1After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.
5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” 15When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
16When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
For as long as I’ve known her, (and that’s since we were 16) my wife, Amy, has wanted to go to Ireland. As often happens with married couples, her dream eventually became my dream, too. Over the years, we accumulated quite a bit of “Ireland paraphernalia–calendars, keychains, coffee-table books, posters–basically ways to “keep the dream alive” that we would someday make the trip.
One poster that Amy had was called “the Doors of Ireland.” It was a giant poster covered with pictures of Irish…doors. Doors to people’s houses. It sounds odd to say it now…who takes pictures of people’s doors, and why are the doors in Ireland any more special than any other doors? The doors on the poster were pretty, painted in bright colors, but I don’t think I really started to appreciate the poster until last month, when we finally made our long-anticipated trip to Ireland.
On our very first evening in Dublin, we took a walk through the neighborhood where we were staying, past countless houses, apartments, shops, and churches. Those doors in the poster? They weren’t famous doors, or exceptional doors, or even the “best of” doors. No, pretty much ALL the doors in Ireland are that way–brightly painted in every color imaginable: Fire-engine red, clover-green, neon-pink, lemon-yellow, ocean-blue, orange, purple, turquoise… They were framed and fringed with Greek columns, frosted windows, or sometimes, hanging Ivy; capped with stone or wooden arches, and bright brass knobs and knockers squarely in the center of the door (we actually came across a large store in downtown Dublin named “knobs and knockers”–that’s all they sold!).
It wasn’t just the nice houses, either. Even the most run down, dingy townhouse had a bright, beautiful door in front of it. It was as if there was some kind of unspoken competition in Ireland, with every house, every door screaming out, Pick me! Knock on me! Come in through me! Come in! Come in! Welcome, welcome!
Sometimes I think that here in the United States we would prefer to hide our doors altogether, so that no one can see them, lest they might actually come in through them, and bother us. For that matter, most of us don’t even use our own front doors–we just come in through the garage. If Amy decided to paint the front door of our house pink, it would probably take me a month to notice.
There are plenty of stories, most conflicting, about the origins of the “Doors of Ireland.” My favorite is that a famous writer in Dublin painted his door bright red and his neighbor’s bright green so that when his neighbor came home drunk he wouldn’t confuse them any more.
But I have a different theory, and it’s related to a core principle of ancient Celtic peoples–one that I think has survived in their Irish descendants. It’s the principle of hospitality. It’s actually a cherished value in many ancient cultures: You open your door to the stranger and go out of your way to welcome him in, because it might be a God or divine being in disguise. We see an example of this in Genesis 18, when Abraham and Sarah welcome strangers who turn out to be angels of the Lord. And in the very next chapter, Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed–not (as is commonly misunderstood) because of any sexual sin, but rather because the people of those cities fail to show basic hospitality to the same angels in disguise, and the people are punished as a result.
Stories like this (and they are found in all ancient cultures) are meant to reinforce the value of hospitality, because without it, the fragile beginnings of civilization would crumble. You extended hospitality to the stranger for the simple reason that tomorrow you might be the stranger passing through, in need of a warm bed, meal, and place to stay. Inns, lodges, hotels, bed and breakfast places, and homeless shelters are all relatively late innovations of society. For thousands of years, one simply knocked on the first door at hand, and hoped for a warm welcome.
For hundreds of years in the middle ages, Christianity flourished in the Celtic world while it was dying in other parts of Europe, in the Roman Empire. One reason for this is that Roman Christianity was centered around the basilica–an urban church building where access was tightly controlled by the ecclesiastical hierarchy: Who could enter, who could approach the altar, who could receive the sacraments, who could remain for the entire mass, and who was dismissed at certain points. Much of this had to do with social class, financial means, and political clout.
Meanwhile, in the remote hills and valleys of Ireland, Christianity centered around the monasteries. Celtic monasteries were entire communities unto themselves, where individuals and entire families (men, women, children and livestock) lived together, worked together, and prayed together. Celtic monasteries took in those no one else would–particularly the sick, widows, orphans, and refugees. St. Columba, one of the Celtic saints, is said to have fed 1,000 guests each day at his monastery in Northern Ireland.
That may sound like a lot of mouths to feed, but I wonder if Columba was inspired by the story from the gospel of John that is our scripture passage today, where Jesus feeds 5,000 hungry people on the side of a mountain. There’s a detail right at the beginning of this passage that often gets overlooked, and can really only be understood in the light of ancient Jewish practices of hospitality.
In verse four, just as Jesus and his disciples are sitting down and the crowd is gathering, we read, “now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.” This detail seems odd to us, interrupting the flow of the narrative. But one of the Jewish customs associated with Passover is welcoming the hungry stranger, and feeding him or her at your own table. What better table to welcome and feed 5,000 strangers than a mountain, covered with a tablecloth of green grass? Jesus is celebrating passover, and his hospitality is extravagant.
As I study this passage, especially through the lens of Celtic Christianity and the principle of hospitality, what strikes me most is what Jesus–and by extension, the Celtic monastic communities–did not do. Two things in particular:
1. They placed no limits on what was used. When Andrew identifies a boy with five barley loaves and two fishes, Jesus doesn’t say, “No way will that feed 5,000 people!” or “that’s not good enough.” Celtic Christians didn’t lament their lack of ornately designed basilicas adorned with gold and silver…they simply fashioned their monasteries out of the rough stones and thatched straw that they found around them. They all used the meager resources at hand, and trusted God to make up the difference.
We could stand to learn from that example. How often do we say, I’ll show more hospitality when I have more to give–a bigger house, a bigger budget, more help? But maybe we should flip that around the other way: When we show hospitality and generosity with our meager resources, we can trust God to make up the difference.
2. They placed no limits on who was welcomed to the table. Celtic monasteries didn’t turn away the poor and the sick, and Jesus doesn’t have his disciples check everyone’s certificate of baptism before he feeds them. He doesn’t check to make sure they’re all Jewish, and he doesn’t ask if they’ve truly repented of all their sins before he feeds them. He just feeds them. No conditions. No fine print.
There are a lot of churches right here in El Paso who say, “We welcome everyone!” What that usually means is, “We welcome your body on Sunday mornings, and your checkbook. But if you’re female, you can’t serve as an elder or deacon…and if you’re gay, we don’t welcome or recognize your marriage. And if you don’t speak English, we welcome you, but we’re not going to try to communicate with you.
As Americans, we want our country and our communities to grow and thrive. If you’re coming to us from Europe, we’ll greet you with a beautiful statue, holding up her torch and saying “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free.” But if you’re coming from Mexico or Central America, we’ll greet you with a giant metal wall and a ten-year waiting list. Welcome to America. If you’re from Canada, come on in.
Jesus didn’t check anyone’s immigration status, marital status, religion, color or creed. He just said, sit down. Let me feed you. How much? As much as you want. Notice that the guest is the one who determines how much. Verse 11 doesn’t say that he fed them “as much as they needed.” It says he fed them “as much as they wanted.”
And that really scares us. What if they eat too much? What if we don’t have enough for ourselves? And then all the fears come rushing in…what if what we have to give isn’t good enough? What if we let in the wrong people, and they take advantage of our hospitality? What if we let them in and they try to change things? And then in our fear, we close the door. We build the wall. We bury our heads in the sand and hope they’ll just go away.
Radical hospitality is never easy. It requires gratitude to God for what we have (not what we think we should have). Jesus gives thanks for the five loaves and two fish, before they are multiplied into the thousands of loaves and fish that eventually feed the crowd.
Radical hospitality requires courage. When the disciples are huddled in the boat on the stormy lake, a stranger approaches them, and they are terrified. It’s not until Jesus says “It is I” and identifies himself that they extend their welcome, their hospitality, and try to take him into the boat. Likewise, when we are afraid, we have a hard time recognizing Jesus, especially in the midst of our stormy lives.
Finally, radical hospitality requires trust–not just trust in God, but also trust in our fellow human beings. All of these things go hand in hand:
If we can see ourselves in the plight of the immigrant, and say, “that could be me” ….
If we can see the image of God in the gay couple (or the straight couple, or the single mother, or the elderly widow)…
If we can see the face of Jesus in the stranger who knocks on our door (and Jesus does promise that he will stand at the door and knock!)…
If we make a conscious effort to see both the humanity and the divinity in every person, then and only then can we begin to understand and practice true hospitality.
There’s a popular saying in the Irish language–you find it hanging over doors and hearths, and we heard it repeated to us many times during our stay: Céad Míle Fáilte–a hundred thousand welcomes to you.
And may every single one of them bring you warmth, and hapiness, and love.