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Invitation to a Celebration: hospitality as holiness

Tuesday, 6 September 2016  | Mary Elizabeth Fisher

Recently, persons from 159 nationalities were celebrated.

This was not a United Nations meeting or the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games. It was in Sydney, Australia, at a suburban naturalisation ceremony, where the local Caucasian Australian mayor was welcoming scores of new Australian citizens.

But while we celebrate such days, isolationist tendencies can be observed across the globe. In the United Kingdom, it appears its future will be divorced from membership in the EU. In the USA, Donald Trump is using race and religion as tools of fear. A Tennessee Congressional Candidate's billboard proudly proclaims ‘Make America White Again’. That it never was ‘white’ is irrelevant to the racial bigotry that is on the rise.

In South Africa, refugees from Zimbabwe are discriminated against by persons of all races. And in Pakistan, Hazara people are regularly killed.

In the Bay of Bengal last year, Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar were trapped on a wretched boat as nation after nation in South East Asia refused to save them. Our former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, when asked if we would take the Rohingya in, replied clearly: ‘Nope, nope, nope’. Sadly, Labor’s refugee and immigration policy is no better.

And since Australia joined with the USA and UK in invading Iraq, minority groups in that country have faced the most extreme cruelty imaginable from radical terrorists.

The community of those who follow Jesus is at an historical crossroads. As we consider multi-ethnicity and our place in the world, we need to ensure that the foundations of our actions are theologically grounded in the understanding that:

  1. Every human being is born with the potential to ‘become’ the image of the Creator (Genesis 1).
  2. The incarnation of the Son heralds the love of God for the world.
  3. Jesus commanded that we love our neighbours - including our enemies. No exceptions.
  4. Jesus’ entire life - his incarnation, baptism as Messiah into Israel's true vocation, life-giving ministry of reconciliation and shalom wholeness, elevating women, concern for Israel's enemies depicted in his engagement with non-Jews (even a centurion), death, resurrection, ascension as proclamation that he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords – and the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit and the vocation of Peter and Paul in moving beyond the Jewish community, is focused on creating the Spirit community, the church, bringing about divine reconciliation which includes breaking down human barriers.
  5. Jesus reflected radical hospitality that included not only society’s marginalised and outcasts, but also those who placed themselves over against him.
  6. The followers of Jesus, from Pentecost onward, became part of a community that was to manifest a new way of being human, reflecting the love of God for the world and confronting a broken status quo of ethnic, gender and economic division.

In Genesis 11, the Creator God confuses language to thwart the pride of humanity, a hubris that would find humans in unity desiring to storm the realm of heaven. Humanity is scattered by the Creator. At the New Testament climax of Israel's long history, in Acts 2, language is again confused, but this time it’s through the work of the Spirit to bring unity through the Good News of the rule of God in Jesus Christ.

And so, since Pentecost, we live in a time when God is proclaiming the inclusion of peoples across the globe in the divine narrative of mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation and life through Jesus Christ.

Yet, 2,000 years later, we still predominantly worship in ethnically defined churches. Few churches are truly multi-ethnic, and minority ethnic churches are mostly homogeneous. And while we send missionaries around the globe at great cost, how many churches back home in Australia are immersed in their communities, with members opening their homes in radical hospitality to Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Baha’is? How many churches commission congregants to live in decidedly multi-ethnic communities as a valid vocation?

Being with people of different cultural heritage is not easy. What we believe to be divinely sanctioned values are often exposed as cultural prejudices. But, as citizens of the Kingdom of God, we are called to a multi-ethnic community - a communion of different tribes and peoples and nations.

Luke Bretherton says that the church is called to ‘hospitality as holiness’. What are some practical ways to live out this mandate in the church in Australia today, and to overcome our ethnic isolation?

  1. Clergy need to spend time with other clergy of different ethnic backgrounds.
  2. As salt and light, churches need to partner with communities from different faiths and together serve local communities in places of need.
  3. Religious communities need to be celebrating together where possible. Occasions such as Harmony Day make this possible without violating religious commitments.
  4. All communities together need to celebrate and serve the Indigenous People of Australia.
  5. Christians need to extend hospitality to persons of different heritage, as clearly reflected in the Cornelius and Peter story.
  6. Worship may need to move out of our buildings once a year - or more - to take people outside their own homogeneous communities.
  7. Churches should encourage teams of persons to live in areas dominated by other ethnic groups.
  8. Reading books and material written by persons of different ethnic and economic backgrounds is essential.

We live in a time of unprecedented movement of people around the world. Wars, natural disasters, economic chaos and possible climate change are going to accelerate such movement.

In response, the church has two options. We can be agents of hospitality, opening up our homes and giving our time in welcome. Or we can be among those who contribute to ethnic and economic exclusion by where we choose to live, whom we invite into our homes and the places we choose to shop and dine.

Communities are created by everyday events: acknowledging and befriending that shop assistant, that waiter, that petrol station attendant, that train station employee, that person we walk past every day. Whether we choose to greet or ignore these people could have eternal implications.

A very dear friend of mine in Los Angeles taught me how to live in community. Wherever she went, she would engage with a simple comment: ‘Oh I like your earrings’, ‘What a lovely child’, ‘Can I help?’ or ‘I detect a slight accent’.

On her wedding day, she had flags from seven nations hanging from the arches. Her wedding program was printed in three languages: English, Spanish and Chinese. And as I was talking to her at the reception, she suddenly picked up her skirt and headed for the street, having spied some folk over my shoulder a few metres away.

Her groom came looking for her: ‘Where's Holly’?

I pointed in the direction of the street.

There was Holly inviting some Mexican teens to her wedding.

That day I learned a very important lesson. Every potential encounter with a person of another ethnicity is, effectively, an invitation to the ultimate celebration - the marriage supper of the Lamb.

Holly understood that her wedding day was an opportunity to point toward a far greater event. Even on her wedding day, she was inviting people into her space - the place she inhabited for the sake of the Kingdom.

Jesus wants us to issue those invitations.

Are we prepared to be God's messengers, carrying into our everyday life encounters the invitation to a celebration of the faithful covenant love of the God the Father, Son and Spirit, for a world of persons from very diverse tribes and tongues and peoples and nations? Inviting people into the ultimate celebration – the marriage supper of the Lamb - is ultimately what multi-ethnic life and ministry is about.

Mary Fisher was a journalist for The Courier Mail before spending eight years in the People's Republic of China. In 1988-1994 she was Associate Director of Missions and Urbana for InterVarsity USA, and in 1994-2005 she served on faculty at Asbury Theological Seminary. She returned to Australia in 2005 and has lectured part-time and been on the pastoral team at Sydney Chinese Alliance Church. She also spends time with Muslim friends.    


Simon Carey Holt
September 6, 2016, 7:45AM
Beautifully said, Mary. Thank you. It certainly underlines my own experience and prompts me to keep making everyday acts of hospitality part and parcel of what I do.
Mary Fisher
September 8, 2016, 2:24PM
Thanks Simon.

My best thinking and times of greatest joy (as well as greatest sorrow) have arisen from the gift of multi-ethnic friendship and fellowship.

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