Life Together as Hospitality
Selected Texts – Life Together
7th Sunday of Easter – May 13, 2018 (am)
There are far better people than I can speak on the important subject before us this morning. So, I would send you elsewhere to find specific instruction on the discipline, the art, of hospitality. But I do want to give you a sense of the biblical importance of this topic, and then deliver a challenge that I believe will help us move in a great direction—a challenge so compelling that it might actually fire our imaginations toward a whole new level of hospitality among us.
Let’s address two questions on this topic.
What does the Bible teach us regarding hospitality?
Our theme verse today, Rom.12:13, says: Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Seek to show hospitality. That barely captures what Paul actually stated, and I believe we’re barely prepared to grasp how great a place hospitality plays in Scripture, OT and NT. It was functionally more necessary in societies without a hotel oat every exit (cf. Moo 411). But more than that, it reflects godliness in unique ways.
Hospitality is a familiar word, so let me get a bit teach-y for a couple minutes. 1) the verb translated seek to show (Rom.12: 13) reappears in the next verse as persecute. That gives a flavor of the intensity of our (seeking), our pursuing (ylt), of hospitality. 2) In our esvs there are essentially three Greek words that come over into English as some variation of hospitality. And there are seven appearances of hospitality in some variation. φιλοξενία (n.) and φιλόξενος (adj.) we’ll count as one; they make up five of the seven occurrences. They are compound words that join to mean a love of strangers. From the lexicons we expand that to: (receiving) and (showing) hospitality to a stranger, (to) someone who is not regarded as a member of the extended family or a close friend—… to receive a stranger as a guest, (which) is sometimes expressed idiomatically as ‘to let a stranger sit at one’s table,’ ‘to offer a bed to a stranger,’ or ‘to let a stranger enter one’s house’ (TDNT).
One of the remaining two Greek words is closely related to these two in meaning. It’s also a compound: ξενοδοχέω (v.). It means to receive strangers. That’s the way we love them: we receive them, into our homes, into our lives, our circles, our world.
The final Greek word is a fun one, once again a compound. It combines φίλος with φρονέω, that favorite word we met in Philippians: mind, to think, mindset, heart-set. φιλοφρόνως (adv.) essentially means a loving mindset, hospitable. It describes how we do whatever we do. In Act.28:7 it was translated as entertained hospitably. It (pertains) to friendly concern and kindness toward someone—… a friendly way’ (L-N); courteous…, a friendly manner (Strong).
And hospitality offered to other Christians is a unique blessing, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed in his classic Life Together. After telling us that, like Christ, we need to live graciously and consistently among our enemies in this life, he went on to write that the physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer. With great yearning the imprisoned apostle Paul calls his “beloved son in the faith,” Timothy, to come to him in prison in the last days of his life. He wants to see him again and have him near. … Thinking of the congregation in Thessalonica, Paul prays “night and day . . . most earnestly that we may see you face to face” (1Th.3: 10). The aged John knows his joy in his own people will only be complete when he can come to them and speak to them face to face instead of using paper and ink (2Jo.12). The believer need not feel any shame when yearning for the physical presence of other Christians, as if one were still living too much in the flesh. A human being is created as a body; the Son of God appeared on earth in the body for our sake and was raised in the body. In the sacrament the believer receives the Lord Christ in the body, and the resurrection of the dead will bring about the perfected community of God’s spiritual-physical creatures. Therefore, the believer praises the Creator, the Reconciler and the Redeemer, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for the bodily presence of the other Christian. The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian living in (exile) recognizes in the nearness of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. In their loneliness, both the visitor and the one visited recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body. They receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility, and joy (LT 2-3). And later Bonhoeffer added: We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ. What does that mean? It means, first, that a Christian needs others for the sake of Jesus Christ. It means, second, that a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ. It means, third, that from eternity we have been chosen in Jesus Christ, accepted in time, and united for eternity (LT 4). We were made for community, for life together, now and always. We need it!
That’s the personal/relational side. But accommodations for traveling Christians, especially those on gospel mission but ones we may not know personally, is much the emphasis in the NT (cf. 2Jo.; 3Jo.), just like it was in the OT. And from the words we’ve seen here, having a disposition to offer such help, a mindset, is a big part of doing it well. This means we should be oriented toward meeting the needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ, right up to and including their most basic needs for shelter and food and fellowship. Plus, a hospitable mindset is part of the picture on this topic; it should be generally characteristic of the church apart from need. We should all have a hospitable mindset. There should be multiple options for any hosting need, with each of us offering what we’re able to offer.
Clearly not everyone can provide accommodation on the same level, meaning to the same number of people. But please understand that I’m talking about quantity, not quality. You don’t need to have nice things to provide hospitality. It’s not dependent on the quality of our possessions (cf. Macedonians), but the state of our hearts. In this, I appreciate the new book by Rosaria Butterfield on this subject, The Gospel Comes with a House Key. Gospel-centered hospitality, she wrote, is not entertainment. Hospitality is about meeting the stranger and welcoming that stranger to become a neighbor—and then knowing that neighbor well enough that, if by God’s power he allows for this, that neighbor becomes part of the family of God through repentance and belief. It has absolutely nothing to do with entertainment. ¶Entertainment is about impressing people and keeping them at arm’s length. Hospitality is about opening up your heart and your home, just as you are, and being willing to invite Jesus into the conversation, not to stop the conversation but to deepen it. ¶Hospitality is fundamentally an act of missional evangelism. And I wouldn’t know what to do with a doily if you gave it to me. I would probably wipe up cat mess with a doily (Reynolds CT Books email 1 May 2018).
But she’s also spotlighting another key aspect of hospitality that we can’t miss. Hospitality is not aimed only at Christian fellowship, whether we know the other or not. It’s also one of our greatest evangelism tools—just inviting people into our homes, placing them in the company of believers, under the influence of the gospel. So, a love of strangers is not just an expression we make toward believers we’ve not previously met. It’s also an expression we make toward essentially anyone we meet, believer or unbeliever. And with that we transition to Question 2.
What does it look like to obey this teaching today?
In an article on The Gospel Coalition website, titled Hospitality Is Courageous, Matt Chandler recommends four ways we can show hospitality: 1) Welcome Everyone You Meet, meaning just greet people. That’s hard for some, but it’s a worthy effort, as we can see in the Word. 2) Engage People. Show interest in them. Remember C. S. Lewis’ observation that (we’ve) never met a mere mortal. Everyone we encounter will spend eternity somewhere. So, engage with them! Few things could be more important. And gospel encounters will never happen without it. 3) Make Dinner a Priority. Recognize the close connection Scripture draws between fellowship and food and capitalize on that. Long dinners with good food, good drink, good company, and good conversations that center around our beliefs, hopes, fears—that’s a good dinner. 4) Love the Outsider. Don’t limit your circle to family and friends. We’ll return to this, but these four efforts can be incorporated into our lifestyle whether our target is believers within the church or unbelievers outside of it. It just means welcoming people into our lives at the times and places when we’re most likely to meet them, and they’re most likely to need it, or desire it.
This sort of hospitality is an expression our world tries to duplicate, but it’s actually uniquely Christian. For surely there could be no clearer expression of hospitality, of love for strangers, than Jesus’ love expressed to fallen sinners at the cross. That’s the truest model of hospitality. And from there alone comes the power to do it. When we pass along this love that we ourselves have received in Him, we’re imitating Christ at the moment of His clearest affirmation of love! The world will never be able to duplicate that! And when they taste of it from true Christians, empowered by the true gospel—motivated toward love of neighbor by a genuine love of God—it will surely gain their attention. Nothing touches the heart like receiving love from unexpected sources. And when that love is selfless, sacrificial, others-oriented, it’s truly overwhelming! Ask any Christian who’s suffered within view of the world. How does the world respond when they see the church kick into action to love one of its own? Ask the Ewoldts. The Jacksons are among us because of what they saw. Ask the Debbie Cota or Sharon Baergen. And what then happens when someone in the world feels this love from the church, just because it’s the right thing to do, and together we’re living-out the gospel? Jesus said: By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (Joh.13:35).
Conclusion: Three helpful reminders as we move ahead:
Hospitality is applied obedience to the great commandment. It’s loving God supremely such that we love our neighbor well, as ourselves. It’s fellowship with believers—welcoming them into our lives by welcoming them into our homes—but it’s also outreach to unbelievers—exposing them to the gospel by welcoming them into our homes, and our lives. It’s remembering, as Jesus taught, that our neighbor isn’t always someone we know, but is always someone in need of hearing and seeing some kind of gospel love/witness. In His story of the Good Samaritan, the wounded man was not known to any of the three who saw him in the ditch. He was a stranger to the one who loved him. And Jesus tells that story in such a way that the hearer is the wounded stranger. You and I are the wounded stranger who receives this love. And how happy would we be to receive it as we’re lying there in a ditch, beaten and bloodied? There’s the image to keep in mind as we seek to over-come our insecurities or inhibitions or obligations so that we can 1) welcome everyone we meet, 2) engage people, 3) make dinner a priority, and then 4) love the outsider.
Hospitality doesn’t require having nice things. We don’t open our homes just to show off what we have, or our keen eye for decorating, even though we do decorate conscientiously to reflect who we are and what we value. We decorate, at least in part, to accommodate people visiting our home—to help them feel at home, whether it’s for an evening or a weekend or an indefinite length of time. Things are placed where they are with hospitality in mind. I never knew until some people were helping me set up my office with a more hospitable feel, a more shepherding-friendly way, that coffee tables should be a specific distance from the front of the couch, far enough away for legs to be comfortable, but near enough to reach the coffee and cookies. Wow! Who knew?
Hospitality should become a way of life. We need to develop a mindset of hospitality, as we’ve seen. But more, we need a culture of hospitality among us, where we’re all doing it. We do well at this, I believe, and it’s a blessing to many. But there’s yet another level, insinuated in every passage, that I’d like to spotlight and leave with you. Imagine if we developed a culture of corporate hospitality, where we’re not competing with one another (with some shying away from it because they just don’t feel as equipped for it as others), but cooperating with one another to care for all the needs that this body encounters, inside and outside its walls? What would that look like—a corporate culture of hospitality, linking arms to do it together as a collective expression of this body to our community? Would it look like open gym, sports ministry, hosting Quest and blessing them with snacks, being a polling-place? Might it look like a counseling ministry, or a presence in our town’s 4th of July Parade? But surely there is more, surely there are yet better ways to love strangers in our community for the sake of gospel and Kingdom.
Let’s pray together toward that end.