But the end of all things is at hand; therefore be serious and watchful in your prayers.
And above all things have fervent love for one another, for “love will cover a multitude of sins.”
Be hospitable to one another without grumbling.
1 Peter 4:7-9
If you were to make a list of important virtues and spiritual practices to engage in at the end of your life, what would be on it? Perhaps you might include prayer, the mystery of Confession, forgiveness of others and asking for forgiveness from others, expressing your love to family and friends, donating money to your parish and favorite charity. I suspect that some of these and many others would be on your ‘bucket list’ to accomplish before your death. What about hospitality, and not just hospitality to friends and family but to strangers?
In the passage above, St. Peter gives instruction to the faithful to practice φιλοξενια, which means ‘love to strangers, or hospitality’, and tellingly he adds that they should do this without grumbling. The stranger or ξένος is the person who is outside of your circle. Perhaps they do not share your ethnicity, culture or race. In the parish life the ξένος or outsider could simply be a person who is not yet Orthodox, or who has converted to the Orthodox Church but is not a ‘cradle’ Orthodox. In any or all of these cases, the stranger is the person who is not like me and with whom I would not typically associate.
Why would St. Peter include hospitality – along with serious and watchful prayer, and loving one another – in a list of how to live as ‘the end of all things is at hand’? Because when we receive our neighbor, the stranger, we are receiving Christ. And when we reject the stranger among us, we are also rejecting Christ. Our Lord himself said that when the end of days comes, and the Son of Man comes in his glory to judge the world, he will do so based on how we have received him through our hospitality or love of the stranger.
“Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.'” (Matthew 25:34-40)
St. John Chrysostom writes,
If you receive your neighbor as though he were Christ, you will not complain or feel embarrassed but rather rejoice in your service. But if you do not receive him as if he were Christ, you will not receive Christ either, because he said: “Whoever receives you, receives me.” If you do not show hospitality in this way, you will have no reward.
When it comes to parish life many of us fall far short of this kind of hospitality. Rather than serving the stranger among us with love, compassion, and generosity, we grumble and complain about someone new sitting in our pew. We express concern that the new family’s children will disrupt our quiet meditation. And we whisper words of bewilderment as to why a person from a different ethnic or racial group would come to our church. “Don’t they know that this is a _______ church? They are not the right kind of people for this parish.” Perhaps you are thinking that this is an exaggeration, but as a matter of fact, it is known that these words have been uttered again and again in some of our parishes. My dear ones, this should not be!
St. Paul, in his first epistle to the Church in Corinth, writes,
For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many…. And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty, but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. (1 Corinthians 12:12-25)
One of the beautiful aspects of the Body of Christ is that its many members are not uniform in shape, size, and function, but instead carry with them the unique gifts given by the Holy Spirit at their Chrismation for the purpose of serving under our Head, the Lord Christ. If we were a body composed of all toes, it would be a very smelly situation, but in fact, the Body of Christ is composed with all the necessary parts to function in a fragrant and beautiful way as the Church in the world to the glory of God – that is as long as all the parts do not rebel and insist that all the other parts be just like them, or that they get to do something for which they have not been gifted and called by Christ in his Church through the pastoral guidance of the bishops, priests, and deacons. It is unity, not uniformity that we seek as together we live within the ongoing life of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
So, who exactly are the right people, and who are the wrong people for our parishes? In order to answer that question, we need to turn the focus around and ask ourselves, “Am I being the right kind of person who is following the example of Christ? Is my life characterized by φιλοξενια, love of the stranger? Do I welcome and include those who are different from me in my worship, prayer, fellowship, study, service, and recreation? Am I more focused on getting to do what I want to do, or do I look for ways to serve others even when it is uncomfortable or humbling? Blessed Theophylact writes that “Hospitality without grumbling is a sure sign of love.” That is a pretty good description of the right kind of person for any parish!
In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Jesus offers us a helpful parable to understand what we should be focused on so that we continually grow into the right kind of people who are united with the Holy Trinity. Jesus said,
Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured them. Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them. But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears to hear, let him hear! (Matthew 13:4-9)
In his parable, Jesus describes the hearts and minds of people as soil that needs to be tended for the seed to take root, grow, and bear fruit. He begins by helping us to see what happens when we do not tend to the soil of our hearts. Those who are described as the place “by the wayside” are men and women who are lazy or indolent. Blessed Theophylact writes, “For their minds are a pathway that is trodden and hard, and not in the least bit tilled. The word is snatched from them by…the demons.”
The next kind of person is the one who is described as “stony places,” those who hear the teaching of Christ but who are too conformed to the ways of the flesh and the world to resist temptations and trials. Rather than having the seed snatched away from them, they willingly walk away and abandon their own opportunity to salvation, withering under the heat of their own passions.
Finally, Jesus describes those whose hearts have been tilled, but mixed in with the seed of the Gospel of the Kingdom are also seeds of the Kingdom of this World. Growing together, the cares and concerns of the world begin to choke out the good fruit that should be born in their lives.
But that is not the end of the parable, Jesus also describes soil that is fertile for the seeds of the Gospel to take root, grow, and bear fruit – many times more than the number of the seeds planted. But this soil does not automatically come into and stay in this condition. It takes work to keep the soil of one’s heart free from rocks and weeds, and to remain tilled and ready for the seed to be planted. This last person, who is described in Jesus’ parable, is the right kind of person for life in the Kingdom of God. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”, says Jesus.
Coming back to my original question, if you were to make a list of important virtues and spiritual practices to engage in at the end of your life, what would be on it? Would it include the list that St. Peter gave us in 1 Peter 4:7-9 – serious and watchful in prayer, fervent love for one another, and hospitality without grumbling? Or would your list be focused more on the cares and concerns of this world that choke out the good fruit of the Kingdom of God? I’m sure that we all would answer the “right” way in order to view ourselves as the right people rather than the wrong people, but I fearfully wonder how Christ himself will answer that question for me “at the end of all things.”
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.
And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.