Christian distinctiveness is shown most refreshingly in doing things others might not do rather than in not doing things others might
There has been a remarkable surge of interest in the paranormal in recent years – driven partly by the world of entertainment. The X Files was probably the catalyst for this, its extraordinary success leading to countless media spin-offs that have helped make curiosity in the paranormal respectable. Ironically, the Church’s necessary engagement with science and enlightenment philosophy has shaped the faith of many in such rigid and rational ways that many believers find it hard to adjust to this changing scene.
This paranormal world, which endless horror movies so creepily depict, has no theological framework to it; the God of Jesus Christ is no longer part of the drama. It is usually a frightening and amoral realm where human beings are at the mercy of very powerful and malevolent forces. Although our grasp of the spiritual realm is shaky because there is so much about it that we do not know or understand, we should take a more reassuring view of what we can’t see but believe is there, notably the presence of angels.
We can surmise from what scripture has to say that angels are part of the created order and not pre-existent in the way we understand God to be, but they are given unusual authority over creation. The two most famous are Gabriel and Michael. Gabriel is a messenger who brings important news, often to unsuspecting people, like Mary. Yet he is more than God’s internet service provider and also explains outcomes and interprets dreams.
Michael, on the other hand, is a warrior. In the Old Testament he is depicted as the defender of Israel against its foes: he opposes evil and affects the course of human history. The label ‘St. Michael’ on every garment from Marks and Spencer is a nod to the Jewish origins of the firm and of the centrality of Michael to Judaism. In the New Testament, Michael is prophesied to play a decisive role at the end of history, orchestrating the defeat of Satan, as recounted in the Book of Revelation.
These sweeping cosmic dramas are matched by a narrower concern for the welfare of individual people. Angels bring strength to those in need, like Jesus after his temptation in the desert. They protect people from harm, according to the Psalms. Matthew speaks movingly of the angelic patronage of children; Jacob dreamed of the constant interaction of angels between heaven and earth. In our celebration of Holy Communion, we are invited to see our participation in the worship of God with a host of angels.
I suppose the difficulty we have with angels is analogous to the problem the writer C. S. Lewis felt some people had with the devil. The tendency is either not to believe in them at all or to see them popping up all over the place. A degree of humble caution is called for because we do not know much about the things we speak of, yet denial of their existence deprives the faith of colour and texture.
In the letter to the Hebrews, the writer exhorts his readers to remember not to ‘neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it’. Old Testament stories give us many examples of mysterious travellers accepting the hospitality of the faithful in humble middle-eastern villages. The value of generous hospitality in ancient cultures cannot be overstated. We tend to look at this question the other way round. Where someone shows us kindness, we see them as an angel, whether it be cooking a meal for us when the oven has broken or picking us up after we have fallen on the street; in thinking this way, we echo the promises of scripture about God’s provision and protection. We are less adept at seeing the opportunity to minister to the angel in the stranger we meet.
The context in which we offer hospitality and help is vastly different to the era in which the letter to the Hebrews was written. The stranger today is more likely to be perceived as a worrying threat than an intriguing prospect. Loss of trust makes us suspicious of those we don’t know and we prefer to get to know them before we make sacrifices lest our generosity is abused in some way. Christian distinctiveness is shown most refreshingly in doing things other people might not do, rather than in not doing things other people might do. This suggests our local mission should take risks in caring for those whom others shun as a threat or an inconvenience.
Modern hospitality has also developed a particular flavour today. We throw dinner parties in which the guests are carefully selected and informed well in advance and where we aim to lay on the best possible meal so others can see our capability. This may be a cruel caricature of the middle class dinner party which most of us have laid on from time to time, but there is an underlying ring of truth which is revealed in the concept of ‘power’ hospitality. The essence of biblical hospitality, by contrast, is more ad hoc and immediate, catering for people on the spur of the moment with what we have or asking them to join us for what we usually eat. Impulsive gestures of kindness rather than knowing demonstrations of competence are the spirit in which we entertain angels most authentically.
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