Habits of Hospitality Week 2: WELCOMING ALL THE PEOPLE
I Thessalonians 1:1-10
What does it mean to become “imitators of us and of the Lord” and to receive “the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit” so that we may become examples to other believers?
What does it mean to be truly welcoming, receiving all people and their gifts, even as we serve a living and true God and wait for the coming again of Christ in final glory?
I am pondering these questions on this second Sunday in our three-week series, “Habits of Hospitality,” because sometimes I wonder if, in our zeal to grow in number as congregations, perhaps we have lost sight of our mission to be disciples of Jesus Christ who are transforming the world. Don’t get me wrong: this is not an indictment against seeking new people for Christ, or adapting our practices (worship and otherwise) in order to attract new people to our church, or experimenting with innovative ways of reaching people who find no relevance for their own lives in the message of Jesus Christ. But I do want to suggest that our discipleship is deeply connected to our understanding and practice of hospitality.
Last week, we talked about the qualifications for discipleship Jesus named as he commissioned a group of followers and sent them out ahead of him. He sent them out in pairs, instructing them to prepare the townspeople for his coming. He told them to go forth with an attitude of hope, and an expectation for a plentiful harvest. He warned them that they might be met with rejection, but not to be deterred by naysayers. He urged his followers to go to each house with peace in their hearts and to declare peace to each house: to be gracious in each context they encountered; to not be in too much of a hurry; to offer ministry according to the needs of each situation; and to proclaim that the kingdom of God had come near.
This week, as we move into the greeting from Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica, we find Paul taking on this yoke of hospitality described by Jesus. Look at how he begins his letter to them. He announces no agenda. He thanks God for them. He embraces the giftedness he has found among them. Welcoming all begins with such embrace.
The people of the Thessalonian church have also clothed themselves in these same garments of Christ’s loving hospitality. In fact, they have done this so well that their witness has become an example for others. Paul and his cohorts have heard reports from all over the region about the welcoming manner displayed by the good people in the Thessalonian congregation.
Paul’s first letter to Thessalonians is the earliest writing in the New Testament. Paul’s very first letter is very personal and reflects not only Paul’s familiarity with and deep affection for this community of faith, but also his genuine affection for each of its members. He founded this church, and he knows these people.
Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. The letter addresses the Gentile believers who, through Paul’s ministry, had come to know the gospel message of Jesus Christ that he proclaimed. Part of the letter’s purpose is to encourage these new disciples who were facing persecution and adversity from their neighbors to remain strong and not waver in their conviction. They were under threat, not just in terms of social pressure to return to the beliefs and values of Roman culture, but had sometimes faced physical violence for their non-conformity.
A critical thing to understand about Paul’s message is that for Paul, conversion was not simply about hearing the story of Jesus and his saving love proclaimed. Receiving the good news carried power that could be seen and experienced. The very power of the Holy Spirit was made manifest in those who accepted the gospel.
The people who heard Paul proclaim the message were changed by the experience. They didn’t just hear his words. They saw and felt the power of the Spirit in those words. They saw and felt the power of the Spirit through Paul. And once they became followers, apparently that same power of the Spirit shone through each one of them as well.
When I was younger, I was a cheerleader. One of the phrases we often used, with regard to how we were to conduct ourselves, was that we would “show our spirit.” In this case, the “spirit” we were to show was our passion for our school and our football and basketball teams. We showed our spirit by shouting it loudly, and jumping up and down, and wearing smiles on our faces at all times. We showed our spirit by dressing in red and white, and wearing our uniforms, and never getting discouraged even when our football team ended the season 0-9. (Yes, that is actually true.)
I think that an important habit of hospitality for disciples is that we need to show our Spirit as loudly and passionately as possible. This doesn’t mean we never have a hard day or admit that we aren’t feeling particularly joyful sometimes. It just means that we don’t ever give up our hope that joy will return, because the Spirit of Christ is always with us, in us, shining through us and infecting others with the love and grace of the Lord. Methodists early on were known for their “enthusiasm.” I think that Wesleyan enthusiasm, that habit of showing our Spirit through our passion, our hope, our excitement—and wearing that enthusiasm like a holy garment for all to see—is in our DNA. It is who we are, not only as disciples of Jesus Christ, but as United Methodists.
I have known people in my life in whom the very Spirit of Christ was manifest in such a way that I could see it and feel it. People who exhibit this depth of faith are like leaven. They literally spill the Spirit out on to everyone they meet, so that it infects the people around them. As I sit here writing these words, I feel myself surrounded and embraced by the great cloud of witnesses who, like Paul and the people of the Thessalonian church, infected me and continue to infect me with the Spirit of the living Christ. I’m so grateful for all the saints whose love for Christ has spilled out on me. I can see the faces of my own great cloud of witnesses in my mind and feel their loving spirits strongly, even though some of them are no longer part of this world.
So like Paul, I always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in my prayers, constantly, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For I know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that Christ has chosen you, because the message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of person I proved to be among you. And you became imitators of the Lord, for in spite of persecution, you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became examples to all the believers in Arkansas, and Illinois, and Tennessee, and Nebraska, and all the places where I have seen the face of Christ and felt and known the very Spirit of the living God through all of you. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in these places, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about what kind of welcome I had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead--Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.