The gift of belonging to Christ is that we are given eyes to see as the Triune God sees, and to see in the face of all others the face of Christ, which is the loving and gracious face of the Triune God for us and for the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 22, year C; texts: Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14; Proverbs 25:6-7
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
I love the image of secret identity that flows throughout literature. Superheroes who are ordinary people among us, but special and gifted to help the world. Or secret kings, like Henry V who walks among his troops the night before Agincourt, disguised so he might share this night with them free of royal honors, and honestly hear their true, unfiltered thoughts. Sometimes not recognizing that identity leads people to act badly, to their regret, as in the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast”, where the arrogant young prince turns away a poor old woman on a stormy night and she is a sorcerer who enchants him as punishment.
But the theme is always the same: you never know whom it is you are meeting, so take care. The person might be a queen in disguise, or a hero, or even God. So it is that Leo Tolstoy tells the beautiful story of Martin the cobbler who is promised that Jesus will visit him on a certain day. All day long he waits for the visit. Throughout the course of the day several people cross his path who are in need and he helps them with love and grace. And that night, as he prepares for his bed, disappointed that Jesus didn’t come, Jesus comes to him and says that he was there all day, in those people. They were his visit, his coming.
All of this makes what Hebrews says today very compelling. We are invited to show hospitality to the stranger, because, we’re told, “by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” This is something to consider. A stranger, just as in all the stories, might actually be an angel of God. Suddenly the wisdom about not putting ourselves above others that we hear from Proverbs and from Jesus makes good sense. We don’t want to elevate ourselves above another: she might be an angel of God. We can’t know who the other person we are encountering truly is, and we need to respect that, honor that, just in case they are someone special.
But are we missing something more profound here? Jesus told other parables than this one, and there are a couple in particular that suggest that we are on the verge of a wonder we perhaps haven’t fully appreciated. A wonder that has the possibility of transforming our lives as children of God, and connecting us to the life of the Triune God in ways we’ve not known before.
In fact it is Tolstoy who understood a deeper truth in this mystery.
It’s not just that sometimes angels of God visit us and we don’t recognize them. It is in fact Jesus’ promise that in the other person we meet we will always see his face. That in the economy of God, there is no such thing as “other.”
In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable of the return of the King, the story we better identify as the one about the sheep and the goats. And what is significant about the people in that story is that those who did not feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, care for the sick, visit the prisoners, clothe the naked, give water to the thirsty, did not intentionally neglect the Lord Jesus, the King. Had they known he was in all those people in need, those strangers, those “others,” they would have helped willingly, joyfully.
And the whole point of the story for us is, now we know. Now we know where Christ is: hidden in everyone, everyone we meet.
And so with another of Jesus’ parables: instead of considering the place of Christ to be in the person of the good Samaritan, we realize in light of Matthew 25 it’s different. Christ Jesus is the half-dead man in the ditch. Serving him is serving Christ. Loving him is loving Christ.
Do you see how this brings us to the edge of a new world?
We are invited by our Lord Christ to see all others as if we were seeing him, his face, his needs. Franciscan priest Fr. Richard Rohr has said this: “If God is Trinity and Jesus is the face of God, then it is a benevolent universe. God is not someone to be afraid of, but is the Ground of Being and on our side.” 
This is a wonder to embrace: Christ Jesus is the face of God, and shows us that the Triune God is benevolent, loving, and “on our side.” If this is so, and we proclaim it is, what then of seeing Christ’s face in every “other,” in all?
Do you see how this changes everything?
If our eyes are opened to see in all others the face of Christ, which in turn is the benevolent and loving face of the Triune God, then we cannot but fall on our knees in the presence of anyone. If the Incarnate One, God-with-us, now claims that this divine incarnation extends into all people, all God’s children, then we have a new reality.
But that’s not often how we’re used to thinking of this.
You see, we too often take this parable Jesus tells as a call to be “humble,” and we think we know what that means. Too often we consider humility to be something we need to learn, something we need to assume. We read Jesus’ words as telling us not to think too highly of ourselves, and to consider others as more important.
The problems with this are many, but let’s consider a couple.
First, some of us have more difficulties with pride and needing to be reminded not to push to the front of the line than do others. There are people all over the spectrum, even in this room. Some who feel they’ve never measured up as important, certainly not in comparison to others. And others who feel that it’s a burden Jesus places on them to have to put others first, that they truly are special and worthy of notice. And all of us are somewhere in between those two poles. So taking Jesus’ words as a “one size fits all” pithy statement cannot work.
Second, Jesus is inviting a change of vision here, not a change of mind or attitude or action. He’s inviting us to consider what it would be to look at others as if they were important. Not put ourselves down, not force ourselves to stand back, not remind ourselves to act humble. But actually see others as important in God’s eyes. That’s a huge difference.
Humility is not about feeling bad about ourselves, or even proud that we acted humble once. It’s actually seeing the light of Christ in the other and honoring that. It’s a completely different thing Jesus invites, especially if we consider Matthew 25 alongside this. We don’t take the better seat because we quite literally see in the other person the face of Christ, which is the face of God. So of course we move lower.
It may be helpful for us to consider what we know in this room and see how that might carry beyond these walls.
When we gather for liturgy, we come here expecting to see the face of the Triune God. We see God’s face in Word and Sacrament, in each other. We love the silences because in them we hear God’s movement in our hearts and minds. We love the Word, the music and song, the people, because through these gifts we are brought literally, literally, into the presence of God.
Not everyone always experiences this in worship; there are times when we do not. But if we experience it at all it is because our eyes have been opened to it. Much of what brings me into the presence of the Triune God in this space comes from my experiencing worship with all of you. You have taught me that you expect God to be here, and in that I, too, have come to see God’s face. That’s how communal worship works.
And once our eyes are opened, we see God more and more. Yes, there are dry spells, times when our vision is less clear. The life of discipleship, even worship, wanders through deserts as well as lush landscapes.
But we help each other in those times: those who are seeing more clearly stand with those who are not. And together, we experience the grace of the presence of the Triune God who made all worlds, right here as we worship.
So what if what Jesus is telling us is that if we continue to open our eyes in the world, not just when we think we are “worshipping,” we would see his face, Christ’s face, there, too? Do you see how different that feels?
Just as we have learned to see God here, to expect to see God here, we might also learn that “out there.” And then everything we do in this world is worship, because we are constantly finding God and seeing God’s gracious, benevolent face of love for us and for this world.
And once we see Christ where he is, we will be led to act in a couple different but important ways.
First, we will love all others not out of false humility, not out of a patronizing sense of obligation, and certainly not because we think there’s an off chance they might be special. We will love others because they are special. They are Christ to us.
So living in grace and love toward others is like living in grace and love toward the most important people we know in the world. Consider the people you love most, honor most, admire most. How would you want to be with them? How would you want to care for them? We quite naturally want to love them, care for them, offer them the best place.
That’s how you care for all others, Jesus says.
When we see Christ where Christ has promised to be, we become people who live in the world with a joyful awareness of everyone’s secret identity, and who treat all accordingly. Unlike those in the parable, we care for all because we know who they are. Not because they might be angels. But because they are Christ.
But second, it seems that if Christ is in all others, then we also come to others as we come to Christ, expecting blessing, grace, life. When we come here and expect to see the face of God, we come hoping for the blessing only God can give us. We experience grace, forgiveness, love, full acceptance, no exclusion. We see in each other in this room that grace and love of God. In fact, for all of us one of the most important ways God actually touches us with grace and love is through our fellow believers in this place.
But now we go out these doors and we are told we can expect Christ to be looking at us from everyone out there, too. So we look at others not only seeking to love them as Christ.
But we look at others expecting they will be the Triune God’s blessing for us, to us, in us.
Think of that woman who visited our worship earlier this summer and bathed at the font. It was clear she had many issues that tormented her, and I was deeply grateful that literally every question I had from members afterward was directed at her well-being, at hopes for her health and her future. People loved her in Christ’s name here, loved her as if if she were Christ.
But what if we also consider that she was not only Christ to be served but Christ who blessed? I don’t know what that might mean fully, but I can see important ways she brought the blessing and grace of God to us that day.
That’s the new vision to which Jesus invites us.
We must pray about this. Consider this together. And most of all, seek the grace of the Holy Spirit to give us new eyes for seeing.
Because if Christ Jesus really is out there, really in literally every person we see not only in this room but everywhere we go today, tomorrow, and beyond, then everything is changed.
Then liturgy becomes the actions of our lives and worship becomes our living and breathing. Then music in praise of God becomes our daily voice and prayer our every word. Then welcoming becomes our way of life and hospitality our heart and soul.
Because when we see another person we see the face of Christ, the face of the loving Triune God. And there is no one on earth or in heaven we’d rather see.
In the name of Jesus. Amen