I was doing some work on the computer the other day when one of my housemates came in and announced:
“I just invited a murderer for dinner.”
My housemate volunteers at a drop-in for street-involved men and women in our neighbourhood (Vancouver’s oh so notorious downtown eastside) and he had decided to invite a certain fellow (let’s call him “Mike Smith”) to dinner at our place. Now Mike happens to be a man with a reputation for violence; he had just gotten out of jail, and he had previously spent a significant amount of time in jail for murdering somebody. Thus, when my housemate invited Mike over, he was reprimanded by a co-worker who essentially told him that he was too naive, and had acted too recklessly.
Consequently, when my housemate returned home and announced that he had invited Mike for dinner, he was worried a little and wondered if he had done the right thing.
Of course, inviting people from the neighbourhood for dinner is an essential part of the community house in which I live. Once a week we invite a random scattering of people into our home, we cook a big dinner, and we wait to see who shows up. Our dinners have been wonderful times of fellowship with all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds. One week we had a woman in the sex trade, a young homeless man, two first nations fellows who live in an SRO (Single Room Occupancy — basically cheap and dirty hotels that rent out tiny rooms for about $350/mo. There is one bathroom per floor and no kitchen included), and the pastor of my church along with his wife and two young children. It has been incredible to see the way the Spirit moves and brings everybody together. Consistently, week after week, we have found that total strangers have become close friends by the end of the night. And I feel like we are getting a tiny bit of a glimpse of what Jesus’ meals with “sinners” must have felt like. I feel like I’m glimpsing the kingdom of God breaking in around our dinner table, and I think we’re also getting a glimpse if what God’s final wedding banquet will look like. Opening our home to strangers, whoever that may be — the girl on the corner, the guy smoking crack in the alley, a fellow student at school, a new face at church — and inviting the Spirit to come and host the meal, well, this is probably one of the most exciting things I have experienced in my life. I feel like I’m finally starting to see the kingdom in the way that it was seen in Jesus’ day and I can’t wait to see where this trajectory leads us.
So, all of this leads me back to the invitation that my housemate extended to Mike. And I think my housemate did exactly the right thing. As far as I can tell, no “sinner” was so fearsome or so “evil” that he or she was excluded from eating with Jesus. As far as I can tell, Jesus ate with those who had not yet repented, Jesus ate with entrenched sinners — and by doing so he made new life possible for them. Therefore, if we are faithfully following Jesus, it seems that people like Mike are precisely the sort of people we should be inviting for dinner.
But isn’t that a little naive? After all, we still need to be at least a little safe and practical about how we go about this, right? Well, I’m not convinced. In fact, I would suggest that it is those who would not invite Mike who are being naive. This is so for three reasons. First of all, it is naive because those of us who live and work in this neighbourhood are constantly in the presence of violent people anyway. Going to work, walking the alleyways at night, these things are not any more safe than inviting a person like Mike over for dinner. We are being naive if we think that our daily routines are any more safe than doing something like inviting a murderer for dinner. Secondly, we are also being naive if we think that we faithfully follow Jesus while protecting ourselves from all forms of suffering. Following Jesus means taking risks, it means loving recklessly, and, if we do this for long enough, we will eventually get hurt. Indeed, Jesus tells us to expect suffering, it is almost as if suffering for Christ is one of the essential badges of discipleship. Thus, if we ever only act in ways that ensure that we will not suffer, then the chances are that we are not following Jesus faithfully. Thirdly, and finally, I think we are also being naive if we think that a person like Mike — or anybody else — can do anything to actually harm us. You see, the thing is that with Christ we are assured of victory one way or another. If Mike comes over, and if our meal goes the way that our meals have been going so far, then the Spirit will have come with power and triumphed. But if Mike comes over and something violent occurs then we will triumph through the cross. Sure we might get hurt but one way or another, whether in the power of the Spirit or the power of the cross, God’s kingdom will break in. It is not up to us to determine which way things will occur, it is up to us to be faithful.
Besides what’s with this thing about defining people by their actions? As far as I can tell Mike is a beloved, but broken, child of God, and he deserves to be treated as such. Indeed, if we only ever define Mike as a “MURDERER” then the chances are that we make his violent behaviour inevitable. If we treat him as a child of God we allow him the opportunity to live differently.
And so, if you think of it, you can pray for our house and our dinners. You can pray for Mike, you can pray for my housemate, and you can pray for those who are still naive and fearful. Lord knows, we all get afraid at times, but let us pray that God will raise up communities around us that permit us to travel through our fears so that we can be agents of God’s new creation, knowing both the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Oh, and if you’re ever passing through town, drop me a note and maybe we can have you over for dinner.