“Hosting the Host”
April 6, 2008 - Third Sunday in Easter
Hang the towels straight, mop the kitchen floor, pick up dirty socks and gather up all the newspapers strewn around the family room. Get out good plates, cloth napkins, and cook up a nice meal. We had a guest Friday night. We discussed where he would sleep, which bathroom he would use, and how to get him at the airport. We wanted to be good hosts, to help Don feel welcome.
It’s harder to be good hosts when your guest is unexpected. Sometimes the knock is a surprise. You’re wearing jeans and your undershirt, or an old bathrobe. The remains of dinner are in the sink and you’re sprawled on the couch. “Battlestar Galactica” or “Iron Chef” is blasting from the TV. And you need to get up and invite in friend or family. It’s harder when you’re not ready. Two disciples walking along the seven mile course northwest to Emmaus from Jerusalem were not ready.
They welcomed Jesus on the road. Though, as verse 16 shows us, God kept them from recognizing Him. It was late afternoon of the first Easter and these two were headed home after the disturbing events of Passover in Jerusalem. Walking companions were usually welcome. It helped to pass the time to enter into conversation with someone you didn’t know. Like talking to the person seated by you on the airplane.
Verse 18 tells how they found Jesus a good companion. We learn Cleopas’s name and hear his astonishment that the man with them doesn’t know the things that have happened. Verse 19 displays Jesus as the best sort of guest, the sincerely interested listener who wants to hear your mind, rather than talk about his own concerns. “‘What things?’ he asked.”
In verses 20-24, Jesus listened patiently as the two poured out their story of the last few days. They explained the hope and promise they saw in Jesus and now their disappointment that He had been crucified. Their weariness and frustration comes through in verses 23 and 24 as they tell what they clearly think is a silly story from the women that Jesus is alive. They clearly don’t believe it or they wouldn’t be headed home.
With verse 25, Jesus switched from listener to speaker. He began to explain to them what happened. He used their Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament, to show how it all fit together, how Jesus was the Messiah. They might have expected all this, given what the Torah, the Writings and the Prophets said. By their arrival at Emmaus in verse 29, they’re hooked. Their guest on the road is fascinating. So they ask Him to become their house guest too. Though they don’t know it, though they’re not ready, they host Jesus.
This Scripture bridges our homes and that humble house in a first century village, bridges to all the places Jesus actually ate and drank and slept. You can’t go and see the Jesus version of the Lincoln bedroom or anyplace where we confidently say, “Jesus slept here.” We are distant from Martha and Mary, from Peter and Andrew, from Cleopas and his wife. Yes I like to think the second person was Mrs. Cleopas, though some say the it was his son Simeon. They get to cook for Jesus, put a plate on a table in front of Him, make up His bed, draw water so He could wash up. They had the blessed and happy privilege of hosting the Lord in the most literal sense. You and I don’t have that. We don’t know quite where Jesus stayed. It was all a long time ago.
But Luke wrote down this story—he was the only one who did—so you and I may still play host to Jesus. This was written thirty years later, a generation. Christians had already begun to feel what you and I do, a sense that Jesus is long gone, distant both in time and place. As wonderful as He might have been, we in the church no longer find Him present in the same tangible way in our lives.
Yet Luke told us this little sidebar story about Easter. Jesus appeared to two almost unknown disciples. Only one of them is even named. Luke wrote it because it showed then and now that Christ is still present, that you and I may still host the Lord.
We host Jesus, we welcome Him in the same way two ways Cleopas and his companion did there west of Jerusalem. We welcome Him in His Word and when we host Him at the Table. Ever since the road to Emmaus, the church has said we recognize our Lord, as those two did, in Scripture and in the breaking of bread. Word and Sacrament are the true marks of the Church, because it is there that we know, as they knew, that Jesus is with us.
Jesus went in Cleopas’ house, pulled up a chair and sat down. It was a humble meal: wine, bread, olive oil, a little milk or cheese, maybe figs or raisins or some other vegetable or fruit. That was it, a simple little supper. But Jesus transformed it.
Verse 30 says, “he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.” Turn back to Luke chapter 22, verse 19, at the Last Supper, and you find almost exactly the same words, “he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them...” At that point, in the breaking of bread just as He did the night before His death, verse 31 says their eyes were opened and they recognized Him. And then He disappeared.
What’s up with that? Jesus appears as a mysterious stranger, walks seven miles with them, teaches them Scripture, accepts an invitation to be a guest, never identifying Himself. Then, at the crucial time, just when they finally see who it is they’ve been hosting: Poof! He’s gone. What’s that about? Why not stay awhile and offer more teaching, some comfort, a little encouragement for the days ahead? Why the vanishing act?
Jesus disappeared then for you and me. He vanished for all the disciples and believers who would come after those two. He left then in order to say: “This is how I will be with you now. I’m gone from sight, but you will see me in what remains, in the broken loaf sitting on your Table. That’s where I will be.” As we remembered last week, we no longer see Jesus with our eyes. He’s gone. But Emmaus teaches us that we still meet Him here, at this Meal.
This passage also teaches us what we’re about as a church. The first bullet point of our mission statement says we are here to meet the Lord in worship. This is how it happens. We hear the Word and eat at this Table. Our eyes are opened and we welcome Jesus as surely as they did a few hours and a few miles after He had risen. This is where you and I host Jesus Christ, where He becomes our honored guest.
Yet we also understand that, if Jesus is truly our guest, He is not the only guest. This Table where we meet Jesus is a gathering. We don’t know who walked with Cleopas, but it matters that he was not alone. A community met Jesus in Emmaus, even if it was only two people. When we host Jesus, we gather together. It’s not just you and Jesus in some intimate moment of spiritual insight. It’s all of us together, getting our eyes opened together, meeting Jesus as a people. Community is the second point of our mission.
We meet Jesus and we meet each other. And as they did on the road, we find Him in His Word. So our third focus is study, study together. And our last aim is outreach. If we’re going to host to Jesus, we have to host the world. If we welcome our Lord, we will welcome everyone else as well.
“Host” is a strange word. It comes from roots first meant not the one doing the entertaining, but the one receiving it. It meant “guest.” It also meant “stranger,” and it could mean “enemy.” King James Bible language referred to great armies as “hosts.” Welcoming Jesus means welcoming all sorts of people, even people we don’t like, who don’t like us.
The thought of being a host triggered my memory of an old, old Saturday Night Live sketch with John Belushi. He’s a guest in the home of a couple played by Jane Curtin and Bill Murray. Belushi talks non-stop about pointless trivia, gobbles up all the food and drink in sight, and shows no sign of departing no matter how many subtle and unsubtle hints his hosts give him that it’s time to go. The skit ends with a piercing horror movie scream and a flash of the dripping title, “The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave.”
Not all guests are good guests. If we are hosts, if we host each other and host the world, so that we can host Jesus, it will cost us. It will cost time, money, trouble and some pain. Jesus spoke of hosting banquets where we go out into the streets and invite anyone we meet. Some are bound to be unpleasant, to be like terrible creatures we wish would leave. But as we host them, we host our Lord. He wants to meet them as much as He wants to meet us.
Being good hosts is our mission. We host the Lord and because of Him we host others. To evaluate what we’re doing here, let’s ask how welcome a child feels, a pregnant or addicted teenager, a divorced woman, a poor man, a non-white college student, a Republican, a Democrat, a former prisoner, a homeless person, a laborer, a professor. We worry about what people see and feel when we host them in our homes. What do people experience when we try to host them in our church? What do they see? Are they comfortable? Do they feel welcome? Those are the questions for us.
I hope we might admit that we sometimes do a pretty bad job of this hosting thing. As much as we try, we often fail to make someone feel welcome. It’s hard. It’s hard to keep your house ready for guests to show up at any time, and it’s hard to keep a church ready and welcoming for anyone who walks in. We don’t always do well at it.
We don’t even do that well, it seems, at welcoming our Guest of Honor. As we listen to His Word, as the Scriptures are read, our minds are elsewhere—at work, on the ball field, at the coast, in front of the television. Our bodies are playing host, but we’re not paying attention to our guest. The same can be true at the Table. We come forward, we eat, we drink, but the eyes of our hearts are looking elsewhere and they don’t open to recognize Jesus as the bread is broken. We are often pretty lousy at hosting Jesus.
The word “host” has another meaning. In liturgical churches, the bread on the Table, the bread in which we recognize Jesus our guest, is called “the Host.” As we struggle with being good hosts to Jesus, as we gather and serve at this Table, there is a marvelous reversal in remembering that the bread which is Jesus’ Body is “the Host.”
When we come to this Table, when we gather as Jesus’ people, He is Master of the banquet. This is His Table. Some of us prepare the bread and the cups. Some of us serve. We act like hosts. But as we do our little bits to set the Table and serve, our Guest arrives to be our Host, the real Host. The One we thought was our Guest is really our Host. Just as Jesus took the host’s role there in Emmaus, breaking the bread and giving thanks, He takes the role of Host here at this Table. In receiving that bread, we are hosted.
Jesus Christ welcomes us with all the love and grace and comfort with which we often fail to welcome each other or even to welcome Him. He is the good Host and we are the bad guests, the horrible things which just won’t leave. Yet our Lord always a place for us at His Table. He never tires of us. He never wants us to just leave Him alone.
So we come today, so we seek to be a church, hosting each other, hosting those around us who need a place at the table. Ultimately, though, we host the perfect Host who is Jesus Christ. He’s here in the Word He has spoken and in the Bread He has broken. May He open our eyes to recognize Him as our gracious Host this morning.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj