With Valentines Day around the corner it probably should be “Love and Marriage” But most wouldn’t remember that they go together like a horse and carriage, any more. We’ve been looking through the Book of Hebrews for some time now and today I want to focus on the last chapter and the first three verses. Like most preachers when he got near the end he became very practical and began making personal applications for the readers. “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”
In his first challenge to us he used the word “Philadelphia” instead of the word “Agape” to challenge us to keep on showing brotherly love for each other. I’m not sure there is always a distinction made between these two words for love. Many have called “agape” the Christian love in that it is used of behavioral love or the actions of love shown unconditionally. But on many occasions it seems to me that the writers of the New Testament use the words interchangeably. It is the active love toward one another as fellow members of the body of Christ. Fellow Christians ought to treat each other with a special kind of love and acceptance in that we share the same devotion to God and are part of the same spiritual family. It is really easy to demonstrate this love for each other when you know one another well and have been close to one another for a long time. I suspect these Christians he was writing to had been part of the same church for some years now and had gone through lots of trials together. When people have suffered together, laughed together and walked together in all kinds of situations it becomes easy to love and understand each other all the time. So on this side of the issue his plea into keep on with what they are doing in loving each other.
But there are always folks coming into a church that we don’t know well. Often we have strangers that arrive with lots of baggage, needing lots of help immediately. In such times it is easy to become suspicious and feel we are being used or taken advantage of, so we pull back and circle the spiritual wagons so that we love each other but make no room for anyone else to come in. Any time God’s people circle the wagons and love each other so much that there is no room for anyone else to come in, it becomes a dangerous situation where we reject people that God accepts. In I John 1:7 it says, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” In God’s family it is vital for us to love and fellowship one another as part of his body being purified by his blood. Think of what happens in our physical body when one member of the body begins to attack another member. We know that as cancer and if it isn’t stopped it will pretty quickly destroy the body.
Few things in life are more common than Christians becoming suspicious of one another, doubting the sincerity of another or questioning their hold to the truth of God’s word. Then we begin pushing people away. Some are rejected from the body because they have a sin problem that is different from ours. Some are rejected because they don’t see everything the same way we do or that we have down through the years. In such an atmosphere we distrust anyone that we don’t know well and any one that seems different from what we have always been. The whole atmosphere becomes toxic to the degree that the new people feel unwelcome and start looking somewhere else for love and acceptance. Even the person in search of God, truth and salvation doesn’t feel accepted, loved or cared for. They can’t seem to see Jesus for people making major problems out of little bitty points.
Listen to God’s plea through the preacher. “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers!” What is hospitality? It can certainly be shown in many different ways and different cultures see and practice it in different ways from each other. I remember when hospitality was inviting any stranger at church home with you for lunch and an afternoon of conversation, relaxing and maybe even taking a nap in the home. Today, we don’t do that very much. Times have changed and situations have changed. We are much more likely to take someone out to lunch together at some restaurant. Hospitality is much more easily felt than explained. Many times people have tried hard to extend hospitality to me or to others when it didn’t feel like the real thing. It seemed too hard for them. I’ve had people show tremendous hospitality when there wasn’t much to eat. It was their heart of love and acceptance that made you feel like it was a huge honor to be in their home. Hospitality is allowing others to be at home in your home or in your presence. It gives people permission to relax and feel comfortable and accepted.
Hospitality is showing the love and friendship to strangers. Think of how important this really was in that day. Often the stranger was some preachers who was traveling through that area to preach the gospel to someone or some group of people. Most of the time there were not inn’s available for them to stay in or they didn’t have the money to stay in them if they were there. So they depended on brethren to accept them and show hospitality to them by taking them into their homes and giving them food and a place to stay while there. This was such a predominant thing then that in an early document written for Christians in that time they had a test by which they could determine if the person was really a preacher of the word and needed help or was just a person wanting to take advantage of your hospitality and get free meals and lodging. Their test was that if a person wanted to stay more than two days in your home they were likely taking advantage of you. The feel of being used and abused isn’t new. It may have become more dangerous in our time. But the fear is as old as time itself.
Notice how he countered the fear of being taken advantage of. Some who took in a stranger actually entertained angels of God without knowing it. The most obvious example of this happening was when then angels of God came to visit Abraham and revealed to him that his wife would bear him a son a year later when he was 100 years old and his wife Sarah was 90. They showed the angels that they didn’t recognize tremendous hospitality. They killed the fattened animal they were preparing for such a time and washed their feet to make them feel very much at home in their house. Angels of God often come to us in the appearance of a human. We can never be certain that the one we see, even the one who appears as a homeless person, might be one of God’s angels. Remember with this that Jesus said, when we care for one of the least of his brothers we are caring for him. It is even more vital to treat Jesus well than any of His angels.
What is so amazing to me is that he quickly adds one other group we should be concerned for. “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” Were these prisoners who had been arrested for preaching Christ as Paul so often was? It is possible. But it is important to notice that he doesn’t mention some specific prisoners, but simply those who are in prison. Certainly they faced a situation in which they too might be arrested for their faith and would need others praying for them, so imagining yourself with them wasn’t hard. He also stressed it was anyone being mistreated that they were to be concerned about and praying for. Often we notice when Christians around the world are attacked or mistreated. But are we as careful to see when others are mistreated in the world? As God’s people, part of our mission is to stand up for the ones who are weak and unable to stand for themselves. It may be that unborn baby, but it may be that child left alone and uncared for by uncaring parents. It may be that elderly person who either doesn’t have children to see after them or whose children either don’t care or for some reason aren’t able to step up and care for the ones who cared for them. Sometimes that mistreated one is an abused wife who is afraid to tell anyone what is happening inside her home. It is easy as a society to identify with the rice, famous, healthy and strong. We like the heroes who win the games and stand up to the world. As Christians, God challenges us to be the ones who stand up for the weak, frail, hurting, mistreated, prisoners, invalid, unwanted and helpless. Most likely there won’t be any awards in this life for that work. It will be when we stand before the Almighty that we are rewarded for caring for the weak who can’t stand up for themselves. God help us!