Palm Sunday: Salvation’s Hospitality
In the summer of 1991 my wife and I spent some time traveling in Germany. One of our stops was a two-day visit to a pastor and his wife in Wittenberg. At that time, the fall of the Berlin Wall was still a very recent event. What had been the communist-dominated East Germany was still something of a wreck with a crumbling infrastructure, bad roads, and piles of debris still left over from World War II. Wittenberg had been part of East Germany, and so my pastor friend and his wife had never had much money and even in those first years after what Germans call “die Wende” or “The Turn” from communism, they still had to live somewhat austere lives.
But when we visited them, they treated us royally. The food and drink flowed liberally and was presented to us with great joy. And that was true even before they found out that my wife was four months pregnant with our first child. Once they learned about that, they waited on Rosemary hand and foot. When our visit ended and we were preparing to leave, they loaded up our Citroen rental car with so much yogurt, milk, cheese, bread, apples, and sandwiches that we wondered whether we’d still have room for our own luggage. But the pastor’s wife refused to hear our protests that this was too much. “Nein, nein, nein” she said, “you’ve got to feed her to take care of that baby!”
They did what good hosts always do: they made room for others. In hospitality we withdraw ourselves, we contract inward a bit so as to create space for other people to join us in our lives. All throughout history good hospitality has typically involved food and drink. When we give food and drink to guests, we say to them, “We want you to flourish and be healthy and well!” Indeed, in Wittenberg, our friends extended their care to also our unborn child. They wanted our little one to flourish, too.
As we have noted before, it is curious and telling to see what a high profile hospitality has in the New Testament. Indeed, it’s considered a gift of the Holy Spirit. Hospitality ranks right up there with preaching, teaching, speaking in tongues, prophecy, and healing as a specific manifestation of the Spirit’s work. All Christians are called to be hospitable toward one another and toward strangers. But some can become especially gifted in this area, hence the New Testament’s flagging of hospitality as the Spirit’s work.
But why talk about this on Palm Sunday? Because I believe that viewed from the proper angle, we can see hospitality as having quite a lot to do with what happened on that long ago day in Jerusalem. What’s more, I suspect that this same theme has more to do with this entire Holy Week than we sometimes realize. And if we can see that this is so, and why, we may discover a vital lesson that we can apply to our Christian living.
First, let me pull the camera way, way back to give us as broad a context as possible. For centuries theologians have pondered God’s act of creation. A traditional question to ask about creation is this: if before God created the heavens and the earth God was all that there was and all that there had ever been, then “where” exactly did God create the universe? It’s not as though there was an empty space waiting to be filled. If God was all that there was or had ever been, didn’t he need to carve out room for the universe even before he created the universe in all its particulars?
Think of it this way: if you want to build a house, you can begin by designing it. You can draw up blueprints and plan your new house right down to the kind of knobs you want on your kitchen cabinets. But you can’t build a house out on thin air. You need a place to build it. You need a vacant lot. Without that space being available first and foremost, your house cannot get built no matter how meticulously you have it planned out. So also for God: he intended to create a universe with galaxies, stars, planets, tadpoles, and blue jays. But since God was all that existed, there was at first no equivalent of the vacant lot on which to build this creation. Before he could begin to build the cosmos, God needed to invent a space that had not been there before.
Some theologians think maybe God created the universe inside his own self. Maybe the whole cosmos exists inside of God. Our Reformed tradition has rejected that because it blurs the distinction between the Creator and his creation. We believe the universe is separate from God. Still, we can view the creation as God’s ultimate act of hospitality. However he did it, God made room for us. Sometimes when you have out-of-town guests, you turn an upstairs study into a temporary bedroom. Maybe you borrow a cot or set up a twin bed that your kids used when they were little. However you do it, you make space for your guest. So when he or she arrives and says something like, “You know, I can just get a motel for the next few days,” you can respond, “I’ll not hear of it! And anyway, I’ve made a place for you.”
Our Creator God is the ultimate cosmic Host. He carved out a niche for us. This is at least part of the reason why when you read Genesis 1’s account of creation, you read so much about all that “separating” that God did. God is said to separate waters from waters, light from darkness, water from dry land. All of that divine activity was making room, creating space, clearing out a place for us and all creatures.
The Gospel of John tells us that it was the Son of God, the Word of God who had been with God from the beginning, who was the chief actor in all that. The Word of God was the one who made room for the rest of us. That same Word that later became flesh and took on the name of Jesus. In the incarnation, the One who had made space for us came down to the world he had made. But tragically, John’s opening chapter tells us something else. The Word became flesh, became one of us, but when he came to his own people, his own people received him not. We were not at all hospitable to the One who is our ultimate Host. But isn’t that just the nature of the very sin Jesus came to die for? Aren’t we human beings constantly building walls, shutting people out, doing the spiritual equivalent of slamming our front door in the face of other people and other creatures?
If creation began on a note of divine hospitality, then that was meant to set the tone for the rest of all our living. Yet we keep on acting inhospitably to one another. Even when we have ourselves felt the sting of being shut out of something, we sometimes turn right around and shut out someone else. Some have observed that in elite, Members Only clubs no sooner is one particular group allowed to join the club (after previously having been banned) and the next thing you know those are the very people who protest the loudest when the club considers allowing another group into its membership. Finally being on the inside of a group feels less special if you end up letting in just anybody. The same door that lets you in has to shut behind you to keep others out. Being on the inside is no fun unless there is an outside to serve as the alternative.
In Jesus’ day, the religious community had become the ultimate Members Only club. The Pharisees were experts at shutting out undesirables. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem that day, the people shouted “Hosanna!” It was a Hebrew cry that was both a plea for salvation and also a kind of “Hooray” shouted out to the one who offered that salvation. Who knows precisely what the crowds had in mind in saying this. But if they thought that the salvation Jesus was going to achieve was going to bolster the exclusive nature of the religious community, Jesus shattered that illusion immediately.
He went straight to the Temple and, without missing a beat, chased out the moneychangers and dove-sellers. As we have noted before, there was in and of itself nothing wrong with the presence of those merchants. The law of Israel required that people offer sacrifices in the Temple. The merchants, therefore, provided a service by selling the very doves folks needed to fulfill God’s sacrificial requirements. The problem with all those kiosks that particular day was that they were set up not in the narthex or some other neutral space but in the Gentile Courts. This was the space set aside in the Temple’s design for non-Jews and others to come and pray to God.
By occupying that space, the money-changers were denying access to the Temple to people God wanted to see and hear from. Today it would be like having some group purposely take up all the space we set aside for wheelchairs and others who need more room than a church pew affords. If someone did that, it tell our physically challenged members they had no place among us and so they may as well go on back home.
Jesus came to this earth not to swing any doors shut behind him but to fling the doors to the kingdom open so widely, those same doors would fly right off their hinges. That doesn’t deny that Jesus himself said that the road that leads to life is the narrow way and not the broad and easy path people would prefer to follow. It’s not to deny that Jesus and Jesus alone is the way, the truth, and the life and that there is no other way to the Father but by him. Language like that sounds exclusivist but so long as the invitation is freely given to all without distinction, it is not finally intended to shut out but to invite in. Just because the invitation is specific doesn’t mean it is rudely discriminatory.
If I were to throw a lavish dinner party in a large venue to which I invited any and all who wanted to come, that would be an inclusive, broad invitation that really did extend to any and all. Of course, in order to eat the food I was offering, you would still have to venture out and enter the place where the dinner party was taking place. The fact that you had to come to that one specific place and pass through that particular set of doors would not, however, make my dinner an elitist, exclusive affair after all. And so I would not be much moved if someone said, “If you were really interested in being open to all, you’d cater the meal to my own living room.” Well, catering might be a good thing to do and we could maybe talk about it sometime but for now the banquet in question is downtown. Come on down. You will be welcomed!
Jesus came to remind us that hospitality is the universe’s keynote and it has been so from the beginning. That’s why I love Matthew 21:14. Jesus clears space in the Temple, and then what is the very next thing we read? “The blind and the lame came to him and he healed them.” It was instantaneous! No sooner did Jesus make room, and that room filled right in with the people who had previously been shut out.
The very essence of Holy Week is right there in that image. Jesus died on the cross for more reasons than we can conceive. The salvation Jesus worked for us is as wide as the cosmos. Even if we tried, we would never be finished in making a list of all the hurts Jesus healed, all the wrongs he had righted, all the broken-down things he had repaired and made new. But what all those wonderful things have in common is the fact that by dying as a creature within this creation, Jesus the Word of God who in the beginning hospitably made all things died so as to make room for all once again.
Jesus showed us that being on the inside of the kingdom is not good because others are outside of it. This is one community that defines the goodness of being an insider ever and only by the divine grace that brought us in to begin with. That grace is such a precious gift that if you really understand it, then the only thing in the whole wide world that you want is for this same grace to come to everybody. As a kingdom insider, you do not define the goodness of that status by the fact that some are still outside. In fact, you are actually pained that any remain outside. You wish there were no outsiders.
But the religious leaders found this tough to swallow. They suddenly found their precious Temple inundated with the lame and blind and other undesirables. Worse, there were screaming kids all over the place. “Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna” they kept shouting like a broken record. This just didn’t look like the Temple they were used to. They were indignant, Matthew tells us in verse 15. “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they shouted overtop the din. “Yes,” Jesus shouted back, “and have you never read Psalm 8? ‘From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise.’”
On that note Jesus left for the day, but I want you to see something very important about the fact that Jesus quoted from Psalm 8. Because what is Psalm 8 if not a celebration of God’s handiwork in creation. “O Yahweh, our Lord, how majestic is your name over all the earth! When I consider the moon and the stars, what is humanity that you take any note of little old us?” That’s the psalmist’s question when dwarfed by the immensity of the universe. But we know the answer: we matter to God, small though we are, because making space for us in God’s own divine hospitality was the main work of creation to begin with.
Jesus quoted Psalm 8 not simply because it talked about children and so provided an answer to the sneering religious leaders who were unhappy about all those kids. Jesus quoted that particular psalm because his whole ministry was about bringing us back to creation’s intentions in making room for all the last, least, lost, lonely people whose lives have been fractured by sin.
On Palm Sunday as Jesus mounts that donkey for his ride into the Holy City, we see in our mind’s eye also the start of his final trek toward the cross. We follow him on that way of sorrows these next six days. With joy, we know already, however, that a week from right now we will, the Lord willing, be back here to celebrate again the victory of Easter. But as the church of Jesus Christ, we ought not try to follow Jesus in this Holy Week—and we ought not anticipate celebrating his victory on Easter a week from now—until or unless we do what we can to invite all others to the gospel’s feast of joy.
Of course, as any good host could tell you, hospitality always costs you something. It’s not easy to contract yourself, to withdraw and pull back enough so as to make room for others. You have to give up something to exercise good hospitality. Sometimes you have to give up certain long-held, preconceived notions. You have to adjust to new patterns. Sometimes you have to move out of your own comfort zone in order to make others comfortable. There’s an old line that humorously says that “Hospitality is the knack for making others feel at home even when you wish they were.” Hospitality costs us something, we have to give things up to do it. Routines get disrupted, old patterns need to be adjusted to accommodate others. That can be hard work. It can even require some sacrifice. But what is Holy Week all about if not sacrifice?
In the church, as elsewhere in life, one of the most inhospitable lines we can utter is also one that comes readily to our lips. “But we’ve never done it that way before.” But I think it is safe to say that hanging from that old rugged cross, Jesus could very well have said to us all, “I’ve never done it this way before, either. But trust me: the result will be life abundant to be shared with everybody!” Amen.
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