[This was prepared to be shared during the Sunday morning worship services of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]
God values hospitality.
In our first lesson for this morning, Abraham and Sarah welcome three strangers to their tent. At least one of the strangers is God, although Saint Augustine, who lived in the fourth century, believed that Abraham and Sarah welcomed God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Whatever the case may be, their hospitality is a great example of how people of faith should act. With Genesis 18 in mind, the preacher in Hebrews writes, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that salvation comes to us when we welcome Jesus Christ and the good news that all who turn from sin and believe in Him have life in His Name with hospitality. Near the beginning of his gospel, John writes of Jesus, the Word made flesh: “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name...”
Only those willing to welcome Jesus as their God and King know the salvation and new life He came to bring through His death and resurrection.
When hospitality is given for the right reasons, it’s a beautiful expression of faith in Christ.
But there’s more to hospitality than fixing dinner, handing your guest something cold to drink, and ensuring that your guests have a good time.
All of which leads us to today’s gospel lesson. Please open your Bible or your bulletin to it, Luke 10:38-42. It says: “Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house.” Martha, at least at one level, practices hospitality. She welcomes Jesus into her home. That’s good.
But does she really welcome Jesus? Or is Martha like I can sometimes be, welcoming Jesus just enough to claim to know Him, but not allowing His Lordship to permeate my resistance to having someone else in charge of my life? Leave those questions in the back of your mind for now.
Let’s read on. Verse 39: “And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word.” Something that often gets overlooked in this passage is the true meaning of Mary sitting “at Jesus’ feet.”
When we talk today about someone sitting at another person’s feet, we usually mean that they sit dreamy-eyed, devoid of independent thought. But this isn’t what Luke meant when he used the phrase.
Let me explain: The title that almost everyone gave to Jesus while He did His earthly ministry was rabbi, meaning teacher. A rabbi’s students--the formal word is disciples--were always said to sit at the rabbi’s feet. It meant that they were learning from the rabbi so that they too could become rabbis, teachers. Disciples hung on their rabbis’ every word because they knew that they would one day have the responsibility of imparting his teaching to others.
But here’s the thing: In those days, women were never rabbis. Women were never disciples. And knowing God’s Word, sharing God’s Word, wasn’t considered a woman’s place. A woman’s place in that culture was in the kitchen, as we see in Sarah in our first lesson.
But that’s not how things work in the kingdom of God that Jesus ushers into the world. As the apostle Paul puts it in Galatians 3:28, in Jesus’ kingdom: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
In the Church, everyone is called to be a disciple, a scribe of God’s kingdom, a rabbi who teaches the Gospel to others who need to know or be re-acquainted with the crucified and risen Jesus and the good news that all who turn from sin and believe in Him have a life with God that lasts for eternity.
But it was hard for Martha to accept that her sister or even she herself could be a disciple and one day, a rabbi, like the men who followed Jesus.
Look at what happens in verse 40: “But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached [Jesus] and said, ‘Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.’"
Now, let’s be clear: Along with what I've said about Martha being hung up on the idea that women had no place in hearing or teaching the Word of God, Martha also appears to be a workaholic, one of those people who believes that by doing good works, she will receive approval from God or from others or will feel like a worthy person. Her hospitality doesn’t seem to be an expression of faith, but of pride and of a controlling personality.
It’s also true that Martha stands as a warning to all Christians to relax, to rest easy in the grace of God, in the knowledge that we are not saved by what we do but by God’s grace given to all who believe in Jesus Christ.
One of the tragedies of the Church is that so many Christians who could live in the freedom of knowing that Christ gives them a friendship with God and the forgiveness of their sins as free gifts to those who trust their lives to Christ, instead turn their Christianity into a list of do’s and don’ts and religious obligations. Martha traded in a relationship with God through faith in Christ for a religion.
That’s not the life that God intends for us!
God wants us to know that He accepts and loves us just as we are and that as we grow closer to Him, the good things we do will simply be an outgrowth of our friendship with Him--what the Bible calls a “fruit of the Spirit”--and not something we feel that we have to do.
Martha is caught up in what Martin Luther called "works righteousness." She's a slave to staying busy instead of living as a free child of God. Misery loves company, you know. So, Martha wants Mary to submit to the same religious slavery she has chosen for herself. That’s why she lashes out at Mary!
Verses 41 and 42 give Jesus’ response to Martha’s outburst: “And Jesus answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.’" So, what’s Jesus saying here? Let everything go to seed? Don’t do anything but listen to sermons and Bible lessons all day long? We all know people who, as I've said before, are so heavenly-minded that they're no earthly good.
Is that how Jesus wants us to be. Hardly!
I believe that we can’t really read what Jesus says here without remembering the passage that came immediately before it, Luke 10:25-37. You’ll remember that right after Jesus told a scribe, an expert in the Bible, the parable of the Good Samaritan, He also told him to go and do the same thing. The Scribe’s problem was that he knew all about the faith, but he didn’t do it, didn’t live it.
In today’s lesson, Martha’s problem is that she’s constantly doing, but she has no interest in the Word of God. Without living under the will and Word of God revealed ultimately in Jesus, she was living in futility, relying on her own goodness and her own power to work, instead of on God’s grace, to save her.
That is a dangerous way to live! People, like Martha, who know who Jesus is, who may even be active members of a church yet rely on their good works to save them from sin and death are as eternally lost as those who have never confessed belief in Jesus as their God and Lord. This is why Jesus told Martha that Mary had chosen the good part.
You see, every Christian needs to be a Mary!
That’s why engaging in the study of Scripture, especially in the company of other Christians, is essential to the Christian life. Reading, hearing, and studying God’s Word reminds us of Who God is and, simply soaking up His Word with faith in Christ, can build faith in us even when we know ourselves to be incapable of believing in God or living in Christian hope. That's because the Word of God is powerful! As the apostle Paul reminds us, faith comes when we hear God's Word!
Jesus knew that by taking in His Word, Mary wouldn’t sit for long! When His Word takes hold and creates faith in Christ within us, we will, not from pride, not to control, but from simple gratitude to the God Who went to the cross and offers life forever with God as a free gift to all who dare to believe in Jesus Christ, do their faith in Jesus. They will live like the people set free from the prison of sin and death that they are. [See Luke 8:15.]
Someone asked me this past week, "If we're saved by God's grace through faith in Christ, why doesn't God just let us die and be resurrected so we don't have to put up with this world any more?" Here, I think, is the big reason: Once we have become certain of our place in eternity with God through our relationship with Christ, God wants us to take as many people to heaven with Him as possible. God gives us time on this earth so that we can fulfill that commission. [See 2 Peter 3:9.]
When you and I take time to sit at Jesus’ feet, the Holy Spirit will then empower us be Jesus’ feet, Jesus’ hands, and Jesus’ voice in the world!
We know that Mary chose the good part because it’s only those who live in utter dependence on Christ and His grace who have the power from God to live and serve in Jesus’ Name long after those who try to be live like Christians without the power of Jesus’ Word working in them have given up!
Every burnt-out Christian I have ever known was one who thought they had to do everything themselves, like Martha.
Every joyful Christian I’ve ever known has been one who knew that they were completely dependent on Christ and that being a Christian is a team activity best lived out in that company of other forgiven sinners called the Church.
And joyful Christians change the world!
I recently heard the true story of Pastor Gil, who served a congregation in a poverty stricken barrio in the Virgin Islands.
Gil wanted to reach out to others with the good news of Jesus Christ, but few responded.
Then, he befriended an alcoholic named Sam. He shared the gospel with Sam and over time, a miracle happened. Sam received Christ as his Savior and was able to enter recovery from his addiction.
Sam, like Pastor Gil, wanted to share Christ with others, but few were interested in coming to worship to hear the gospel.
Then, Sam had an idea: “Pastor, come bless my house. I’ll invite my neighbors and friends. They can have parts in the blessing. You can tell the good news about Jesus and they will want to follow Jesus too.”
The house blessing happened. But no one responded to the gospel. No one came to church.
One night some time later, while working on a sermon, Pastor Gil became aware of a commotion. He looked out his window and saw that something was on fire. Along with others in the community, he ran to the fire to see if he could help.
The building on fire was Sam’s house, the one Gil had blessed. It burned to the ground. Sam’s friends laughed as the last embers were extinguished: “You thought Jesus would protect you.”
Sam pretended not to hear their words of derision. Instead, he fell at Pastor Gil’s feet. “Thank you, pastor,” he said, “for blessing my house. Something woke me up. Had you not offered a blessing, I would have died in the fire.”
Over the next four months, Pastor Gil blessed forty-eight homes and twenty-nine people came to faith in Jesus Christ.
A pastor and a parishioner steeped in the Word of God, like Mary, let their faith lead them to action, and twenty-nine people who might have otherwise remained separated from the new and everlasting life that only Jesus Christ can give, came to faith in Christ and to eternal life!*
My message to you this morning is simple. Be a Mary! Be a Gil! Be a Sam! Welcome Jesus and His Word of grace and power into the center of your life. Then do your faith in Jesus wherever God and your life may take you. You never can tell what God might do in you and through you. Amen!
*This vignette was shared by Bishop John Bradosky during a recent sermon.
[I am indebted to the scholarship of Fred Craddock and N.T. Wright in helping me to more clearly understand this incident from Jesus' ministry than I had previously.]