Each summer in high school I traveled with my church youth group from North Texas to New Mexico for camp. We almost always stopped in Amarillo on the way, staying in the homes of church members there. We were strangers to them, but because we were part of the church, they welcomed us.
On one particular occasion, a family was so kind as to let us stay at their house while they were out of town. A group of us teenage boys and an adult sponsor, who happened to be my father, bunked there for the night. And as often happens with teenage boys, we got rowdy and accidentally knocked over a porcelain statue. It shattered on the floor.
We felt terrible and a little afraid. We asked my dad what to do. We decided to leave a note of apology and a twenty dollar bill — who knows how much that little statue was worth — as reparation for our mistake.
This story is part of the mosaic of my Southern cultural experiences growing up through which I learned how to be a guest in another’s house. Always treat someone’s things better than you treat your own. Leave it better than you found it. Offer to help wash dishes. Say please and thank you and yes sir and yes ma’am. And if you make a mistake or damage something, own up to it and try to make it right. This is the etiquette of being a guest.
Once when Jesus was traveling he saw a tax collector at his store and went to meet him. His name was Levi (also known as Matthew). Levi was likely despised by his people — though Jewish, he collected taxes for the Roman government, the oppressor of the Jewish people. Jewish tax collectors, for this reason, did not have a good reputation. We don’t know the nature of their conversation, but it was significant, because when it was over, Jesus asked Levi to become his disciple. Jesus’s request was so compelling that Levi laid down the benefits of his occupation and retired on the spot to follow Jesus.
Excited about his new path, Levi decided to throw a party for Jesus, inviting all his colleagues. Levi wanted them to meet the mentor who had changed his life. Jesus did not hesitate to attend, even though doing so violated any number of ceremonial and purity laws. Simply to share a table with someone ceremonially unclean like a tax collector was forbidden and taboo, let alone joining a party with a crowd of “sinners.” This is not lost on the religious leaders — they criticize Jesus for making such a move.
And still Jesus does not hesitate to become a guest. To submit to the rules of another’s house. To share a meal and conversation with people whose values were certainly different than his own. To risk criticism because of who he associated with. Jesus, as he tells the disapproving religious leaders, was interested to be around those who were hurting, not those who mistakenly thought they already had it together.
Matt Dabbs is right: if we build it, our neighbors will not come. It doesn’t matter what we build — beautiful buildings, house churches, missional communities, microchurches, or some other shiny ecclesial model. The days of “come and see” are largely gone. The days of first being the host, with all the power that accompanies such a role, are largely gone.
The Spirit’s invitation to the church is instead to become a guest. With Jesus, to travel and see and meet our neighbors. To be present with them. To treat them and their homes better than we would treat our own. To learn their customs and ways of life. To seek to make amends for the mistakes we have made. To invite them along with us as we seek to find life and flourishing in the way of Jesus.
Perhaps then we will meet Jesus there, in and with our neighbors, and Jesus will build his church anew for our time.
Charles Kiser is a minister with Storyline Christian Community in Dallas, Texas. You can follow his other writings, including a forthcoming book project on trauma-informed evangelism, through his Facebook page or Twitter.