Hospitality: Big Church and Little Church

Hospitality: Big Church and Little Church

Glynn Cardy Luke 14:15-24, 10:38-42, Genesis 18:1-15

Sun 21 Jul


Our theme today is hospitality; and our biblical texts are a Jesus parable about a dinner party, Abraham’s and Sarah’s dinner party at the Oaks of Mamre (‘the Oaks’ being not the name of a pub), and Luke the gospel writer praising Mary and throwing hospitable Martha metaphorically under a bus.

Yet hospitality means more than hosting a dinner party.  The actions of welcome, particularly unconditional welcome, make God present.  Hospitality, like the words ‘gift’ and ‘compassion’, is part of what we Christians understand by love.  So hospitality is a big word, and it not only points to God, when it is happening it embodies God.  So when we welcome someone, offer the gift of acceptance and mutuality, are compassionate to someone, we make God tangibly present.

That’s why some theologians prefer to think of God as a verb – a verb with its sleeves rolled up!  God is something that is happening between people, among people, as rich and poor, all genders and ethnicities discover the dignity and joy of giving and receiving.

One of the groups at St Luke’s with their metaphorical ‘sleeves rolled up’, whom we are very proud of, is the East Tamaki Readers and Mentors.  Today Lyn and Rosalie will say a little about what they do and why.

Children’s Talk:

One of the primary purposes of a dinner party was to bring honour to the host.  For that to happen guests must turn up.  So invitations are sent out.  The slave was the postie.

But something went wrong with this dinner party.  Every one invited had an excuse.  It couldn’t be coincidental.  The host was being snubbed.  Instead of bringing honour this dinner party would bring great shame.

The excuses are lame indeed.  Who would buy a farm before inspecting it?  Who would buy oxen without checking them out?  Who would accept an invitation to a dinner party and forget they were getting married that day?  Surely the host of this dinner party is being snubbed.

The host’s options aren’t good.  He could quietly cancel it.  Or he could publicly blame those who turned him down for cancelling.  Either way he loses face.

His decision for his slave to go out to the street and find whoever he could to join the dinner party is also a weak response.  His former friends are more than likely just to laugh at him.

Well, the dinner party he ends up with is very different from the one planned:  it’s got those who sleep on the streets, foreigners, sick folk… it is a dinner party of the dishonourable and shamed [of whom the host is now one!].

Jesus said, this is what the queendom/kingdom of God is like – not in the future – but here, now, among us.


Marguerite Porete died in 1310.  She was murdered actually; by the Church.  Her crime was an idea contained in her book The Mirror of Simple Souls. 

Marguerite talked about the Big Church and the Little Church. 

The Little Church is the church that thinks it is the Big Church, or rather thinks it’s the only Church.  It promotes what is sometimes called the economy of salvation, which is underpinned by investment/reward reasoning.  So, if you believe certain things the church tells you – doctrines about God and all that – and you do what the church tells you – obey its authority figures, do good works, come to worship, etcetera – you will receive a reward.  This reward might be realised in this life, or in the life to come, or might be simply that God will love you.  Whatever…, you will get a reward.  The reason why you have faith, believe, and love God and neighbour is for reward.  And the more you do, the more you love, the more you invest in your faith, the greater the reward, the more you will be loved.

It’s not hard to find bible verses supporting this ‘economy of salvation’.  It’s not hard to find churches who still preach this ‘economy of salvation’.  And it’s not hard to find lots of people who think this is what Christianity is about.

About now you might be beginning to twig to the ‘crime’ of Marguerite Porete.

Let me tell about the Revd Carlton Pearson, who wasn’t murdered, and is still alive and well, though most of the 6,000 who used to come to his church every week in Tulsa, Oklahoma, think he will rot in hell as a heretic.  It was hell that was his undoing.  In 1994, after watching a television programme about people suffering and dying in the Rwandan genocide, he revisited the doctrine that non-Christians were going to hell.  He stated publicly that he doubted the existence of hell as a place of eternal torment. Then all hell broke loose in his Pentecostal denomination!

Pearson’s position in 1994, also known as evangelical universalism, and also shared by post-evangelical luminaries like Brian McLaren, is a serious threat to the Little Church’s economy of salvation. 

Without hell where is the motivation?  If you can be embraced by God in heaven or on earth without doing or believing anything, where is the justice for good people in that?  Is it fair to all the righteous folks who have worked hard at their faith their whole lives or even part of their lives?  For heaven’s sake, why would people want to be Christians?

Now, in the late 1290s, though Marguerite didn’t say there was no hell, the essence of her book – about God and love – worked to seriously undermine the reward/punishment economy of organised religion.

Marguerite talked about the Big Church.  This was a way of talking about all who sought to live (or, rather, just lived) the way of love.  Love – big love, the love we call God – is a gift and is corrupted by cutting deals. 

You see it’s impossible to love someone who threatens you with punishment if you don’t and rewards if you do.  You might fear them, you might do what they say, you might even respect them, but you don’t love them.  For love doesn’t work like that.  Love is giving without expecting anything in return.  Love is about doing things for no-thing, without reason.  Love loves without seeking after some good in return.

Mystics like Marguerite got into a considerable amount of trouble by denying that love can be bought and sold.  Love just is.  As Angelus Silesius would later say, “A rose is without why.  It blooms simply because it blooms.  It pays no attention to itself, nor does it ask whether anyone sees it.”  So it is with love. 

Or as Bernard of Clairvaux said, “The only measure of love is love without measure.”  Love does not abide conditions.  Love – the love of the Big Church Marguerite is talking about – is unconditional.  Love – the type religion of the Little Church trades in – is conditional.

The philosopher John Caputo distinguishes between conditional and unconditional hospitality.  Conditional hospitality is ‘invitation only’.  We welcome those we have chosen, which inevitably is conditioned by a lot of ulterior motives.  But in unconditional hospitality we have lost the initiative.  This is not an invitation we initiate but a visitation that we did not see coming, requiring an unprepared, unconditional welcome.  

The Jesus banquet parable alludes to the story in the Hebrew Scriptures of the messianic banquet[i] which held out the notion of God inviting “the chosen” to a feast.  This feast would be for the righteous and elect.  It would be a feast to look forward to in the future when the righteous have proved their righteousness.  This is Little Church theology of conditional hospitality.

Instead Jesus tells of a banquet, here and now, for the dishonourable and the shamed.  Those coming haven’t earnt their place.  They are probably suspicious of the host, as the host is probably suspicious of them.  Note that the word hospitality and the word hostile have the same origin.  You don’t know whether you are inviting a hostile in or not, and the guest doesn’t know whether you are going to be hostile or not.  There is risk here.

So, this dinner party parable in its original form was bad news for those who think that God will invite them on their merits to a great feast in the afterlife. It was bad news for the Little Church.  And the parable was good news for those with no or dubious merits who need food and hope right now, regardless.  This is the good news of the Big Church.

Politically, and it is like most of Jesus’ parables political, it undercuts the controlling religious class who use heaven as a reward for good behaviour, and who use their meal tables to delineate between the privileged and un-privileged.  Instead the parable offers a vision of open commensal hospitality (God/love made present) right here, right now, with no credentials required.  You can be a failure, you can be a criminal, you can have committed ‘unforgivable sin’, you can be a victim of bigotry, you can be a bigot… and you are welcome.

To understand the Mary and Martha story we need to understand the philosophical context in which it was created – namely that of Neoplatonism.  And let’s be clear: this is not an authentic episode from the life of Jesus, this is a story made up by Luke (late 1st/early 2nd century) speaking to the church of his day.

Neoplatonism made a division between the body and the soul.  The soul is what mattered for it was eternal.  The body was a vehicle.  It was temporal.  The body, as with all lowly things, is shed when we supposedly inherit maintenance-free bodies in eternity.  So religion should be concerned primarily about the salvation of the soul; not the body or the planet.  Mary depicts this ‘better (spiritual) part’, and Martha the lowly (this-worldly) part. 

Jesus, following his Hebraic schooling, was not a Neoplatonist.  He taught that the kingdom of God is not up ahead, but here.  The queendom/kingdom of God is not the reward for works of love and mercy; it is works of love and mercy.  These works make present the verb God with its sleeves rolled up.  And Martha, not Mary, is the one with her sleeves rolled up.  Housekeeping, cooking, cleaning, tending to the needs of the body, animal needs, the needs of the flesh, the affairs of everyday life… are not a means (a vehicle) to an end – they are the unfolding life of God in the world.  The secular order is not a neutral or transient means to a religious end.  The secular order is the realization of the queendom/kingdom of God. 

Luke wants us to compare the two sisters – a competition about who is the holiest.  This is Little Church thinking.  The religion of Martha is the religion of hospitality; it is not a means to attain the kingdom of God but it iis the kingdom of God.   We need to visualize the bigger church canvas where the actions of both sisters are viewed without why and hailed as full of grace.

Our last story today is from the Abraham legend.  The context is that of the desert where travellers expect to be welcomed, for their lives could depend on it; and the welcoming hosts, whose honour depended on the extent of their hospitality.  So Abraham and his family did not know who the guests were, or whether they would be warm or hostile.  

The story opens with the Lord, YHWH, Abe’s God appearing to Abraham as he sat at the entrance of this tent in the heat of the day (was it a dream?).  Then Abraham looks up and sees these three foreigners approaching.  Are these three messengers (angels) from God?  So it turns out.  Are they, as Rublev would later paint, a trinity manifestation of God-self?  Nice painting, nice Christian theology, but not biblical.

Abraham bends over backwards (forwards actually) to accommodate.  The ‘little bread’ he and Sarah get the servants to whip up takes 23 kilograms of flour!   Just a little over the top!  This is a banquet in the making.  And after the banquet comes the message from God that Abraham and Sarah long for.

This is the last minute, unconditional welcome, version of the dinner party.  The Big Church.  I like to imagine, as in the authentic Jesus stories, that the guests might be the ones considered dishonourable, threats even, like a Samaritan, or leper, or haemorrhaging woman.  These were the angels that YHWH had chosen; the ones to whom before Abraham bowed down to the ground. 

The actions of welcome and being welcomed make God present.  Hospitality is an embodiment of love.  And when it is happening it embodies God.  The servants, with their sleeves rolled up, embody God.  When Abraham and Sarah rush about, organizing, they embody God.  As do those who are being welcomed.  God is something that is happening between people, among people, as those with and those without, all races, genders and classes discover the dignity and joy and divinity of giving and receiving.

[i] Alluded to in Isaiah 25:6, 2 Esdras 2:37-41, and 1 Enoch 62:13-15.