What is Salvation?
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
A week and a half ago, I was at a pastor’s conference in Montreat, North Carolina. On the first day, we gathered in small groups. Mine was titled, “The Glory and Grind of Preaching.” To get to know each other, we went around the room introducing ourselves and churches. And when I said, “I’m Alex Creager, and I’m the pastor at Stone House in Toano, Virginia” a gasp went up. I wasn’t sure at first if this was a good thing or not. And then that same pastor shouted out: “I love that church.”
Her name was Ann Elyse, and some of you may remember her. She is now a pastor of two churches in Illinois, but just a few years ago, was a graduate of William and Mary, living in our area, looking for a faith community. And she found it here at Stone House.
Later in the week, I asked Ann Elyse what she loved so much about Stone House Presbyterian Church. She was here well before my time here, and I wanted to know what her experience was. She said back to me, “I never felt like an outsider here. Even my first couple Sundays. If you were new to this church, you were welcomed and made to feel like you belonged, just as if you had been here for years.”
And then she told me a story. She said that after graduation, she was struggling financially. She was nannying, and not making enough to live off of. Some days she had to decide between whether she would buy gas or eat food, because she only had enough money for one of those things. But when she came to worship one week, a member here came up to her, and without her mentioning a word, the member said, “I’ve been praying for you. You’ve been on my mind.” And then the person very subtly put $20 in her hand. And said to her, “I don’t know why, but something told me while praying, that you could use this.”
I don’t know who that member is, but immediately I could think of about a dozen people here at Stone House who would do such a thing.
And it wasn’t the $20 that meant the most to Ann Elyse. It was the fact that people noticed her and knew her and thought about her and cared about her as one of their own. As not a stranger, but as part of a church family. And years later, after seminary, after becoming a pastor herself, that hospitality and welcome has not been forgotten.
I tell you that story today, because I want you to be encouraged. I want you to know that the way you all welcome people, talk to people, invite them into your lives, does not go unnoticed.
And I mention it because hospitality and welcome are central to the message of the gospel. We are called to be a welcoming people, because we serve a welcoming God.
In both of our scripture passages for today, God, both in the person of the Holy Spirit, and in the person of the Son Jesus Christ, welcomes an outcast, welcomes a stranger, welcomes someone who never felt like he could ever be a part of God’s family.
One is a eunuch from Ethiopia. He is a foreigner of another place, another culture, another religion. The fact that he is a eunuch makes him impure for the religious of the time, someone to come anywhere near the Temple in Jerusalem. He is far too outside the norms of the religious of his time.
But the Holy Spirit leads this man and leads Philip to see that God has a much bigger house, a much bigger tent, a much bigger welcome, than we, the religious, often show. After sharing the message of Christ’s love and sacrifice for all people, the eunuch is baptized. He is a child of God. He is a part of the same great family we are. It doesn’t matter his nation of origin. It doesn’t matter his skin color. It doesn’t matter how impure he seems to the religious elite. He is part of the family.
The second is Zacchaeus, a tax collector. He’s viewed as a sinner, someone who couldn’t possibly receive God’s grace, someone who no one in the crowd will even let in front of them on the road, let alone, welcome into their house. But Jesus says, “I want to have dinner with you. I want to visit with you. I want to break bread and get to know you and see who you are as a person, not just a label.”
Interestingly, Jesus does not invite Zacchaeus to his home or his table. But he allows Zacchaeus an opportunity to join in the hospitality right away. “I am going to your house today.” In this man who everyone else grumbles about and disdains and sees as beyond redemption, Jesus sees as someone who can be transformed with just a little bit of hospitality and welcome. And with that offer of sitting at his table and being his friend, Jesus sees Zacchaeus’ life change forever. He sells all he has and gives it to the poor. And Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to his house. He too is a son of Abraham.” He too is a part of God’s family. He too is welcome in our family, to sit at our table, to be a part of our lives.
When I think about life in God’s eternal kingdom, I struggle to get past the first few seconds will be like. Because that’s all I need. For God to wrap God’s arms around me and say, “Alex you are welcome here. You are a part of my family.” That’s all that I need. Everything else will just be details.
And it’s the same for so many in our world. So many of us are simply looking for a place to be welcomed, a place to belong, a place where they are wrapped in love and care and invited to come in and stay awhile. Welcome and hospitality are huge themes throughout the Bible because it’s what we so long for, and what’s God gives us so freely. It’s also what we are called to give freely to others.
So in the next few minutes I want to invite you to gather into groups of 3 or 4 and answer these three questions together:
1. Has there been a time in your own life when you have received unexpected hospitality and welcome? How did that change you?
2. Who does God welcome?
3. How can we show God’s welcome and hospitality?