Sermon from November 28: Naming Names
Advent I; November 28, 2021
Did you have any unwanted guests for Thanksgiving? I don’t mean they were uninvited, but I mean people whose presence is uncomfortable. One sign of our times is the advice we’re given about how to navigate conversation at Thanksgiving. We have always had to deal with family drama, whether it’s sisters-in-law dredging up conflicts from decades ago or an uncle who knows exactly what your child should be studying in college and doesn’t hesitate to tell you. But lately we have had to consider how to manage when somebody inevitably brings up the forty-fifth President or COVID vaccines. Hospitality can be hard. Although it makes for a more peaceful occasion to avoid the reality of our differences, I wonder how much it really helps us spiritually, emotionally, and relationally to pretend everything’s alright. Just wondering; I don’t know.
John didn’t bother pretending; he named names. Whether it helped the situation or not we have no way of knowing, but his letter is in the Bible and anything his opponents may have written isn’t. This little letter – factoid: it’s the shortest book in the New Testament – appears to be a “letter of introduction.” Have you heard of those? Typically the way you would get invited into someone’s home or received at someone’s place of work was to carry a letter of introduction from someone they knew or someone everyone knew. So probably John wrote this letter to Gaius, handed it to Demetrius, who then carried it to Gaius’ house. He handed over the letter and after Gaius read it, he welcome Demetrius in.
We don’t really know anything about either Gaius or Demetrius. Evidently Gaius was the host of a house-church. You may know that Christians didn’t start erecting buildings dedicated for worship for quite some time; when the books of the New Testament were written, they gathered in people’s homes. Usually they didn’t move from place to place, but someone who had a large house would host the church at home. For example, the Church at Philippi met in Lydia’s house (Acts 16:40). We don’t know where Gaius lived, but wherever it was, the Christians of that community, we conjecture, met at his house.
“Demetrius” was a fairly common name – well, “Gaius” was too – and we don’t know who this Demetrius was. Whoever he was, John wanted Gaius to welcome him into his home and give him hospitality. The whole church would probably chip in to help Demetrius during his stay, rather than leave it to Gaius. Phil and Angie would bring a roast and Luella her famous bean casserole and Julio would make an extra pumpkin pie. So the Church was to welcome Demetrius, because of John’s recommendation.
Apparently there was a man in the Church there who didn’t think they should be providing for free-loaders such as Demetrius; his name was Diotrephes. We also don’t know anything about him, except that John doesn’t think much of him. He may be suffering from compassion fatigue; we’ve hosted six traveling missionaries in the last four months, so we should take a break. Or maybe he thinks they should be paying closer attention to what these missionaries are teaching; we don’t want to be seen to be supporting heretics, after all. Or maybe he’s just a naysayer, always against anything that may require work or time or original thought. There are those in pretty much any organization; “I’ve seen a lot of change in my lifetime, and I’ve been opposed to all of it.”
Diotrephes does not just get up at the Church meeting and say they should stop hosting travelers, he makes a point of bad-mouthing his opposition. If you dare to speak in favor of providing hospitality, he’ll try to get you run out of the Church (my reading of v. 10). He must have had supporters, or he would have been ineffective. I imagine people often gave in to him, not only to save themselves from his badmouthing but also just to avoid controversy. Nobody in the congregation was willing to call him out.
But John wasn’t afraid of calling out Diotrephes. He named names. Demetrius is worthy of your hospitality; don’t let Diotrephes intimidate you. Diotrephes just wants to be noticed. Diotrephes tells lies about me. Diotrephes browbeats you when you want to be hospitable. Diotrephes eats Blue Meanies for breakfast and yells at children who accidentally step on his yard.
Why is John willing to name names, to call out Diotrephes publicly? And why is this in the Bible? I suspect that it is because of the enormous importance of hospitality. Now, in the context of the time, providing hospitality to traveling missionaries was essential; Motel 6 didn’t exist yet so if anyone was going to leave the light on for you it was going to be the Church that met in someone’s home. Years ago, when churches owned manses for the minister’s family to live in, these houses were frequently larger than the family needed. That wasn’t because they wanted to put on a show and demonstrate how important they were – “See what a big manse we have!” – but because there were to be spare bedrooms to provide hospitality to traveling dignitaries and missionaries and the like. When the Moderator of the General Assembly and family came to town, you didn’t put them up at the Hilton down the road; you put them up at the manse.
Traveling mission groups are still often put up in church buildings or in homes of church members. We’ve hosted people here, haven’t we? When some of us have gone to Nicaragua, we have stayed with families. My host family – Joel, Maricela, Marcelo, and Diana – are Facebook friends and I love getting news from them. Providing hospitality is still inherent to the identity of Jesus’ Church.
There is a lot we have not done over the last two years because of the pandemic, but I hope we have not lost the inclination to hospitality. Our Church’s Presbyterian Women have been hosting funeral meals again. We never asked AA to stop meeting; we said straight out: “What you do is important. Although we want you to wear masks and to keep physically distanced, we want you to keep meeting.” As a congregation, we have had conflicts over hospitality over the years, and that is natural. People have reasonable fears.
In the future, I hope that we will fan the flame that seeks to welcome people, to be hospitable. Tell Diotrephes to shut up. Here are some simple things:
- At worship, notice the stranger. Don’t make a point of greeting people you know; make a point of greeting people you don’t know. If you’re worried about welcoming someone who’s been a member longer than you have, try something like this: “I don’t believe I know you; I’m Bob.” And if you find out they’re a visitor or otherwise fairly new, then say, “Welcome.”
- When thinking about a possible program or an idea for an event, don’t think so much about the people who are already here as you think about the people you would like to be here. Why do we print the Lord’s Prayer in the bulletin and put it on the screen? You all ought to have it memorized. Well, we hope occasionally there will be someone here who doesn’t know it.
- When circumstances finally allow us to do more stuff, think about ways to make use of our facility and our resources to be hospitable. We spent about ½ million dollars redoing our kitchen and it has hardly been used. How can we use it to be hospitable? Sure, we want to have fun ourselves. But even more important is to welcome people in the name of Jesus.
You and I don’t want our names written next to that of Diotrephes, do we? Called out by John the Elder for our opposition to hospitality. John promised – or threatened – to show up at Gaius’ house himself someday. Wouldn’t you like to be a fly on the wall when he faced Diotrephes? It wouldn’t surprise me if John was all banana bread and honey: just as charming as he could be. Diotrephes may have been a naysayer, but John was not. That’s probably why his stuff is in the Bible: it’s a positive encouragement to do the right thing. Or else. He’s naming names.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master