There are some who love having people over to dinner or a summer barbeque. They get a kick out of opening their homes and showing off their possessions or their cooking skills. They may even rejoice in having a captive audience upon which to inflict their latest jokes or the story of last yearâs vacation. Many just love to be hospitable, perhaps remembering the words of the writer of Hebrews, âDo not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.â
Others are shyer and less able to manage social occasions, or perhaps they just canât cook. Not all of us are extroverts. Yet, thereâs something deeply Christian about sharing and particularly sharing with strangers. A stranger doesnât have to be someone we donât know. It may be someone we know very well, but whose ideas or lifestyle are not our own.
We live in a conflicted age. What divides us seems more evident than what unites us. We take sides easily. We pour scorn on those who donât share our views. If this is so of the social and political life, where, after all, hurling insults are part of the game, nowadays we find ourselves in a church where conflict grabs the headlines away from everyday acts of kindness and love.
The Gospel today seems very modern. Jesus says that he is a divisive person. Thatâs an odd way to look at him. Our vision of Jesus is misted in sentimentality. We think of him drawing people to him, loving everyone unconditionally, and wandering around with a gentle smile on his face saying gentle things. We think this way about him not because this is the picture given in the Gospels, but because itâs a picture we need. âGentle Jesus meek and mildâ is more the product of our childhood than of the Gospel or of our experience of him in our lives.
Jesus collided with many segments of first century Palestine. The Gospel today has him owning up to that reality. He says that he comes not to bring peace but a sword. He describes the conflict that he brings to families and households. He doesnât say that this is his desire. He faces reality. He suggests that following him means the possibility of losing oneâs life. Cross bearing is an integral part of the Christian life.
It is so easy to spiritualize all this. . Episcopalians prefer ornate crossesâbut unadorned by an agonized body dying a horrible death. The thought that we are called to be life-givers seems rather fanatical! Surely our being a Christian wonât divide us from family, friends, habits, work, or political opinions? After all, faith is a personal thing.
On the other hand, the idea that faith brings us into conflict with others seems to suggest that it is quite all right to indulge our hostility in fighting those whose views donât correspond with our own. Perhaps those activists in our church who fight for their way and deride those who donât agree are just following the Gospel?
But Jesus didnât say that we are to be the agents of division. He said that division will happen and that is that! In todayâs Gospel he goes on to say that one of the marks of a Cross-bearer, a life-loser, is the capacity to welcome others. Jesus lists those to be welcomed. They are âProphets,â ârighteous people,â disciples, and âlittle ones.â
Jesus begins by saying that those who welcome his disciples welcome him. That is something for us to remember. Baptism inducts us all into the company of disciples. Hospitality towards other Christians isnât to be based on whether we like their opinions but on their status. Another Christian is another Christian. Thatâs worth remembering next time you get into a quarrel at a vestry meeting or accuse someone of not being a ârealâ Christian! Jesus is talking about a culture of kindness: a habit learnt through living a selfless life, a life-giving life, a life lived in Jesus.
Jesus tells us to be kind to prophets. Prophets are people who tell the truth to us. They say, âThus says the Lord,â and have a habit of making us uncomfortable. They always demand of us more than we are willing to give, because they have a vision of the church that doesnât compromise in its mission and witness. Truth-tellers are hard people to tolerate. Yet we are to welcome such people. Of course there are âfalse prophets,â but thatâs a story for another day.
Jesus tells us to be kind to righteous people. That word ârighteousâ is rather frightening. It is easily confused with âself-righteousâ folk who approve of their own behavior and judge others. Thatâs not what righteous means. A righteous person is someone who walks with God. We might prefer the word âholy,â or just plain âgood.â
Unfortunately good people can be equally hard to take. Unlike self-righteous people, they donât press their goodness, or flaunt their holiness. But they do seem odd. They make us feel small or even dirty, unless we have allowed ourselves to become weak in our need and strong in our trust of God. If that has happened, we have joined the ranks of the righteous.
Finally Jesus says that if we act towards âlittle onesâ as disciples, we will earn our reward. The text seems to suggest that disciples, prophets, holy people are âlittle ones.â Jesus urges us to give up on the weapons of the world. Even though we live in a divided and conflicted world, we are to be life-losers, cross bearers, lovers; people who welcome others unconditionally. It may be that people we think wrong, or different, or plain boring are angels! The word for angel also means messenger. The message may be something new or something very old indeed.
This is surely a timely message when we see so much conflict in our parishes, dioceses, in the national church, and abroad, conflicts marked by the ways of the world rather than by the hospitality of discipleship. Following Jesus is not all about fighting for a Cause. God doesnât need our help and what God wants will finally be done on earth as it is in heaven. Following Jesus means walking into a holy, gentle, self-forgetting lifestyle lived in community. It means a costly learning to be like Jesus. One of the signs that we are doing this is our willingness to open our arms to others, and to take the risk of being abused in the process. Yet risking being used, and indeed of losing everything, means following the path Jesus trod. In human terms, Jesus is the great loser. Yet, through his loss, Jesus becomes Christ the Victor, and in him his victory is also our own.