3 John 5-8
Grace and peace to you from the Holy One who modeled gratitude and fostered Thanksgiving, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
What a privilege it is to gather this evening, with an additional night of corporate worship, to recognize the many gifts of God and practice the art of gratitude. Opportunities to give thanks abound. We can give thanks for the warmth of this sanctuary. For smiles, handshakes and hugs that encourage. We give thanks for our shared freedom to hear and study God’s Word. For the spectacular music. And then there’s pie; I especially wish to express gratitude for pie. And for little hands and voices in our worship tonight. We’re grateful for neighbors among us who can lay their weary heads here and find safety and rest, and for community, a place where all of us can belong. It feels good to give thanks, perhaps for the simple reason spoken in our liturgy, because “it is indeed right and salutary to give God thanks and praise.”
In the past few days I’ve heard many colleagues and friends speak of Thanksgiving preparations. For those who are hosting family and friends, the to-do list can be long (goodness knows the grocery list alone can be long). For others invited as guests to the feast, the trip can be long. Even the narrative of the Holiday itself – Thanksgiving — has a long and sorted history.
On this rare day of slowing down and gathering together, whether we’re cooking or cleaning up, hosting or visiting, remembering pilgrims or recalling indigenous customs, one theme of Thanksgiving seems to surface – hospitality. What is Thanksgiving if not a time to open our doors and share of our tables?
Our sermon text for the evening, 3 John 5-8, is one of the Bible’s most explicit passages on hospitality. It’s a text we rarely hear, perhaps given the brevity of this final Johannine letter, or epistle. And notably the word hospitality isn’t used in our NRSV translations, but rather frequents more contemporary translations. The passage in the Message, for example, begins with, “Dear friend, when you extend hospitality to Christian brothers and sisters, even when they are strangers, you make the faith visible . . . . In providing meals and a bed, you become companions in spreading the God’s Truth.” In other words, we get to become co-conspirators in the radical work of the Gospel by simply opening our doors and sharing the bounty of our tables.
At the time 3 John was written, somewhere between 90-110AD the Christian church was growing rapidly. Some historical resources analyzed by social scientists suggest that from the time of Christ’s resurrection to the start of the 2nd century, the Christian church grew by 40 percent per decade! Those of you in the business sector, can you imagine such increases?! And as you might have guessed, a good amount of ink has been spilled on the matter of motivation. Why did this obscure, fringe religious movement, initiated largely by poor, no-name agrarian peasants, explode? Interestingly, the early chapters in the Book of Acts (that biblical book right after the Gospels, written to narrate the life of the early church) coalesce with other historical extra-biblical information to suggest that incredible growth took place due to Christianity’s social relevance and application. The Gospel was shared through the opening of doors and the breaking of bread.
In the first chapter of Acts we’re told that roughly 120 Christians lived in Jerusalem immediately following Christ’s Crucifixion. A few chapters later we learn that 5000 came to believe and shortly after that thousands more, in what was likely a city of about 15,000 inhabitants. Now, as is the case with nearly all biblical literature, these numbers aren’t meant to be taken literally. It can be futile to obsess over ancient stats. Figures in antiquity were rhetorical, and in this case existed to render impressive the work of the LORD. But what is noteworthy is the discussion taking place outside of the biblical texts in the early centuries. African Patristic theologians like Origen of early third century (185AD-254AD) wrote about the need to clarify Christian beliefs, given the wide reach of Jesus’ teachings. Eusebius, the most famous historian in Emperor Constantine’s day, wrote, “From the start it has been custom for Christians to treat all with unfailing kindness, and to send contributions to many churches in every city, sometimes alleviating the distress of those in need.”
And contemporary research on church growth mirrors what these writings say about ancient conversion; namely, that people join new spiritual groups when they have strong interpersonal connections to its members. In short, Christian evangelism takes place first and foremost through authentic relationship, in showing up and demonstrating care and hospitality.
In 3 John 5-8 we get a sneak peek into a private letter from an early church elder (likely a bishop of sorts) to the younger Gaius, a church-house Christian living in the region of Galatia (or modern-day Turkey). Gaius and his Christian community are commended and praised here, for opening up their homes to the strangers in need of care and for “sending them off in a manner worthy of God.”
Now these “strangers” were likely Christians, not unlike the Apostle Paul, traveling to share the good news of Christ’s resurrection. They would have been dependent upon the generosity of other Christians and they would have risked a great deal to do this work in light of increasing persecution. It would have been customary for a Christian of stature to write a letter of recommendation for such traveling missionaries, so that they might be received and taken in by other Christians. Atypical, however, was the type of letter we have in 3 John, a letter recognizing and celebrating the kind hospitality of the Christian community. This was a kind of good report card, we might say. But the purpose was not only to encourage Gaius and others, but also to make clear the invitation for all Christians to become missionaries. In verse 8 we’re told that Christians should offer support “so that we may become co-workers with the truth.” The word “truth” here is directly referencing the Gospel. We learn something about what constitutes support in verse 6, which clearly speaks to provision. Gaius’ guests were not merely given a place to sleep, but were abundantly cared for – fed, well dressed, and emotionally nourished. They were offered Christ’s hospitality.
And while you can’t see it in the printed bulletin, this missionary model is contrasted with that of another first-century Galatian Christian, Diotrephes. Just one verse later, in verse 9, we learn that Diotrephes refused to welcome in these strangers, presumably (as the text says) “putting himself first” (vs. 9). He is guilty of spreading false teaching by his actions, or better stated, by his lack of action. Diotrephes conspires against the Gospel by closing his doors and limiting the reach of his table.
With whom do you resonate, Gaius or Diotrephes? What does hospitality look like in your life? I know for me, while I desire to have a spirit like Gaius — one that delights in making the stranger feel welcome – I’m often so busy and distracted, that I long to simply come up for air and enjoy the comforts of my own family and my own home. And, I don’t think those needs are wrong in any sense, for surely the Bible has a great deal to say about being filled, that we might pour out blessing upon others. But what if this becomes our custom? Just as gratitude is easier to come by when we practice giving thanks, so too offering hospitality becomes more natural when we regularly seize opportunities to provide it.
And so as we celebrate tomorrow, and as we move into the Holiday season, I wonder if you might join me in thinking of yourself as a missionary, a co-conspirator in the Gospel? Will you join me in paying greater attention to the chances right before us, opportunities to provide radical hospitality, counter-cultural care, the sort of which grew the early church? Will you join me in giving more intentional thought to how we might all more authentically and effectively open our doors and share of our tables? And, my last question of you this evening, will you join me in giving God thanks for including us mortals in the great work of the Gospel?
We have much to be grateful for. May our lives reflect this gratitude and may our homes be holy spaces for others to encounter it. Truly we say, THANKS be to God. Amen.
 For more on this exponential growth see Rodney Stark’s accessible, The Rise of Christianity (San Franscico: Harper One, 1996), chpt. 1.
 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1949), 4.23.6.