Imagine for a moment that you were walking home one day after receiving some sad and distressing news. As you walk along pondering this news and trying to understand what it all means a stranger draws alongside you and strikes up a conversation with you. Hearing your news he begins to talk to you about the Bible and how it speaks to the situation you are facing. You are approaching your front door. What do you do?
a) Ask the stranger to come in for a meal and stay the night with you so that you can continue the conversation.
b) Make your quick excuses, go inside and shut the door with a great sigh of relief.
That's the situation we read about in the well-known passage in Luke 24 about the two people travelling back home on the road to Emmaus.
In all probability these two travellers were a married couple – rather than two men as is often, strangely, assumed. They were perplexed and distressed about the things that had been going on in Jerusalem over the past few days. Jesus, the one whom they had believed to be the Messiah and in whom they had placed all their hopes, had been crucified by the Romans. Once the Romans had ensured that he was dead they had released his body to be buried in a secure tomb. Now his body had gone missing and rumours were circulating that he had been seen alive. They could not understand what was going on. What did it all mean?
The stranger who drew alongside them as they walked heard their conversations with each other. Then he, the stranger, seems to take control of the conversation. He begins to expound the Scriptures to them, showing that the Messiah had to suffer, die and rise again if he were to fulfil God's purpose of establishing his kingdom.
At last they came to their home. What did they do? They invited the stranger in to eat a meal with them and to stay the night in their home.
And then the strangest thing happens. When they have set their meagre provisions on the table and sat down the stranger took on the role of the host and treated them as guests. He gave thanks to God and broke their bread before giving it to them.
Then their eyes were opened and they understand at last all that has happened. Jesus is alive, risen from the dead. He is the one whom they had invited in to eat with them and stay with them. He is the one who opened the Scriptures to them and enabled them at last to understand that his death and resurrection fulfilled the purposes of God and has opened wide the doors into his kingdom.
We are going to leave our couple there as the stranger disappears and they rush back to Jerusalem to tell others of what they have seen and heard.
But note how this story mirrors and reverses that of Genesis chapter three. There the man and the woman, whose eyes have been opened to their own shame, hide from God in their Garden home and when discovered are excluded from his presence. Here the man and the woman have their eyes open to the glorious and gracious purposes of God in Christ and know that the living God is with them in the person of the risen Christ. Through opening their home and inviting a stranger in they have come to understand the open arms of God in Jesus Christ. He is the one who sets the feast and invites them to taste the riches of his grace.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says that by showing hospitality to strangers, some have entertained angels without knowing it. Yes, and some have entertained Christ.
Do we have open hearts and open homes for others, ready to welcome them in that they might find Christ present with us?
I want to bring you the challenge of another story from the New Testament. The church at Antioch was the first church to be made up of a mixture of both Jews and Gentiles. The Apostle Paul had been a teacher in this church, instructing the new converts in the Scriptures. One day the Apostle Peter had come to see what God was doing and witnessed Jews and Gentiles learning together, eating together and together giving thanks to God. He had eaten with them. But when further Jewish visitors came from Jerusalem, Jews who were not accustomed to eating with Gentiles, Peter quickly separated himself from the Gentile believers and would not eat with them. Paul had stood up and rebuked him openly. He declared that Jews and Gentiles alike were accepted by God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. If God accepted them they should not hesitate to accept one another.
This was one of the difficult lessons for the church to learn in the first century. The first Christians had all been Jews and had been used to not mixing with Gentiles. When Gentiles with very different backgrounds from their own came to faith in the Lord Jesus they found it difficult to accept them just as they were. They wanted the Gentiles to become more like them before they would welcome them.
It was the Apostle Paul who challenged their prejudices. Paul, who had once been Saul the Pharisee and had been strict in his separation from Gentiles, had encountered the risen Lord Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus. His eyes had been opened to the purposes of God in the Lord Jesus Christ. His whole understanding of Scripture had been turned upside down. He knew now that God's purpose in Christ was to draw to himself people of all backgrounds and cultures. God's love in the Lord Jesus extends to the whole world and all who trust in him are counted his Children. Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female are all accepted in him and are to readily accept one another.
Charles Wesley was a man whose heart the Lord opened to feel and know the greatness of God's love. He and his brother John worked tirelessly to bring the good news of God's love to people of all backgrounds. Charles expressed his longing in these wonderful words concerning the Lord Jesus:
O that the world might taste and see
The riches of his grace.
The arms of love that welcome me
Would all the world embrace.
We need to be an open and welcoming people because that is the character of the God we have come to know, love and serve in the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Lord of the feast and his arms are open to all. He is the one who urges us to go out into the highways and byways and urge all to come in – "come and welcome to Jesus Christ". We have a welcoming God who calls us to be a welcoming people; a people with hearts open to him and to others no matter what their background or understanding.
This is beautifully and movingly expressed in a song by Phil Baggaley, Mark Edwards and Stuart Townend:
all you vagabonds,
Come all you 'don't belongs'
Winners and losers,
Come, people like me.
Come all you travellers
Tired from the journey,
Come wait a while, stay a while,
Welcomed you'll be.
Come all you questioners,
Looking for answers
And searching for reasons
And sense in it all;
Come all you fallen,
And come all you broken,
Find strength for your body
And food for your soul.
Come to the feast,
There is room at the table.
Come let us meet in this place
With the King of all kindness
Who welcomes us in
With the wonder of love,
And the power of grace,
The wonder of the love,
And the power of grace.
Come those who worry
'Bout houses and money,
And all those who don't have
A care in the world;
From every station
The helpless, the hopeless,
The young and the old.
Come all believers
And dreamers and schemers,
And come all you restless
Just searching for home;
Movers and shakers
And givers and takers,
The happy, the sad
And the lost and alone.
With wearied ambition,
And come those who feel
At the end of the road.
And religion haters,
The hurt and ignored.
I love that chorus, "Come to the feast, there is room at the table. Come let us meet in this place with the King of all kindness who welcomes us in with the wonder of love, and the power of grace."
As we have seen, it is not easy to welcome in those we do not know, those who may be very different from us – who are not "our sort of people". But the good news of God's love, kindness and generosity is good news for all. Jesus was ready to receive all who would come to him when he was ministering on earth and he is ready still to receive all through the embrace of his people. We do not know whom God may bring: that is the challenge but with Christ it is an exciting challenge. We do not know what God will do and we dare not limit what he may do.
Christ, the Lord of the feast, goes before us calling others to come in. He calls us to be open to him and then to be open to all whom he may draw to himself. Are we ready to embrace all in the name of Christ?
Christ Church Downend – 14/10/2018