It was Joe’s 21st birthday and his family had invited Fiona, Fiona’s brother and me to celebrate. All three of us remember the meal, because Joe’s mum kept putting more food on our plates.
“You’re a big boy!” she would exclaim, while placing a second, then a third helping of the canneloni entrée before me. The carafe of wine in the middle of the table remained full, because Joe’s dad had a mysterious stash somewhere under his chair, so the litre of good chianti was there, just in case.
When dessert emerged, after our gourmet first few courses, we asked for a moment’s reprieve, because the cake obscured most of the table, requiring contemplation and reverence.
It wasn’t simply the extraordinary generosity, but the great enjoyment Joe’s family had in celebrating their son with us, and welcoming us into their home. It wasn’t about being polite, it was about the joy of friends and family and making us welcome.
I quite enjoy the precision of knives, forks, serviettes and wine glasses in their correct places for a formal meal – usually for our barrage of family at Christmas, or significant birthdays. Most of the time, however, we break bread around a barbecue, or meal prepared by the hands of everyone present, as chooks and salads and bottles of wine are laid out to share.
Jesus’ challenge to those guests and hosts around him resonates differently two thousand years later. Who and how we welcome remains critical, like those two young men with Orange Sky Laundry, providing washing machines, showers, conversation and self-worth to people living on the street.
Hospitality is not about making a list and checking guests twice, it’s building community where it was lacking, creating home and safety, offering welcome and recognition to those who appear nameless. Invite guests who can’t invite you in return.
It’s not how our society often works. That’s why those two young men appear to be radical, creative signs of the Gospel. Echo the kingdom of God.
A few years after Joe’s marvellous birthday, he was killed while riding a pushbike on a tour around England. Joe’s family flew their only son home. We sat in an Italian funeral mass, trying to decipher words, but knowing exactly what was being felt. A community gathered in grief tried to make sense of a tragedy which made no sense at all.
At the service, and afterwards, we were welcomed by Joe’s family into the worst moment of their lives, because it wasn’t about a funeral service and liturgical correctness, it was about the grief shared of friends and family. Community is not only about celebration, it’s about holding our lives in each other’s hands – wonderful and awful and impossible.
At the table we share the generosity of Christ, at the same time as sharing who we are – loved, flawed, struggling, forgiven people.
How can our table, at the heart of our worship, and our homes, welcome others as God in Christ welcomes us?