Talking to Strangers
by Johan du Preez
(Roodepoort, South Africa)
We are all familiar with food critics and movie critics. Sometimes we won't even buy a book until we have read a review. What if they had church critics, people that went around and rated churches?
Well they do. Every week, Ruth Gledhill's column appears in The Times of London. She travels around Great Britain and puts churches up against her five star rating. In America they now have the Rev. George Exus in Pittsburgh who has a radio show and on that radio show he rates churches.
What if there was a church rating service in Discovery? How would they rate DMC? How would we fare? That was a very real question before an early church congregation in the first century. We will be looking at the very intimate personal letter from the apostle to this church leader Gaius - we will see in the text that John rates this church, of which Gaius is the leader.
How many stars is he going to give this early church congregation? Well let's take a look.
Turn with me in your Bibles to Third John 1, as this morning we look at verses five through eight. I would encourage you to keep your Bible open during the sermon as we will be referring back to the text.
Third John 1, beginning to read with the fifth verse.
Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love. You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God. It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth.
This is the Word of God.
Prayer: Thanking God for His Word
First of all, a little bit of background that will help us make a whole lot more sense out of those verses we just read.
Back in the First Century the chief evangelistic and teaching ministry of the church took place with travelling missionaries who would out of the blue show up on the doorsteps of churches and it was up to those churches to house them and to put them up for the night.
They had to house them, feed them and maybe give them some money; this was very common in the early church. In fact, there is a first century document called the Didache that laid out some guidelines for these travelling missionaries.
First of all they were not to stay more than one day with the church, possibly two days if there was an emergency, but if they tried to stay longer than that, that was evidence that they were false prophets.
Because of the scarcity of Holiday Inns and Formula 1’s back then, the second rule was that if one of these travelling missionaries showed up, the church was to provide them with room and board. Their entire livelihood depended on the churches taking care of them. They were to give them food, a place to stay, and encouragement in their ministry;
However, a third guideline was that these missionaries were not to ask the church for money. The church was free to give them money if they wanted to, but if they asked for it, that again was a sign that they were false prophets.
There is the story of a pastor who, some fifteen or sixteen years ago, one late afternoon was alone in the church. Two bearded, sandaled and robed individuals walked into the door of The First Presbyterian Church of San Antonio. They told him that they were on a pilgrimage to meet Jesus.
They also said that Jesus was living in Boerne, Texas, which is a town north of San Antonio and they were on their way to meet Him. Then they asked the pastor if they could sleep in the sanctuary that night. The pastor said "no - but we've got dorms in our youth building and you are more than welcome to spend the night there". They answered "No - we want to sleep in the sanctuary because that's where God is."
As the pastor was trying to reason with them, one of them noticed that the pastor was wearing a wedding band and he said "Are you married?" , "Yes" the pastor replied and then they said "Ahhhhhh! We know that you are not a man of God because if you were truly in love with Jesus you wouldn't be married."
Well he politely showed them out the door……
Now was the pastor being inhospitable? That's a serious question…. John, in the text before us, lays out his commendation of Gaius because he has been hospitable to travelling missionaries. In fact in verse five John praises Gaius for his extraordinary faithfulness in light of the fact that these missionaries are complete strangers to Gaius.
It's one thing to be hospitable to friends and family and people you know.
It's a whole other thing to roll out the red carpet for total strangers.
We have all grown up as kids living on the axiom of "Don't talk to
strangers", but then as we grow up most of us have discarded diapers, yo-yo's and Barbie dolls, but unfortunately many of us still continue to hang onto that axiom - "Don't talk to strangers."
If you carry it to the nth-degree it is known as xenophobia after the word "xenos" that John uses in this text for the word strangers. Xenophobia, as we are well aware in South Africa, is a fear of strangers. In lesser ways we manifest that in our lives when we only tend to gravitate towards people that we know.
It's much more comfortable to be around people you're familiar with, who look like you and dresses like you do and acts like you; that's just a part of our human nature. But are we not to talk to strangers?
John praises Gaius because he has hammered out a theology of the stranger that in the name of Jesus Christ propels him towards people he doesn't know. And he ministers to them and by so doing, he builds up the body of Christ.
Don't talk to strangers - children need to hear that because it's necessary in this day and age, but not when we are adults and we are committed to being a Biblical church.
That's why I am convinced that one of our goals here at DMC has got to be to make sure that we're not just a friendly church but a hospitable church.
There is a big difference between the two.
You see, a friendly church is where everybody is kind of like boiled potatoes. We smile at each other, we greet each other, we slap each other on the back but we kind of bounce off each other.
A hospitable church is a church where people are like mashed potatoes, where we seek out the guest, the stranger and try to enfold them and make them feel a part of us and who we are.
What about DMC? How do we rate? We have a reputation as a very friendly church, but are we intentional enough about being biblically hospitable. You see I really believe that we have to hammer out a biblical theology of the stranger.
In Genesis, God commends Abraham for the way he treats strangers, the good way he treats them by showing them kindness and hospitality. In Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy God mandates and also weaves into the very faith system of the children of Israel, that they are not to treat aliens and strangers with suspicion and neglect. Instead God says "You are responsible physically and spiritually for the welfare of every alien and stranger within your gate."
In Matthew 25 Jesus says "As you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me." Then in Hebrews 13:2 we are reminded that all of those nameless, faceless strangers that you and I bump into, could actually be nothing less than an angelic being. We better treat them right.
Gaius had this theology of the stranger pretty well worked out. So much so that the church became known as a place where missionaries could come and be encouraged, built up, taken care of and launched into ministry.
What about us? Are we a friendly church or a hospitable church?
I know it is sometimes difficult to take that risk and go and introduce yourself to someone you don't know and to ask if they are visiting and they might tell you that they have been a member of DMC for seven years…..
There was a saying on the minor hall a while ago that read something like” People are kind and generous, with big smiles….until you sit in their pews….”
We always need to remember: God crosses people’s paths for His purpose and will ….. We need to encourage, love, build up and really support ministries everywhere.
“Others” are those who have not yet come to know Jesus Christ, but God has something up his sleeve and God brings them here in our midst.
Gaius was a leader in a church that had learned how to receive strangers and that's called hospitality; however, note in the text that they were also a church that had learned to then launch those strangers back out into ministry for Jesus Christ.
So you're here this morning and you spot somebody you don't know, they're a stranger - what do you do? Do you move towards them or do you think to yourself "No somebody else will do that?" What would Gaius do?
How would Ruth Gledhill's or the Rev. George Exus rate us?
Even more importantly, how would God rate us?
Shall we pray –
Father, just when we find a great comfort zone of friends and acquaintances your Word pushes us out past that for the sake of eternal life. Please Lord God, give us the discernment to pick up strangers in our sphere of life. Give us hearts that care about them, give us legs that will move us toward them that this church would be a hospitable place where people will be encouraged and then launched out into ministry for the sake of the name, the name which is above every other name - Jesus Christ our Lord - Amen.