The following is excerpted from a sermon that I preached at a wedding earlier this summer:
When most of us hear the word hospitality we think of an elegant house with fine dishes and a delicious meal. There is polite conversation and good guests go home at the proper time. But, sooner or later, the house will get dirty, there won’t be enough time, and even the beautiful new dishes will break. If hospitality is about providing a great meal in ideal circumstances, most of us – even the most ambitious of newlyweds – will fail.
Romans 12 gives a much broader picture of hospitality than that of fine dining and polite conversation. The challenge for many of us who’ve grown up in Christian circles and have heard this passage dozens of times is that we stop wondering what the text means. Even though what is said here is echoed in multiple places in the Bible – like Paul’s letters, Proverbs, and the Old Testament law – we still have a tendency to dismiss these words. It’s easier to have a limited picture of what love and hospitality looks like – and so limit the LORD’s claim on our lives and in our relationships.
Yet the love the Bible talks about is no small thing. God’s abundant love was involved in the creation of human beings – including how Adam and Eve were made for and given to each other. God’s persevering love is seen in the prophets who were sent to woo the Israelites for centuries despite their consistent rebellion and turning away. And finally, God’s deep love is shown on the cross, as Christ offered up his life to save sinners.
It is this deep love of God, as expressed in many ways throughout the whole Bible, that paints the picture for the love that is to be present in all of our relationships. It is an incredible challenge, and so Paul, the author of Romans, breaks love down into a set of manageable commands in Romans 12.
Verse 9 says Love must be sincere. In other words, love must be genuine and real. Loving in a way that is sincere means to live without hypocrisy: good relationships require deep honesty with each other. That level of vulnerability is hard in any relationship. We’re afraid the other person will love us less or might even use our weaknesses and fears to hurt us.
Love that is honest and sincere also means not always acting as how we feel but as we believe we ought to live. There will be times when you are tired or feeling hurt and helping and/or speaking graciously to the other is something you do, not because you feel like it, but because you know that this is what true love looks like. Acting the way you ought is part of being devoted to one another in love and honoring one another above yourselves.
In verse 13, we finally come to the verse on hospitality. The world around us seems to tell us that it’s the pretty table and fine dining. But for most of us that’s unattainable. And true hospitality is hard to do. Oftentimes it is easier to provide a nice meal or even some delicious banana bread and then leave. Or stay only for polite conversation. It is harder to be genuine and open, to honestly express our lives enough that we can actually rejoice with each other or weep with each other.
Hospitality is about making space for the other person – welcoming them as they are. It’s the very practical side of loving one another. It is offering food not just for the body, but also for the soul.
Giving of one’s oneself – through love and hospitality – can be overwhelming. It is hard not to feel like we’re giving too much of ourselves and will burn up. But the first part of the chapter doesn’t command us to be sacrifices that burn up, but instead living sacrifices. If our hospitality and loving is not being re-filled with God’s energy, then no matter how great our love or hospitality, our sacrifices are as empty as the ones that the Old Testament Israelites offered in the midst of their sinning.
So how do we not burn up? By recognizing that we are not alone in providing hospitality – we do it with each other. And we need to accept hospitality from each other, recognizing that this is God’s gift to us, as well. And lastly, we love and practice hospitality only in and with God’s help. Verse 12 points to how to do this difficult task: Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
Practicing hospitality where we open ourselves and our lives to each other, welcoming each other deep in love is hard. But it is good. And knowing God’s great love for us, we can trust that God will bless our relationships and our efforts to serve the LORD.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.