Over the past several weeks, we’ve been talking about community. We’ve talked about the significance of the Christian community, what this community looks like, and what this community does. Today, I want to talk a little more about the purpose of community.
As our scripture reference today, I want to look at 1 Peter 4:7-11
7 The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. 8 Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. 9 Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 11 If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.1 Peter 4: 7-11
I’d like to discuss this passage in more detail, but unfortunately we will not be able to. And it would probably be more accurate to say that I’m using this passage more as a starting point rather than that we are examining it deeply. But we remember that Peter is speaking to a community that is suffering and struggling because of their place in a presumably hostile society. Thus, they are trying to understand what it means to be faithful to God in this context. And as part of that, Peter is talking about how we are to live as God’s community in this context.
Today, I’m guided particularly by vv. 8-9, but I feel like the rest of this paragraph is closely interrelated. Now of course I may be projecting here, but it seems that Peter (keeping in mind the context) is telling his community (and by extension, us), to do community well, and this because we live according to the Spirit of God and not the ways of the world (which is expressed in the immediately preceding verses). Specifically, he tells them to love each other deeply, offer hospitality to one another, use our gifts for one another, and to speak in a way that lifts one another up.
Again, we’ve already mentioned that to a certain extent the question of the purpose of the Church – in what way is the Church an instrument of the kingdom – is answered by our being a sign and a foretaste. Last time, we talked about the purpose of the church – how we are an instrument of the kingdom – as being found in part in our proclamation. In particular, I suggested that the “how?” of our proclamation is just as important as our “what?”. And today, like last week, I’m not going to say anything revolutionary or new, and it might even be a little (or completely) redundant. But in thinking about our purpose as a sign and a foretaste, I want to try to add a little bit of intentionality to our conversation. That is, are we intentional in how we are being a community?
Several weeks ago, the book club met to talk about Henri Nouwen’s book, Reaching Out. And without getting too deeply into the book as a whole, one of the things that he talks about is the movement from hostility to hospitality – or for our purposes, the importance of hospitality. Nouwen says:
[Regarding the importance of hospitality:] It is there that our changing relationship to ourself [that is, knowing and becoming our truest selves] can be brought to fruition in an ever-changing relationship to our fellow human beings. It is there that our reaching out to our innermost being can lead to a reaching out to the many strangers whom we meet on our way through life. (44)
The movement from hostility to hospitality is hard and full of difficulties. Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude and do harm. But still—that is our vocation: to convert the hostis into a hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced. (45)
The term hospitality, therefore, should not be limited to its literal sense of receiving a stranger in our house—although it is important never to forget or neglect that!—but as a fundamental attitude toward our fellow human being, which can be expressed in a great variety of ways. (46)
Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. (48)Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out
Nouwen here is focussing on the term, hospitality. And we recognize that Peter uses the same term in our passage when he says, “9 Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” But what I want to suggest is that the entire of Peter’s paragraph speaks to the kind of hospitality that Nouwen is talking about. Let me try to explain.
When I was recently taking classes at seminary, there were several people who were working on projects focussing on hospitality. In fact, it was probably the single most common “theme” that I heard in various people’s projects. When you ask various congregations what their strengths are, “being welcoming” is probably among the most common traits – most churches like to think of themselves as welcoming. But what exactly does this mean? And what could it mean? And if this is indeed the case, why so much concern (in that context) about hospitality?
Firstly, I should point out that Nouwen’s thoughts are not derived from 1 Peter (or indeed, any explicit biblical exegesis that I can detect). Rather, they are his thoughts and reflections based on his experience. And I should also point out that we are not engaging in detailed exegesis of 1 Peter. Again, I am using it as a kind of jumping off point (and hopefully, an anchor) to help us think about one element (in my opinion) of the church’s purpose.
With that said, we know that God’s purposes in redemption have to do with creating a people for His name – a people blessed to be a blessing. We also know that hospitality to the stranger is a theme that we see repeatedly in scripture. Indeed, I would argue that this is the same principle (or very closely related) that commands that God’s people take care of the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner (that is, you cannot be selfish, thinking only about yourself and your own interests). And of course, we should recognize that any evangelism or missions – any proclamation – requires making “outsiders” into “insiders.”
So naturally we want to be welcoming to others. We want to be friendly, kind, and pleasant to be around. But is that enough? (obviously, here I’m strawmanning). Could hospitality be more than that?
What Nouwen is talking about (and here, I should point out the obvious, that Nouwen is not scripture, nor in any way authoritative) is a hospitality that allows the other to be him or herself. Hospitality, for Nouwen, is to create a space where one who enters does not have to be (or do) anything other than be him or herself. Now if we expand Nouwen’s theology – something that I’ve talked about before – his greater interest is that each of us should discover who and what we are meant to be in God’s eyes. That is, to let go of all of the things the world tells us we are supposed to be – successful, productive, powerful, whatever – so that we can discover who we are, solely as the beloved of God. So to be clear, Nouwen’s quest for true identity is not the same as the contemporary endeavour to “be true to yourself.” Rather, Nouwen’s concerns are distinctly eschatological. That is, how do we become who God has truly meant us to be?
Nevertheless, I suspect that this may sound a little too postmodern (or whatever) to many of us. But before we completely disengage, let me try to explain it this way. How many of us have ever visited a church (or whatever – maybe it’s a workplace, a Christmas party, or any place where a coherent group of people gather), and felt like you just don’t fit in. And this feeling isn’t just attributed to your shyness or discomfort with making small talk. Rather, there is a distinct, though perhaps undefinable, culture or ethos within the group that you feel disconnected to. And you feel like, in order to belong to the group (to fit in), you have to become more like the people that you encounter there. To put it another way, it’s a group of people with whom you simply don’t fit in.
To put it slightly differently, I think human beings’ natural inclination, especially when entering a new situation, is to find those people most like ourselves. When I was in seminary, the natural inclination was to gather with other Korean people – even if every single one of those Korean people grew up in the West. If you travel, you are highly likely to feel a natural affinity with, and therefore gather with, other Canadians. When you visit a new church, you may feel most comfortable if there are many other people who are in the same age range as you.
None of these things are wrong. But it points to our inclination to find a comfort zone. To find a group of folks who are most like ourselves in order to feel most comfortable.
Now the converse of this is when we create that group in such a way that anyone who wants to participate in that group is subject to an expectation, overt or not, to become like the existing demographic. Lesslie Newbigin, and many other missiologists, have described this as a primary challenge in missions. And this recognition has caused missions-minded folk of the inherent danger in the mission field of trying to re-create a western Christianity as opposed to a gospel-Christianity.
All of that is simply to say, when someone enters and engages this community of Christ-believers, is there an openness, an opportunity, for them to explore and experience what God has created them to be – to be who God has made them to be? Or is there an expectation that they become what we are comfortable with them being? Is there a demand that they become like us?
Now I hope it’s obvious that all of this is highly nuanced and probably largely indefinable (and therefore, perhaps even unhelpful). In our passage today, Peter says:
…Love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. 9 Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 11 If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.1 Peter 4: 8b-11
And what I want to suggest, in light of our conversation around hospitality (and what Nouwen says about hospitality), and informed by what we have previously said about spiritual formation (as becoming what God purposes each of us to be), is the importance of space and place.
So what I simply want to say is that, in forming community, and in trying to be the people of God who are blessed to be a blessing, one of the things we might think about is how we are creating space and place for one another, and for those who are encountering this community. As we try to offer hospitality, as we seek to love one another, as we use whatever gifts we have received to serve one another, as we speak to and one another, how can we provide a space for people to fully be and become who God has created us to be; and how are we providing a place for people to belong, for people to find home, and to find rest and purpose as part of the people of God?
In the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, we explored how the temptation to be like gods led Adam and Eve to sin against God, breaking their bonds with God, with one another, and with creation. One of the things that we haven’t talked about (I don’t think) as Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden. And it seems to me, without exploring or explaining this in any more detail, is that the expulsion from the garden is about the loss of home. And by home, I’m not talking about location, but rather about belonging. And I wonder if, to some extent, in all of our time navigating this broken world, we are struggling to re-discover home, this sense of belonging – a space and a place to be who we are called to be.
As we continue to return to the relative normalcy of church life after the pandemic – if indeed we aren’t already there – we have to ask the question of “why are we doing the things that we do?” And of course there isn’t any one reason. We will continue to pursue opportunities for community groups, bible studies, outreach efforts, and we will continue to pay attention to other ways in which we can be an instrument of the kingdom. We will do these things in an effort to grow in our understanding of scripture and of God; we will do these in an effort to grow in our relationships with one another; and we will seek to reach others with the gospel in a way that demonstrates and expresses the kingdom of God.
And all of this, I hope, we will do in such a way that the community we practice will reflect the kingdom of which we are a part and that we are longing for. But we are not doing these things just to be doing them. We are not even doing them because these are the things that churches do. We are doing these things, in part, in an effort to take community seriously. What is the purpose of the church community? In what way can we be an instrument for the kingdom? Well perhaps, among other things, we can be a place and a people where we and others can find our home in Christ.
So I hope to encourage each of us and all of us. I don’t claim to have it all figured out. And I don’t suppose that we will always, or even often, get it right. But what I hope is that, in all that we do, we recognize that we are seeking this community life – with all its warts and wonders – because God has purposed for us something more. And I encourage each of us to seek the more, to seek the hard, and to take hold of the promise that God has for us.