meals were important to ancient Mediterranean society, Jewish and Greco-Roman alike, as venues for the expression and creation of social relationships—not just among families, but for professional guilds, interest groups and, of course, for religious purposes, too. Meals were venues for politics as well as piety, business as well as pleasure.

It is hardly surprising that we find Jesus actively participating in this meal-culture. It was the most obvious means for many types of social interaction, and the carefully-crafted Gospel pictures of Jesus sharing others’ tables certainly have a reliable core.

Nor should we forget the even more basic reality of physical need. Jesus was apparently an itinerant without direct means of support, and his willingness or even desire to be included indiscriminately is not really so surprising in itself. Hunger makes for interesting and diverse table fellowship.

In our gospel for this week, Jesus’ instructions to the disciples help them to receive hospitality, not give it. In many ways, that is more difficult for us. Offering hospitality, especially in the Church, comes from a place of privilege. Receiving hospitality requires vulnerability. That’s true in our worship and in our outreach programs.

Radical Hospitality, Radical Mission

Yesterday was a remarkable day at Grace Church. On an August Sunday, two weeks before the start of school, we had attendance that rivaled our average Sunday attendance. There were visitors from out of town as well as newcomers and church shoppers. There were also visitors from other Episcopal churches who joined us before participating in the Capitol Pride march.

After our 8:00 and 10:00 services, we introduced members and visitors to the master planning process on which we are about to embark and invited them to dream about the future of Grace Church, how, as I like to put it, we might become sacred space for our whole community.

While we were talking, people gathered for Capitol Pride. Some of our members joined the parade at its start; others joined after participating in the conversations we were having inside the building. I was struck by the juxtaposition of the two events. We were talking about mission in our neighborhood, while thousands gathered and marched outside. Here’s a photo from the parade (from Fred-Allen Self):

And I thought about something else, the way our building enables and limits our mission. I’m linking below to a couple of blog posts that challenge us to rethink the way we do mission or evangelism. It’s not enough to claim to be welcoming, our to assert our radical hospitality, we have to go out into the community and into the square, talk about our faith and invite people to encounter Jesus Christ with us.

Reaching Out to the Unchurched – Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog.

In today’s paper, there were probably dozens of ads for new cars.  If you read the paper, did you notice them?  It’s doubtful – unless you are in the market for a car.  (These days, it’s doubtful you even read a newspaper – but let’s play this out).

If you’re not in the market for a car, it doesn’t matter to you if a dealer is having a sale, promises a rebate, has a radio on-site broadcast, hangs out balloons, says they’re better than everyone else, promises that they will be different and not harass you or make you bargain over the price, or sends you a brochure or push email.

Why?  You’re not in the market for a car.

It’s no different with a church.  People today are divorced from seeing it as a need in their life, even when they are open to and interested in spiritual things.  They no longer tie that to the need to find a particular faith, much less a particular church.


So how do you grow a church from the unchurched?

I’ll assume you know the “pray like mad” part.

Here’s step two:

Crawl underneath the hood of any growing church that is actually growing from the unchurched and you will find that the number one reason newcomers attend is because they were invited by a friend.

Churches grow from the unchurched because their members and attenders talk about it to their unchurched friends.  It comes up in their conversations like the mention of a good movie, a favorite restaurant, or a treasured vacation spot.

There is a culture of invitation.

Earlier, Scott Benhase said similar things in A Theology of Attraction:

Our churches ought to be places of pure welcome and grace. We truly ought to be communities of “radical hospitality” to the stranger.

And yet, the theology behind this practice, however right and good, has tended to mask something else that we need to acknowledge and address. For the sake of argument, I would call the theology behind the movement of “radical hospitality” a “Theology of Attraction.”

Such a theology holds that if we’re just open and welcoming enough people will naturally be attracted to us and want to come and join our churches. So, with this theology we declare that all people are welcome and we will offer them “radical hospitality” when they come into our churches.

Instead, he advocates a Theology of Mission:

We need a “Theology of Mission” like the early church had, in which modern day “apostles” (literally “ones who are sent out”) leave the friendly confines of our church buildings and go to where people are. We need to go to where people are because they are not coming to us, no matter how attractive we might be.

September 16 is Back to Church Sunday