By LaMon Brown
The genesis of this article began months ago. I had been asked to fill in for a pastor friend of mine one Sunday at a Disciples of Christ church. At this particular church, the pastor (or preacher, in my case) is expected to offer a few appropriate words before Communion is shared. At some point I thought about how we are invited to the Lord’s Table. Hospitality became the theme for my short pre-Communion remarks.
So, looking at the Bible we see that one the characteristics of God is hospitality. God feeds God’s creation. In the Book of Psalms, God’s hospitality extends to all creatures:
You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal; the wild asses quench their thirst.
By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation; they sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth,
and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart (Psalm 104:10-15).
In the New Testament this characteristic of God is expected in those who follow Jesus Christ.
The Greek word philoxenos means “lover of strangers.” It is the opposite, of course, of our familiar Greek inspired word “xenophobia.”
Here are the passages that use a form of the philoxenos or philoxenia.
“Extend hospitality to strangers” (Rom 12:13).
“[Bishops must be] hospitable” (1 Tim 3:2).
“[Bishops} must be hospitable” (Titus 1:8).
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” (Heb 13:2).
“Be hospitable to one another without complaining” (1 Pet 4:9).
Hospitality to strangers is clearly intended in Third John 5: “Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the friends, even though they are strangers to you.”
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, it appears that the rich man is condemned because he refused to show courtesy or hospitality to the starving Lazarus. And in Matthew 25, Jesus’ final public teaching, the “goats” are condemned because they refused to show hospitality to those in need.
Of course, many of us have heard how hospitality was so important in the ancient world of Jesus and Paul because there were few inns and those that existed were often not safe. Additionally, there were no soup kitchens or homeless shelters or any other of the present means of assistance that may be available to the needy.
Such an argument misses the point. We are called to be hospitable toward strangers as our friends. We are to treat all others, in so far as we are able, with kindness and generosity. As Matthew 15 illustrates, we are to visit the lonely, care for the sick, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, etc. That is one way we and our churches can come face to face with Christ.
This reality has been recognized over the centuries by different Christian communities. For example, “The Celtic Christians believed that hospitality was not only meant to be a custom in their homes, they believed it was a key into the Kingdom of God. To offer hospitality was seen as receiving Christ into their midst and fulfilling the law of love.”1
Inevitably someone in our modern age will raise the issue of how dangerous it is to welcome strangers into our midst. The only answer to that is this: Love is always dangerous. If we love, we become vulnerable. To the degree we refuse to care for strangers, to that degree we withdraw from walking with Christ.
Reflecting on Matthew 25, I realize that genuine hospitality includes listening. It is quite possible to feed the hungry, house the homeless, visit the incarcerated, and go to see the sick, but easy to miss another important element of hospitality, i.e., listening. Love listens. Love takes time to hear the other’s story. Unless we are willing to take time to listen, our hospitality can appear self-serving and even arrogant. Listening extends respect to those we feed or house or visit. It is an offer of courtesy.
I don’t know if I have ever used the word courtesy in my writing or in my preaching, but here it is. It is more, much more, than an element of old-fashioned chivalry. This was revealed to me in a short meditation by Michael Guite on a poem by Hilaire Belloc.
Belloc’s poem “Courtesy” begins:
Of courtesy, it is much less
Than Courage of Heart or Holiness,
Yet in my Walks it seems to me
That the Grace of God is in Courtesy.2
Four verses of poetry follow as the writer is shown three different pictures in a monastery. The last picture was of the visitation of the Magi.
The third it was our Little Lord,
Whom all the Kings in arms adored;
He was so small you could not see
His large intent of Courtesy.3
Guite closes his meditation with these words:
It is not simply saying that the Christ-child intends courtesy at this moment towards
the kings who have come to worship him but that his large intent of courtesy reaches
out towards us and through every action in his life. Soon we will see the courtesy
with which he lays aside his garments, takes the bowl and the towel and washes
his disciples’ feet; the courtesy with which he carries our load for us; and
finally, in the sacrament of Communion, the courtesy with which, in Herbert’s
words, ‘Love bids us welcome.’4
As Christians our life in Christ begins with God’s offer of hospitality. We are invited into God’s Kingdom. Or as Elizabeth Newman puts it, “’Hospitality’ names our graced participation in the triune life of God.”5 We are welcomed into the family of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
One of the ways in which we enjoy the hospitality of God is through worship. For many churches, the celebration of Communion is the high point of the service. “The Eucharist…is our participation in God’s hospitality.”6
This seems right for in our human experience, food and hospitality often go together. Through Communion we remember the sacrifice of Christ and we experience the presence of the resurrected Christ that is as real as the bread we eat and the wine we drink. If our spiritual senses are too numb, we might not feel that presence. However, that does not make it any less real. It is for this reason that I believe Communion should be open to all. Every human being is hungry for the presence of the divine whether they know it or not. I, for one, would not deny those who are starving the opportunity to share in God’s hospitality.
I close with a portion of a liturgy that may be used in regular worship services. It seems especially appropriate in a time of commitment after God has welcomed us to the Lord’s Table.
Leader: I open my heart to Christ in the stranger;
People: To Christ in the face of colleague and friend.
Leader: I open my heart to the one who is wounded;
People: To Christ in the hungry, the lonely, the homeless.
Leader: I open my heart to the one who has hurt me;
People: To Christ in the faces of sinner and foe.
Leader: I open my heart to those who are outcast;
People: To Christ in the broken, the prisoner, the poor.
Leader: I open my heart to all who are searching;
People: To Christ in the world God’s generous gift7