Close at Hand
This Lent, as you hopefully have picked up by now, we’re taking the theme of hospitality. This has been driven by the combination of our sense of mission – to become, as we wrote in our plan a year and a half ago, an ‘invitational’ Church – with the realities of COVID. For much of our thinking and planning about being invitational fell by the wayside (or at least, if I may mix my metaphors, into cold storage) when it became extremely difficult to invite people to anything!
But of course, COIVD didn’t eliminate the need for that invitation. When we talked about invitation in the mission plan we described it in three ways – invitation into conversation, invitation into partnership, and invitation into community. And that last invitation, into community, is more deeply needed now, after a year of restrictions and cancelled trips and missed gatherings and social isolation experienced by so many in our community.
So as we tentatively emerge from our COVID lockdown, we picked the theme of hospitality – and suggested that, if you wish to follow in the tradition of taking up a spiritual practice in Lent, then the spiritual practice of hospitality would be a good one to choose.
For hospitality has long been a hallmark of a genuinely Christian spirituality. Jesus lived it; welcoming into his community, his group, many who would have been excluded by the religious and secular society of his day. And the early Church were famous for it – Jesus had told them that people would know that they were his followers if they showed love, and they strove to excel in doing just that.
Practice hospitality, the apostle encouraged, for by doing so some have entertained angels unawares.
Just as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it for me, Jesus told them.
We still can’t do ‘invitation’ on the big scale – we’re going to get back to that, for sure, but not quite yet – but what we can do is invitation on the person level. Hospitality. Sharing time, meals, coffees, with people who might otherwise be missing out on human connection. People within the Church and people outside.
And running alongside that theme of hospitality is this sermon series, “Welcome to the reign of God”.
Now if you’ve heard me speak more than a few times you probably aren’t surprised at the choice of wording there – the ‘reign’ of God, rather than the ‘kingdom’. I’m choosing to speak of the reign of God rather than the Kingdom of God simply because it is a better translation – Βασιλεία (basilea) simply means the realm of a sovereign, with no gender implication.
I think the reign of God also does a better job of saying something important: that we are not speaking of a military or political sphere of influence, of governments and armies, and, more still of passports and border controls. Instead it speaks of the relationship between God and the community of God’s people, and of, as Jesus taught us to pray, God’s will being done on earth, as it already is in heaven.
And because it speaks of that relationship, and that experience of the will of God for creation, the reign of God, and the nature of the reign of God sits very comfortably alongside the theme of hospitality, and of invitation.
For this, ultimately, is what we are inviting others to be part of. We invite others into community because it is in relationships together that the reign of God can be experienced by individuals and witnessed by the world. Experienced by individuals – as Sophie wrote in her contribution to “Our Spiritual Lives” – ‘I find God in people and in being with them’ – and witnessed by the world – ‘see how these Christians love one another’.
And we invite people into partnership – and, indeed, join in partnership with others, of other faiths and none – when we are able, by doing so, to more effectively advance that for which we pray each week: ‘God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.
So over Lent, as we reflect on taking up practices of hospitality, we also reflect on what this reign of God is supposed to look like.
We’ve started today with one of the sayings of Jesus I frequently alluded to: Jesus’ first words of public ministry: ‘the reign of God is at hand’.
And the fact that I use this saying so often is probably down to one scripture class that I taught years ago, in which we were wondering about what Jesus meant in these words, and one of the kids, a girl 8 or 9 years old, said “it makes me think that it’s kind of like this” (reaching out as if to try to grasp something that was just too far away for her to touch).
I think that’s just brilliant. That sense that the reign of God is something so near and yet just out of reach. Something you can reach towards, strive towards, but not quite get hold of.
I have that sense about the reign of God – indeed, I often have that sense about the presence of God – so close, almost tantalisingly close, but not quite here.
The reign of God is here but not quite. Now, and not yet. But we, none the less, are called to invite others into it, to welcome people to be part of it.
Because our calling as the followers of Jesus, of the one who came to proclaim the reign of God, is to make that reign a real experience for them. The Australian Baptist theologian Michael Frost talks about our role as being making the reign of God believable. Proclaiming it in a way that is intellectually believable, living it in such a way that it is experientially believable, loving in such a way that God’s reign is emotionally believable.
Because it is close. It is ‘at hand’. We can’t quite see it, touch it, live it, but we have its shape, its sense, its echo to share with those around us.
So, hospitality. Sharing our lives and our experiences generously with others – because God shares the life of God generously with us. Because in the reign of God there is community, and connection, there is welcome for the outsider, there is bread and wine – and coffee and tea – enough to share.