The Welcoming Community (Isaiah 25:6-9; Luke 24: 13-35)
Both Old and New Testament Lessons today speak of the God who is made known in acts and attitudes of openness and hospitality. These texts also encourage those who would be the People of this God who invites hospitality, to set a table in their community-life together, so as to become welcoming and inviting to one another and other folks in the wider world. This hospitality is not only a matter of food, but of openness, and an invitation to study, listen, and participate in community life.
Today’s Old Testament Lesson comes from what may well be the last layer to be woven into the tapestry we call the Book of Isaiah (chapters 24-27). These chapters come right after a section of harsh and challenging words of judgment where God judges nations who were different from Israel. And these words are difficult to hear, but when we come to chapters 24-27, we are permitted to see beyond judgment and difficulty to the heart of the matter. Our text itself tells us of God’s goal in and for the world. These poetic words refuse to be reduced to literal historical matters, no matter how many readers try to make them crawl on all fours as if they were a bookkeeper’s ledger, speaking of “how many,” “when” and “who”? This is poetry that ascends into the territory of God’s own principles for running the universe. In the poem all the nations come to God’s City (Jerusalem) where God throws a party, a banquet, for them all. Now, again, to guard against making the poem into a ledger, Jerusalem was the centre of the Hebrew world. You think of a place that might be different for you that is central to your sense of home. That’s where the party is.
There was so much in the ancient world that was stingy, cruel and simply wrong, and the Bible sometimes joins in that with harsh words it aims at those who are different from God’s people, and sometimes, it seems, God’s people today are eager to blend their voices in the condemnation. Our little poem here in Isaiah 25 gets beneath (or maybe above) all that bookkeeping to God’s basic attitude, and it’s all about generosity. God’s sets a great banquet table and invites all the nations to sit and eat together, being renewed in the presence of the Almighty One who is the power behind the universe. In that ancient day, I am sure that Israel would not wish to include some people on the “guest list.” But it wasn’t their guest list, but God’s. In our age, we’d probably want to eliminate some peoples, nations, and individuals. But it’s still not our guest list. In an ancient age of poverty and famine, the image of having more than enough to eat was a powerful one for the redeeming, sustaining, renewing presence of God in the midst of all the families of the earth. It still is because the physical and spiritual hunger is still there. God’s purpose for all people who dwell on the earth is community, and, as Christians we are part of that community and are invited to make every act of hospitality a celebration of the God who gives the feast for the whole world in Christ. We do it symbolically every month, and we’ll do it again next week when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. But we also do it most every week after worship when we spread a little table of goodies to share with others. Is it too simple to say that those tables are symbolic of our role is as God’s people? Maybe, but I suggest that the way in which to keep the world-embracing vision of the Great Banquet in our thoughts and actions is to imitate God in the world, and set a table of generosity for others, in a whole range of ways so we become a welcoming community. The Old Testament Lesson, then, sets the stage and gives us the terms: the God of welcome and inclusive hospitality and the all-inclusive invitation to the party thrown by this same loving, gracious, wonderful God.
The Gospel Lesson is familiar to us at First Baptist. I read a condensed version of it each month at the Lord’s Supper. I will do so next week in full knowledge that the whole story was today’s Gospel. This story contains within it some crucial clues to our identity and mission. Luke wrote to a “congregation” the overwhelming majority of which had come to faith after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Through this story Luke described how Jesus’ church, in any age, may be an inviting place of welcome that imitates the inclusive hospitality the God of Isaiah 25. Let me lift up some points in this familiar story that suggest the kind of a place churches can be or become.
The story begins on Easter Day on the road between Jerusalem and the village of Emmaus. We’re not just sure where this little village on the road to (or from) Jerusalem was. For Luke, “the road” is where much of Jesus’ story, and most of his teaching, occurs. The road is the world. It’s life. It’s where people are. It’s where the action is. Two disciples, Cleopas and someone else are traveling together on the road. They are talking about things that happened that Passover in Jerusalem, including all that had to do with Jesus. A stranger came up to them and went along with them. Now, you and I know that the stranger was Jesus, but Cleopas and his companion didn’t recognize him, and the story depends on the fact that they didn’t. We probably wonder why disciples wouldn’t recognize their rabbi, and Luke is silent about this, but if even Mary or closer disciples didn’t recognize the risen Jesus, is it surprising that these “unknowns” didn’t? What Luke said was that their eyes were “kept” (or “held captive”) so that they didn’t. Perhaps they only saw what they expected to see, a stranger on the road, not Jesus who they knew couldn’t be there because he was dead. How like them we are! In any case this stranger invited them into a conversation and, they walked the Emmaus road talking and listening to one another. By this story Luke encouraged disciples of Jesus to think of the church of Jesus as a place that consents to walk on the road of life with strangers, sharing experiences and learning from them. You never know who you’ll meet on the road.
Eventually the talk came round to what had happened to Jesus. The two disciples say how disappointing it was that Jesus was killed because they hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel, which meant, to make it powerful in the world again. At this point Jesus helped these two (who, together with him, had formed a tiny reading community) to a more faithful Christian reading of the scriptures, the whole thrust of which is this: his disciples are to read as pointing to Jesus and, even beyond, to the church, and are intended to give practical guidance in this way. This stranger said that the scriptures, by which he meant the Old Testament, pointed to the fact that the Hebrew Messiah was not one who would save Israel from suffering, but would save it through suffering – a different reading, indeed! Luke implies here that the church of Jesus in any day could be a place that learns faithful Christian reading and hearing of the scriptures within a community. Faithful Christian reading of the scriptures is breaking the bread of life together. That’s why, each Lord’s Day, there are preaching and learning opportunities.
We next read that as these disciples drew near to their destination (and to the climax of the story) Jesus, still a stranger to them, made all the signs of having somewhere else to go. Luke implies that Jesus’ action was an open invitation to continue the conversation. Jewish customs of hospitality to strangers would have predisposed the two disciples to invite the stranger to stay with them at the end of the day. Inviting others to stay with them was, actually, one of the ways that early churches shared their traditions and their customs, and one way in which they grew. Luke didn’t beat a drum about this, but implies it gently. “Remember that two disciples welcomed the risen Christ when all they thought they were doing was welcoming a stranger.” Sharing of hospitality and welcome is an opportunity to meet Christ in others. It is one reason why we share fellowship after worship.
Luke’s story encourages disciples to set an open table of hospitality. In our day, it possibly isn’t often about inviting strangers home (although it may be), but about showing attitudes in our common life that set a table for them in many ways. It’s why we participate in Monday’s Meal and Mobile Meals, and why we and our partners invite those who cannot speak English and feel strangers among us to be here.
Inside the house, at the table, Jesus, the guest, became the host, and broke bread with them. Luke undoubtedly wanted his hearers and readers to remember the Lord’s Supper here. In fact the same words are used to describe what Jesus did with the bread here that are used in the Lord’s Supper stories in the New Testament. They are also the same words used to describe Jesus’ action in feeding 5000, a great miracle of abundant hospitality where Jesus, in God’s name, set a table for many people in imitation of the God we met in Isaiah 25. So Luke suggested to us that communities of disciples and others meet the risen Christ in the breaking of bread in the community of faith (in both the Lord’s Supper and general hospitable acts). This is why our tables are open not closed. We will, again, symbolize this next week in the Lord’s Supper.
In the story, as soon as Jesus was recognized, he vanished. This might seem disappointing to us, but not in the story. The two disciples immediately began to share how Jesus had set their common heart ablaze when he opened the scriptures to them. Luke suggested that the folks in his congregation, and those of any age, could still meet the risen Christ in a common spirit as Jesus’ teaching was learned and appropriated. It also suggests that we cannot control the presence of God in our world. We do not dispense grace. The God who was and is and is to come does that. The Holy One is in control.
The last thing that Luke suggested for later day disciples of Jesus grows out of the fact that, when Jesus’ disappeared, the two quickly returned to other disciples a distance away in Jerusalem and heard their words that Jesus was indeed alive and Peter had seen him. They, then, add their own words of testimony to the mix, saying, “and we met him, too, in the breaking of the bread.” Disciples who meet Jesus and whose common heart is set aglow, engage in going out onto the road again, where it all started, in mission outside the four walls. You’ve heard of that before here. Luke is suggesting that the church is a place that encourages community conversations to be enlarged as disciples listen to others’ experience of God and add their own experience to these conversations.
I don’t know if you were counting, but Luke suggested six important characteristics of a faith community that imitates the God who sets a banquet for the whole world. Such communities are places that, first, consent to walk the road with strangers, sharing experiences and learning from them. Second, they are places that learn faithful Christian reading and hearing of the scriptures in the context of community. Third, they are places that risk the open table of hospitality in many ways, not just traditional ones. Fourth, they are places that meet the risen Christ in the breaking of the bread in the context of community. Fifth, they are places that show transparency in confessing that, though Jesus is not physically seen, his teaching makes our common spirit glow. And, sixth, they are places that allow community conversations to be enlarged by listening to others’ experience of God and that add their own experience to these conversations. As a community of this God and this Saviour, we aim for these things. May we learn to do them and do them better and better.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.