A Hospitality Not On My Own Terms

A post by Cherith Fee Nordling

November 3rd was All Saint’s Day. What a great Church day to precede my reading of Brad Chilcott’s piece “The Other Gospel Was Easier“. He invited me to think again about who we are as the hagioi -saints – conformed to Jesus. Brad’s reminder? That the gospel of Jesus is truer and harder than those domesticated, self-serving versions from which we desperately need to be saved. The future has been ushered in by One who bears the marks of our wounds. If this future is the one in which we currently participate, it will be costly. Otherwise, it is no gospel at all, precisely because it leaves us right where we are without it.

I have much to learn from Brad about this bigger, harder, cruciform glory that we are growing into as image-bearers of God. I googled Brad’s “Welcome to Australia” clip on YouTube in which he sat at table with at-risk folks who are newly arrived to Australia; people in need of a welcome, a new home, an embrace of their human dignity and of their embodied, particular experience. I want to be more like Brad when I grow up. I hope to meet him this coming June in Adelaide and see first-hand his participation in the harder gospel.

Over the weeks and now months that my husband and I have been finding our way in a new city and our new, racially diverse neighborhood of Hyde Park, we have been recipients of tremendous hospitality. My neighbors across the hall live and breathe it, welcoming us not only to join their table but to join them in all kinds of venues and events across Chicago. Multiple church communities, vendors, events (thanks to you, Hyde Park Historical Society and the Jazz Festival!), and the park across the street have all served up some serious Chicago hospitality.

As I watched and listened to Brad, it struck me how easy it is for me to be “new” as a person of extraordinary white privilege. I can make my way without much challenge in a system designed for my good at the expense of others. I’m hardly ever at risk, at least not on purpose. Without intent, however, I run the risk of believing that the ease of my welcome, wherever it is, is “normal.” It’s something I’m entitled to. That risk I run all day, every day – when I make it out of the blocks at all, that is. Or for the few minutes I’m actually upright and not flat on my face spitting the dirt out of my mouth. No, I’m not running very well the race of costly hospitality, reconditioned by cruciformity. I’m just getting a little better at seeing my sin and how screwed up my internalized racism really is, and talking about it, or confessing it. And Jesus keeps inviting me to do some more dying, so that he can raise me to be a little more free to be like him in cruciform glory. He raises me into arms of grace, welcoming me into the simplicity of divine hospitality. It’s ‘come as you are’ hospitality, because there is no other way to get here from here – except by his open invitation and everlasting welcome.

A few weeks ago I heard Christena Cleveland preach, and she exposed the power that underlies hospitality when we are the ones who do the inviting, when we call the shots as to who comes to us, and when, on our terms. Even when we host a ‘meet and honor your diverse neighbor’ gathering, it happens from a place of privilege for most of us. Christena described the difference between hosting her own party and going to her Hmong neighbors. She described feeling the difference of being different in that setting, the awkwardness, of being outside her prescribed terms of hospitality.

Yesterday I also read an interview alongside Chilcott’s essay by Brenda Salter McNeil, in which she was asked about baby steps to becoming a reconciler. She included ‘travel!’ (be a stranger in a strange, new place, let God and the world get bigger) and ‘learn a new language!’ – literally. McNeil is learning Spanish. She immersed herself in Costa Rican culture for many weeks this past summer to learn on demand. Again, I hear the awkwardness of being out of control, of relying on the hospitality of strangers as a stranger, receiving hospitality not from our polished positions but as Brenda described it, from that place of feeling like our best 3rd grade self on a good day.

As I think about meeting my new neighbors, being God’s presence to them, I hear Christena’s words, and Brad’s, and Brenda’s – and they unsettle me. When I hear Jesus’ words through them, and in the gospels, I am particularly upended. When Jesus tells stories of hospitality, they never turn out ‘right’. The wrong people are sitting in all the right places, and the right people don’t even bother to show up. Jesus enacts hospitality, eating with those upon whom culture cries ‘shame on you’, and hears culture say to him, ‘their shame is now on you‘. In exchange, he gives them the dignity of his true humanity. Jesus also eats at tables where he is publicly shamed and refused the dignity afforded a guest, or in Chilcott’s words, a “new arrival.” It doesn’t help that his presence brings more unwelcome company who would otherwise never have been allowed through the door, let alone at his feet.

In the eschatological seating arrangements that Jesus describes, we won’t be able to find our place on our own. They will be places of honor that we simply cannot imagine, by virtue of the fact that we are thereThere’s no false humility at this table. Just grace and lavish bounty and, I expect, more than a few suprises. At this wedding feast of Jesus and his bride, the table of honor will be full of folks who never expected to be there. Jesus, the Host of Heaven,  will probably be milling around, having given up his seat to someone who never thought to be on the guest list at all. I hope to be sitting next to James and John, in just the right place, happily healed from a false sense of entitlement, having discovered with them that to sit at his left and right costs everything, shares everything with the other, and lengthens the guest list immensely. Ephesian 1 and 2 describe a divine seating arrangement at the right hand of the Father in which his Son shares everything – all power and authority – to enable us to lay our lives down as he did so that we, like him, can get our lives back.

My prayers for community are so easily conditioned by a hospitality on my own terms, with the best of intentions. I am being pressed beyond my boundaries, hearing Jesus invite me and others to sit next to one another in the most surprising ways. As we visit the church on our corner, with its open communion table, welcoming anyone and everyone in the name of Jesus, I am overjoyed at the lack of ‘gate-keeping’. I am also discomfited lest we dishonor the Host as we eat his body, the host of our life meal. So I partake, trusting the Incarnate Lord, whose death and resurrected life we proclaim until he comes again, to clean us all, to wash our hands as we get up to the table for the feast he’s laid.

I hear the voices in my head challenging me. But something is happening to my heart, not really waiting for my head to catch up. I know it will, along with the rest of me. The Incarnate One won’t settle for less. In the meantime, he has joined me to the communion of the saints, making me feel welcome at his table with all my questions and confessions and meager love. He has prepared this table before me in the presence of what were my “enemies”in the old-age perspective – those to be feared. But like everything else in Christ, they too are new creation, and before us is an over-flowing cup of grace that transforms us all. As Rublev’s Trinity Icon shows so profoundly, there’s room at the table. Pull up a chair. Receive the hospitality of the Father, Son and Spirit and the fellowship of God’s image-bearing children, brother and sisters, hagioi,and fellow strangers welcomed by God.

Cherith Fee Nordling is a professor of theology at Northern Seminary. She grew up in Pentecostal circles and has been involved in the Spirit’s renewal of the mainline Presbyterian, Anglican and Christian Reformed communities of which they’ve been a part, either on staff or as laypersons.  Most recently, Cherith has been working on a book on theological anthropology and the resurrection, and a condensed version of Paul’s Christology with her father, Gordon Fee.

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