May 7, 2017 “Hospitality” – III John
May 7, 2017 – Fourth Sunday of Easter
I often make too much food. Whether it’s pancakes for our Friday morning men’s breakfast, or meatballs for the open house Beth and I host each year, or tacos for a few guests for dinner, I regularly have us set out more than the group could possibly consume. I think it’s my mother’s fault. That’s how she always cooked when we had guests. Whether it was chili for my high school youth group or Thanksgiving dinner or just spaghetti for the family, the table would be full and overflowing. She’s my first example for hospitality.
The apostle John’s third and tiniest epistle asks us all to consider who our examples are for hospitality as well as for the rest of Christian life and faith. As we read this very personal communication to a specific member of a specific church we gain a perspective that applies across all Christians and all churches.
This is the first time I’ve preached on the little epistles of John. Next week I’ll tackle II John, out of order, partly because that one is addressed to “the elect lady and her children.” So I thought that would be a fitting text for Mother’s Day.
Today our business is with III John, the shortest book of the Bible, by word count anyway. But the smallness of the package does not mean the message is miniscule. In fact, it feels to me like this text is especially relevant to our times and current situation. John’s letter to Gaius calls us to evaluate how well we demonstrate the truth of what we believe in the way we behave toward others.
In the first verse John calls himself “the elder.” He is evidently an old man at this time. His addresses his letter, “To my dear friend Gaius.” That phrase “my dear friend” can also be translated “my beloved.” So John draws together two elements that Scripture keeps connecting for us. He starts out with his love for Gaius and then says it again, “whom I love,” now take note, “in the truth.” From the get-go, love and truth are tied together.
We will explore the connection between truth and love more next week in II John, where it is the truth that is under fire. Here in III John the concern is a bit more on the love side. But they can’t be separated. In our Gospel reading from John 10, Jesus told us that His sheep, His people, will not listen to those who come without love, who come to do harm. In Ephesians 4:15 Paul tells us that we are to be “speaking the truth in love.” This small letter is all about holding onto both sides of that, with the emphasis today on love.
Gaius was the elder John’s convert. John won him to Jesus. That’s why John calls him one of “my children” in verse 4. He wants the best for Gaius. Verse 2 is a prayer for Gaius to have good health and a good spiritual life, for him to be well in both body and soul. It’s a good example of how you and I can best pray for each other, not just for physical health, but for a deep and true spiritual health.
That theme of truth returns in verse 3 when John celebrates the fact that he has heard good reports about Gaius. The translations say that brothers came and testified about “your faithfulness to the truth,” but it’s literally just “your truth.” Gaius is holding onto what’s true. What is more, those other believers reported, Gaius is “walking in the truth.” He’s not just believing it, he is living in it, doing the truth.
Our vision for our church this year is to “walk with Jesus.” Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Walking with Jesus means living like Gaius did, in the truth, by the truth, for the truth. As someone on my way to being “an elder,” I would agree with John in verse 4, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” We have no greater joy as a church than to see that children and adults who have come to faith among us keep walking in the faith, in the truth they learned from us.
So when we hear from David who was a student when I came to Eugene about his work for Jesus in China, or from Allison who was born after I came about her service in Haiti, or listen to Will praising God on the drum, or hear Larissa sing a new worship song she wrote, we have that joy, that our children are still walking in the truth.
Verse 5 makes it clear just exactly what “walking in the truth” means for Gaius. He is hospitable. What John has heard is “what you are doing for the brothers, even though they are strangers to you.” That good report about Gaius is based on the fact that they were welcomed into his house. Gaius is a householder, a man of means with a home big enough to house traveling missionaries. And he did it well and with love.
Last week for the conference annual meeting in Olympia, I stayed for a couple of nights in an Airbnb room. You probably know that Airbnb is an on-line network of guest rooms and homes which people rent out. But one of the keys to the whole thing is reviews. After staying somewhere, guests write about the place and their hosts, whether it was clean and comfortable and safe and quiet… or not. I read those reviews carefully when I choose a place. Verse 6 says that Gaius got good reviews. “They told the church about your love.” Showing love and hospitality to fellow Christians was how Gaius was walking in the truth.
There’s another aspect to those Airbnb reviews. As well as the public review posted for everyone to see, you can send a private message to the hosts, making positive suggestions for improvement. After this last stay I told my hosts that I would have liked a more quiet space heater and a more comfortable chair to sit and work at the table. In the rest of verse 6 and verses 7 and 8, John suggests to Gaius that he improve his hospitality to these missionaries by sending “them on their way in a manner worthy of God.” In other words, give them financial support in their mission “so that,” there it is again in verse 8, “we may work together for the truth.”
Verse 7 shows that John is talking about serving people who are serving Jesus, “It was for the sake of the Name [Jesus’s name], that they went out, receiving no help from the Gentiles.” He means that non-believers did not take care of them. It depended on Christians to do that. It still depends on Christians to demonstrate true hospitality and love in an increasingly inhospitable and cruel world. Non-believers are not going to care whether people get housed and fed, or cared for when they are sick. If we Christians don’t do it and vote for it and support it with our time and money, hardly anyone else will.
Christian life ties together truth and loving service to others. I told the children not to listen to mean people, not to believe what they say. That’s the Christian standard for truth. What we believe must issue in a way of life that helps rather than harms, that is full of mercy and compassion rather than judgment and condemnation.
In Matthew 5:16 Jesus said you will recognize false prophets by their fruit, by how they act like wolves devouring sheep. It’s what He said in John 10 again. Don’t believe those who are only “thieves and bandits.” Judge someone, whether it’s a preacher or a politician, by the effect of what he or she says on people who are poor, who are sick, who need love and care and welcome. That’s the way to discern truth in a world full of fake news.
To keep love and truth together like this, we need good examples and we need to avoid the bad examples. So in the second half of III John, he gives us one of each. First in verse 9 he picks out a bad leader in Gaius’s own church, Diotrephes. John has clearly had a run-in with him before. He’s written a letter already to that church, but Diotrephes “will have nothing to do with us.”
Diotrephes doesn’t want to accept John’s authority because he “loves to be first.” In other words, Diotrephes is all about Diotrephes. He likes his position as leader and wants to maintain it. When it comes to love, what Diotrephes loves is being in charge. So he didn’t do what John asked when he wrote him about being loving and hospitable to those strangers. In fact, verse 10 says he responded by telling malicious lies about John.
The rest of verse 10 tells us why those traveling missionaries were at Gaius’s house. The leader of the church refused to welcome them. He even tried to stop others from extending that welcome and kick them out of the church if they did. That makes Gaius’s hospitality not only loving and kind. It was brave to host those fellow Christians because he was standing up to one of his church’s leaders to do it.
John doesn’t want Gaius or anyone else who reads this letter to get discouraged, to think that if leaders offer a bad example that’s what we ought to do. So in verse 11 we come to the heart of the whole letter, “Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God.” And the key here to what is “good” is the first half of the letter. Good is being kind, generous and hospitable to people in need. Evil is refusing to help those who need help.
In Diotrephes’ bad example, his pride and arrogance are connected with his lack of hospitality. That’s how it is. If we focus on putting ourselves first, then we have to put others second, third or probably last. If we always take care of our own needs first, then we won’t have time or resources to meet the needs of others. John says don’t be like that, don’t imitate that. That’s evil. And those who do evil like that cannot be trusted, even if they talk about God. Their actions demonstrate they haven’t really seen God.
John goes on in verse 12 to give us a good example, “Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone—and even by the truth itself.” Everyone speaking well of you is not necessarily a recommendation by itself. In Luke 6:26 Jesus says, “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” Everyone may like you just because you’re saying what they want to hear, whether it’s true or not.
But Demetrius is spoken well of not just by people, but “by the truth itself.” The way he spoke and lived out the truth was its own recommendation. The truth of his life commended him to those around him. And John added his own commendation, “We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true.” Demetrius is the contrast to Diotrephes evil example. Demetrius is a good man to imitate.
Who are our examples going to be? There are plenty of bad examples around us and even on the national stage, men and women with no commitment to the truth either in words or in the way they live. There are a lots of evil people who have no interest in showing any sort of hospitality or kindness to visitors to their homes or their communities or their country. We should do our best not to join in the stingy, mean spirit of hatred and division that is rising up around us.
We may have to look for examples among the very people whom others want to exclude and keep away. I think of Kay’s stories of being welcomed by poor Christians in India. I think of immigrants like our friends in Manantial de Vida who shelter and care for each other in a strange country. I think of our own Covenant heritage among an immigrant people who always shared their food no matter how little they had. We need to welcome and be hospitable to people like this because above all we need their examples of how to do that very thing, how to live the truth in loving hospitality.
John finished in verses 13 and 14 by explaining why this letter is so short. He has lots to say, but pen and ink is not the way he wants to say it. “I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.” Like our call to worship said today about our greeting time, that’s not just a throwaway add-on line. That’s part of the message, part of living the truth. Hospitality is essential because face to face is essential. It’s looking each other in the eyes that we tell and live the truth as our Lord means us to live it. It’s face to face that we see the face of Jesus in our brothers and sisters.
As I said last week in our class on spiritual gifts, we don’t come together to make a church so that you and I can get what we need out of it. You and I are called by God to be together and be a church, because that’s the point. Our Lord’s church, the Christian community, does not exist for the sake of individuals. God creates and gifts us as individuals so that we can become a community like His own community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
We are not here to “get something out of” coming to church, whether it’s encouragement or personal growth or some sort of spiritual experience. We are here to perform the truth of Jesus Christ and His love together by knowing and loving each other in His name. John says, “Peace to you,” and then says how the peace arrives, “The friends send their greetings. Greet the friends there by name.”
Again, that last bit about greeting one other, greeting each other as friends by name, is not a nice little extra to give this letter a personal feel. It’s part of the message. We walk with Jesus, we walk in the truth, by welcoming and getting to know each other, by helping one another, addressing one another by name as friends in His love.
Kim and I will do our best to serve you by name at the Lord’s Table this morning not just because it may make you feel good. It’s because it’s an example, an example of what John tells us again and again. Truth and love, love and truth, have to remain together. They are the way the friends of Jesus, His brothers and sisters, walk through this world. Let you and I walk in that truth and in that love.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj