August 14, 2013 by jmar198013
This summer, we have been learning from the letter to the Hebrews how to exalt Christ. We are now coming to the end of the letter. Really, Hebrews reads more like a sermon than a letter. A sermon, as we have been repeatedly reminded, that is preached to a congregation of Jewish Christians who are enduring persecution for their solidarity with Christ. Some of these believers are wondering if following Jesus is really a good idea. They are tempted to go back to the life that they had known before. The letter to the Hebrews is really a sermon exhorting them to resist temptation. To resist the temptation to repent from following Jesus. And now we are at the thirteenth and final chapter of the letter. The final movement of the sermon.
Tonight I want us to focus on Hebrews 13.1-16. This is a longish passage—longer, perhaps, than what we’ve usually looked at. But it’s crucial. It’s crucial because the preacher has just spent twelve chapters in our Bibles telling these persecuted believers how awesome Jesus is. How much better he is than anything that came before. But these people were still being battered by an unmerciful world. They were losing their homes and their property and their jobs and their friends. They were being threatened with violence. Given the grim and gritty situation of these early Christians, the preacher calls these people to the practice of hospitality. Some of these people were homeless and hurting and slouching toward hopelessness. So the preacher concludes by telling them to take care of each other. But as we shall see, the hospitality to which the church is called in this passage is a very particular kind of hospitality. It is a hospitality that exalts Jesus. It exalts Jesus because it echoes the hospitality Christ has extended to the church. Listen to the Word of the Lord.
Keep loving each other like family. Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it. Remember prisoners as if you were in prison with them, and people who are mistreated as if you were in their place. Marriage must be honored in every respect, with no cheating on the relationship, because God will judge the sexually immoral person and the person who commits adultery. Your way of life should be free from the love of money, and you should be content with what you have. After all, he has said, I will never leave you or abandon you. This is why we can confidently say,
The Lord is my helper,
and I won’t be afraid.
What can people do to me?
Remember your leaders who spoke God’s word to you. Imitate their faith as you consider the way their lives turned out. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever!
Don’t be misled by the many strange teachings out there. It’s a good thing for the heart to be strengthened by grace rather than by food. Food doesn’t help those who live in this context. We have an altar, and those who serve as priests in the meeting tent don’t have the right to eat from it. The blood of the animals is carried into the holy of holies by the high priest as an offering for sin, and their bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy with his own blood.
So now, let’s go to him outside the camp, bearing his shame. We don’t have a permanent city here, but rather we are looking for the city that is still to come.
So let’s continually offer up a sacrifice of praise through him, which is the fruit from our lips that confess his name. Don’t forget to do good and to share what you have because God is pleased with these kinds of sacrifices. (CEB)
These are words to people two millennia ago who were suffering persecution in the world. They are also words to us—the church is always tasked with finding the relevance of God’s words in each succeeding generation. They always apply. Because Jesus is still Christ, the church is still the church, and the world is still the world. When we speak of the world, we mean whatever in God’s creation has not acknowledged that Jesus is Christ. The world will always be cruel and violent and full of despair because it doesn’t know any other way to behave. In such a world, the church exalts Christ by our witness. We do that by living in ways that only make sense if God is the author of creation and Jesus is his final word. Our hospitality—a hospitality shaped by God’s care of us through Christ—is an essential facet of that witness. In a world that does not know what hospitality is, we exalt Christ by extending hospitality as he has taught us.
For the church, this means that hospitality is life-giving. In our present culture, what is called hospitality is actually life-enhancing, not life-giving. We can speak of a hospitality industry: hotels, motels, restaurants, and the like. In the church, when we speak of hospitality, we most often mean having a greeting committee for visitors. Or making sure the coffee is made. Or having someone over for dinner. Maybe putting up a visiting missionary for a few days. I don’t want to disparage any of these good practices, but I do sometimes worry that the church is buying into the world’s definition of hospitality. The hospitality to which we are called by passages like Hebrews 13 is not primarily those forms of hospitality.
In the passage we have just heard from Hebrews, hospitality is defined two ways. One is how we make room in our community for one another and for the strangers and sojourners God may send our way. This type of hospitality involves loving each other like family. It involves opening up our homes to strangers. It involves suffering with people who are mistreated as if it were happening to us. This type of hospitality will be expensive and inefficient—those who love money will not be able to extend this sort of hospitality, because it may mean that they will not be able to have nice things. There is deep wisdom here: if hospitality means rich folks trickling down goodies upon the downtrodden, there is room for abuse. You’ll get paternalism—the rich and strong lording it over the objects of their charity. We’ll have a situation where we see people only as hungry mouths. We will not be able to see the gifts they bring to the table and nurture those gifts. True hospitality is a mutual thing. We learn that from Jesus, who was both a hospitable guest and a hospitable host. The kind of hospitality we learn from Christ’s care of us is about creating space and time for one another to flourish and to thrive. It is about building a refuge from a hostile world. By practicing this sort of hospitality, we are echoing God’s word spoken through Christ: I will never leave you or abandon you. We become family and home to those who might not have homes and family. We suffer with those the world has abandoned to their suffering. We do not abandon one another because God’s word through Christ is that he will not abandon us.
I suspect that what many of the uncertain believers in Hebrews’ audience needed was breathing room. They were under fire and needed shelter and time to process and heal. The sort of hospitality Hebrews recommends in these verses would have provided that. Living faithful to this text means we are always open to make room for brothers and sisters who are under fire, as well. We all need a safe place to breathe, to process, and to heal. We all need to be nurtured. We all need to know we will not be abandoned. When we so live, we exalt Christ, because Christ is God’s promise that he will not abandon us.
There is a second form of hospitality we see in Hebrews 13. The first type of hospitality is building a refuge from the world. But the other type of hospitality we see is going forth and building a refuge in the world. We are told that Jesus suffered outside the city gate; and we are told to meet him out there, to go to him outside the camp, bearing his shame. What might this mean for us—to go out into the world and follow Christ’s way of hospitality in a world that does not know what hospitality means? Again, I would suggest that it is determined by God’s hospitality to us through Christ. This is the hospitality that is capable of feeding a hungry enemy and watering a thirsty one. This hospitality welcomes neighbors—whether they are friendly neighbors or enemy neighbors. Jesus named this sort of hospitality being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5.48). This is the hospitality we practice when we obey these words of Jesus:
I tell you not to repay evil for evil. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you. (Matt. 5.39-42)
It is good to be reminded that these words foreshadow the crucifixion. Jesus was slapped, he had his clothes taken from him, he carried a burden that was not his own. The church will learn better how to be hospitable when we realize that the cross is God’s hospitality to us. Going that other mile with someone who hates your guts and might want to kill you is a powerful form of hospitality. It is a way of caring for someone else that echoes God’s care of us in Christ. When we so act, we are creating space and time to care for the person in the world. To make this room to welcome and nurture even our enemies exalts Christ, because it witnesses God’s welcoming and nurturing of us through Christ. We are speaking God’s promise even to a hostile world: I will never leave you or abandon you. When we offer hospitality in the world, we become living proof of God’s promise.
The final words of this passage constitute an invitation to the church: let’s continually offer up a sacrifice of praise through Jesus, which is the fruit from our lips that confess his name. Don’t forget to do good and to share what you have because God is pleased with these kinds of sacrifices. Notice that the preacher of Hebrews connects the practice of hospitality to our exaltation of Christ in praise and worship. Exalting Christ spills over into our acts of hospitality. Extending hospitality by doing good and sharing what we have exalts Christ.