If we're honest, our hospitality is safe, rationed, and usually by request only. Membership certainly has its privileges. The radical nature of the hospitality in the gospels, or even the early church has been lost in the age of marketing and consumerism. We are better at hosting, than living out the radical scandalous hospitality of Jesus.
There is a tragic and beautiful story from the early church about the hospitality of Polycarp, written shortly after the old mans execution sometime around 155 AD. A much revered bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor, Polycarp was in his mid-80’s when he was arrested and executed in one of the long series of persecutions that besieged the Christian church over the first 300 years of its existence.
As the story is told in the ancient document, under torture a servant had betrayed Polycarp’s whereabouts to the Roman authorities and in time soldiers arrived at his door to arrest him.
As soon as he heard them arrive, he went down and chatted with them; and everyone there was struck by his age and his calmness, and surprised that the arrest of such an old man could be so urgent. In spite of the lateness of the hour he at once ordered them to be given all the food and drink they wanted; and then asked if he might be allowed an hour to pray undisturbed. When they consented, he got to his feet and prayed; so full of the grace of God, that two whole hours went by before he could bring himself to be silent again. All who heard him were struck with awe, and many of them began to regret this expedition against a man so old and saintly.
In his interpretation of the events, local artist James Nesbitt’s painting behind me reveals the redemptive imagination of Jesus and his Kingdom, set at the dinner table which has been offered to the arresting soldiers.
(Painting courtesy James Nesbitt)
While the 2nd Century account has the aged bishop in prayer during the meal, Nesbitt places Polycarp at the table with his captors, extending to them the sort of table hospitality which Jesus models throughout the gospels. Head lifted in laughter, Nesbitt’s Polycarp embodies a deeply challenging Christian truth: he is one who can not and will not confess any other Lord than Jesus, but he is also one who cannot do other than open his table to any and all, including those who would take his life.
The occasion for the hospitality offered by Polycarp to his captors is triggered by a betrayal by one of his own servants, and yet, as with the last supper, it becomes a meal which proclaims the deep liberation found only in Christ. From James Nesbitt’s palette has come a most remarkable portrait of the truth – and cost – of liberation in Christ.
On every imaginable front Jesus is restoring every victim of a broken world. Jesus stories of the Kingdom invoked a radical energy for they announced as sure and certain what had been denied by careful conspiracy. The stories of the Kingdom were almost more radical than his actions, because the stories played out the implications of the harsh challenge and radical transformation at which his actions hinted. It was one thing to eat with outcasts, but it was far more radical to announce the distinctions between insiders and outsiders were null and void. It was one thing to heal and forgive, but quite another to announce that the conditions which made one sick and guilty were now irrelevant.
The stories of the Kingdom, like Jesus’ actions are earth shattering, open and inviting, they stir the heart, mind and soul…awakening us to the eternal and abundant life of the Kingdom. The Kingdom conjures a present and a future that had been closed off. They indicate infinite possibilities that had been defined as impossibilities.
The hospitality of Jesus is without boundaries, and borders. It erases the lines between " us " and " them "; the loved and the unloved; the tax colllector and the priest; the poor and the wealthy; the sick and the healthy; the wise and illiterate; men and women; gays and straights; Christians and other faiths...friends and enemies. At Jesus table all are welcome, even those who would and did conspire to kill him. At Jesus table there is liberation, of peace, and healing...the Kingdom becomes a tangible reality.
It's not so much about the food...it's more about you, and me becoming a guest house...open to everyone , and everything.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
~ Rumi ~