I recently heard someone say that they tend to refer to the Church less as the Body of Christ and more as the Embodiment of Christ. Subtle difference, maybe one you don’t care for, but it struck me. It is beyond understatement (and should be extremely obvious) to say that there is nothing wrong with the phrase “Body of Christ.” This scriptural description of the Church is a vital corrective to more settled and institutional understandings.
However, embodiment carries an active sense that resonates with me. It is not active in the sense of trying to accomplish something, but rather active because it is alive. To be the Embodiment of Christ in our world is astounding; it simultaneously declares our existence and our mission, our calling and our sending.
I’m looking forward to seeing a friend this weekend. In fact I’m looking forward to the opportunity to once again worship with and learn from her. In preparation for our worship gathering I’ve been thinking about the concept of hospitality – the theme for this Sunday and a topic that has been on my mind in a special way for the past few weeks.
When we arrived here in Burleson a few Wednesdays ago, the community of Christ Journey surrounded us. They showed up to help unload the trucks, to stock our new pantry with food, to shower us with hugs and laughter and greetings…and to share a meal with us. It struck me that people showed up at OUR new house and showed US tremendous hospitality.
This reminded me of Eugene Peterson’s powerful retelling of the story of the road to Emmaus where Jesus joins weary travelers on the trip from Jerusalem to Emmaus (check out Luke 24 if you’re unfamiliar with this passage). I’ve included part of this story on this blog before, but here’s the part that came back to me when our new friends gathered around us, which was highlighted even more after our friends in Mandeville had so lovingly surrounded us during the days and weeks before our departure.
As you enter Emmaus, you are actually feeling calm and almost your old self. You left Jerusalem three hours ago whipsawed by emotions. And now, thanks to this stranger, you are feeling almost normal.
It’s late in the day and time for supper. You’ve been away from home for a week, maybe over a week. There is nothing to eat. Passing a bakery stall you buy a loaf of bread and invite the stranger in for supper. After some coaxing, he comes in. You get out a bottle of wine. The three of you sit down to a simple supper of bread and wine. The stranger then makes a move that takes you aback momentarily. HE takes up the loaf and blesses it. The guest you invited to supper becomes the host offering you supper. After blessing the bread, he breaks it and gives it to you and to Cleopas. Then, and only then, you recognize him. It’s Jesus, alive. It’s resurrection.” (from Eugene Peterson’s, Living the Resurrection. pg 65)
While it isn’t the full expression, giving (and receiving) hospitality is a powerful embodiment of Christ in this world. Hospitality goes beyond feeding the hungry; it sits down at the table and shares the experience of the meal with them – extending not just grace, but love, dignity and community. Hospitality goes beyond merely saying “God loves you,” and even beyond, “I love you.” Hospitality says to someone that our lives would be more impoverished without them.
This isn’t about fixing a fancy dinner and making sure the children are on their best behavior (though feasting can also be a powerful embodiment of Christ). Hospitality is about sharing life together. It is what was expressed by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 2:8 “We were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.”
While I won’t suggest that we begin going into people’s homes and taking charge of the meal time ritual, as Christ did with the companions from Emmaus, I do love this idea of the one invited extending hospitality. It reminds me that often we approach a relationship assuming that we are the host and we find ourselves in the place to instead receive. There may well be a temptation to resist and forcefully maintain our place as the one setting the agenda or bringing the food (literally or metaphorically).
I was blessed while we lived in Louisiana to experience the incredibly humbling experience of receiving hospitality from those “less fortunate” than me. Few encounters in life have impacted me quite as deeply as when someone who I know struggles to pay the electric bills and the continuously mounting medical bills gave a very loving and sacrificial gift to my children. The gift was powerful for several reasons. For one, it is a gift that this person has given to all his grandchildren – thus it was his way of communicating to us the depth of love, commitment and connection he feels with our family…we’re part of his family.
This same family, on a Sunday when Rachel and the boys were in Texas, invited me to their house for lunch because they didn’t want me to have to eat alone…especially on Sunday.
In the past I struggled with accepting hospitality from certain people because I didn’t want to be a burden. In truth this was the lie that hid my pride and ego which preferred to sit in the position of one who offers help to those in need. It is one thing to eat a meal with the poor…it’s another thing all together to be fed by the poor.
Another time I grew frustrated with a person who each month struggled to pay bills and yet she regularly “wasted” money buying people gifts or giving to others who didn’t really need it. I wanted her to be more responsible with her money.
My internal hesitation to bless God for these gifts began to sound a lot like the disciple’s indignant complaint that perfume poured on the head of Jesus could have been sold and given to the poor. What’s more, I began to realize that in my arrogance I was assuming that my giving was less ridiculous. My assumption was that I am a “have” and others are “have nots” instead of the truth, as David Wray has been known to say, “I’m just one hungry beggar sharing bread with another.”
The offer of hospitality is not merely an opportunity for the “haves” to bless the “have nots” - though that is certainly appropriate. It is a way for each of us to embody Christ in a very real and significant sense, and to acknowledge that we all serve from a place of need in anticipation of the day when Jesus himself will fully satisfy those needs.
For some of us, and for different reasons, receiving hospitality may well be more difficult than offering it. Perhaps it is pride, perhaps it is insecurity or perhaps it is a fear of being indebted to someone. In any case we must ask ourselves whether our inability to accept hospitality can negatively impact our ability to embody Christ.
What would have happened if Jesus was unable to receive the anointing of perfume and tears from the “sinful woman” in Luke 7? I don’t have room to go into it here, but I believe that it was in part Jesus’ ability to receive hospitality from the “poor” (whatever kind of poverty they were experiencing) that enabled him to be truly hospitable. Jesus himself declared that he did not come to be served, but to serve – perhaps that’s why people rejoiced when they had the opportunity to serve him!