It is a standing joke that vicars drink a lot of tea, so much so that the question “More tea, vicar?” is a recognised standard phrase or saying in the English language. The practice of clergy, and indeed lay members of a local congregation, to pay home visits to their parishioners derives, at least in part, from Jesus’ instruction to some of his earliest followers, sent out ahead of him, to enter a house and eat and drink whatever is set before them. In my case, almost always, chocolate biscuits washed down with tea.
‘After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”’ (Luke 10:1-9)
‘Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to his house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.’ This is Jesus the Jew, upholding the Jewish welcome: ‘Shalom aleichem’ ‘Aleichem shalom,’ ‘Peace unto you’ ‘Unto you, peace,’ a blessing mirrored by the Islamic ‘Salaam alaykum’ ‘Alaykum salaam’ and, in a weaker construction, the Christian ‘Peace be with you’ ‘And also with you’. The person who speaks expresses their readiness to make unity between themselves and the other. The one who responds does not merely acknowledge that desire, but affirms that they, too, want this peace. And in their agreement, that unity, which is of God and found in heaven, is brought into the physical world. Or, as Jesus expresses it, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”
This nearness is to be found when people sit down together over food and drink, take time to be together, to get to know one another. And with this, Jesus says, ‘kai therapeuete tous en autē astheneis,’ ‘and cure the sick who are there.’ The word ‘therapeuó,’ the root of our English word ‘therapy,’ means ‘I care for, attend, serve, treat, especially of a physician; hence, I heal’ while ‘astheneis’ refers to those who are ‘without strength, weak, infirm, sick’. Jesus is instructing those he sends to care for the housebound infirm, which in my context would include both those who are permanently housebound on account of age or physical frailty, and those who are temporarily without strength due to the devastating impact of bereavement. When I sit and listen to a family tell the life-story of their loved one who has died, or an elderly parishioner tell me stories of their childhood, I am curing the sick, one cup of tea at a time. (Indeed, I share in the ‘cure [care] of souls,’ which is both my bishop’s and mine.)
But Jesus also sends out his followers in vulnerability, ‘like lambs into the midst of wolves,’ without means or resource, dependent on welcome and the hospitality of strangers. In other words, there is a mutuality to this. The guest enables the cure of the host as the host cares for, cures, the guest. We do not bring peace, wholeness, to a household. We bring our desire to be at peace, to live in wholeness, with our neighbour; and peace is made manifest between us when they agree, and together we sit under the blessing of peace.
We do not bring the kingdom of God to our neighbours; we discover its nearness in their welcome.
There is nothing trivial about sitting with our neighbours over food and drink. In fact, there is almost nothing more important, which is why the lupine world will throw everything it can at you to ensure you are simply too busy to do so. But your visiting, of even just one home (it is the commitment to relationship that matters, not more relentless superficial socialising), is making a torn-apart world whole again.