Thursday, October 10, 2013

Instructions to the Church # II

"Do No Neglect To Show Hospitality To Strangers"

Bishop Eric Menees

Last week in The Bishop's Note, I introduced a new series on the Instructions to the Church from the Epistle to the Hebrews. The author of Hebrews closed the epistle in the thirteenth chapter by giving a charge to the church that began with this foundation: "Let brotherly love continue." (13:1) He builds upon that declaration by describing acts that demonstrate that love, including verse two, which states: "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." (13:2)

Hebrews states that a clear sign of "brotherly love" is showing hospitality to strangers. In the first century, the virtue of hospitality was held in the highest esteem. Travel was dangerous, and Christians had to assist one another. Prior to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine (AD 312), the danger level for Christian travelers was even higher than for pagans. Thus the early church, which met primarily in secret, would put out the Christian symbol of the fish, ΙΧΘΥΣ (Ichthys), which served is an acronym for "Ίησος Χριστός, Θεο Υός, Σωτήρ", (Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr), and which translates into English as "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior". (Wikipedia) This fish would be on the side of a building like graffiti, with the fish’s nose pointing in the direction where the underground church would meet. Thus Christian visitors in a city would have a road map of where to go in order to worship with brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. Receiving those strangers was then, and is now, of the highest priority.

Hebrews tells us that, in welcoming the stranger, we may never know when we are entertaining angels. This may be a reference to the story in the eighteenth chapter of Genesis, where Abraham and Sarah welcome three strangers into their midst, who turn out to be three angels (or as some argue the Trinity - Father, Son and Holy Spirit).

We need to be intentional about welcoming the visitors to our churches. This means that we must have well trained greeters meeting people at the door as they come to visit. We need parishioners ready to sit with them in order to help them navigate the liturgy if they are not familiar with it, and to invite them to coffee hour afterwards.

I suspect we've all been to churches where we were warmly welcomed, and to churches where we were present but not seen. Just reading these words probably brings back memories for you. For me, I will never forget being in Alexandria, Virginia several years ago. I arrived at the service early, took a bulletin off the table in the foyer, and made my way down towards the front of the church. Minutes prior to the service, an usher came forward with a family and politely asked me to move. "Of course," I said and slid over toward the end of the pew to make room. The usher said, "Oh I'm sorry, this is a family pew; we have pews in the back for visitors." I politely got up and walked out of that church, never to return. 

What a tragedy, if anyone visiting one of our churches would not be warmly welcomed and invited into the fellowship for worship, prayer, and the opportunity to become a valued part of the body of Christ in the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin.

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