Hospitality, the Stranger, and Renewal of the Church
In chapter 12 of his letter to the Romans, Paul includes a series of practical exhortations (vv. 9–21). The translators of the New Revised Standard Version added the subhead, “Marks of the True Christian” to this passage; the New International Version titled it, “Love in Action.” The first phrase urges believers to “let love be genuine,” and then just a few verses later Paul says one example of practical love—a mark of the true disciple of Christ—is extending “hospitality to strangers” (Romans 12:13). Similarly, the author of Hebrews emphasizes the importance of hospitality, warning us not to neglect offering “hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).
One of the failures of the church has been the reluctance to offer genuine love by extending hospitality to strangers. The church is often perceived as a hostile place where not everyone feels welcome, especially those who are tagged as the “marginalized,” the “undeserving,” the “wrong people,” or “the stranger.” The New Testament is filled with examples of Jesus and then the early church reaching out to society’s so-called misfits. In the 21st century, the renewal of the church will come as a result of identifying the stranger and extending true hospitality to strangers—the kind of hospitality that empowers and transforms lives.
In order for the church to experience renewal through true hospitality, we must first understand what hospitality is and grasp its implications for the individual and communal life of those who make up the church. Hospitality is not a modern concept; in fact, hospitality was a fundamental practice in the ancient world and a vital characteristic of God’s people, the Israelites. As Christine D. Pohl states in her book Making Room, etymologically, the Greek word for hospitality has its roots in two Greek words, phileo and xenos, which include notions of “love” and “the stranger” respectively. The word connotes the sense of extending love not only to those of the faith but also to strangers. Scripture is filled with depictions of God’s hospitable nature and the desire for God’s people to offer hospitality as a testimony of God’s genuine love for humanity.
Jesus’ Example of Hospitality
Jesus Christ is the embodiment of true hospitality—and genuine love. He welcomes everyone, especially those often disregarded by society: women, children, prostitutes, thieves, murderers, lepers, tax collectors, etc. Even more significantly, Jesus is not only the graceful and generous host, but also someone who empties himself and becomes a slave out of love for humanity (Philippians 2:7). Put differently, Jesus becomes a vulnerable guest in need of hospitality—in need of genuine love. Sadly, Jesus often received hostility instead of hospitality. Even at his birth he was a stranger in need of hospitality, but he was not welcomed—there was no place for him in the inn (Luke 2:7).
The challenge for the church today is to recognize the stranger in the midst. Who is the stranger? The immigrant? The undocumented immigrant? The rich? The poor? The uneducated? The highly educated? The atheist? The non-Christian? The homosexual? The fundamentalist? The list could go on. In short, the stranger is the outsider in need of genuine love. Going further, the stranger is the one who often does not look, think, talk, behave, understand God, and live life our way. One indication of how the church has failed to recognize the stranger in its midst, especially here in the United States, is how very few churches reflect the diversity of their communities. Consequently, most churches do not reflect God’s diverse creation. The only way to overcome this sad reality is by embracing the practice of hospitality.
Even more, the church needs to seriously consider how to follow Jesus’ model of hospitality, in which one not only extends hospitality but also becomes a recipient of hospitality. We need to demonstrate genuine love for those around us, especially those in need or crisis. True hospitality grows not only from extending hospitality but also by receiving hospitality and loving others just like Jesus loves us.
If hospitality is about offering genuine love to the stranger, especially those who are vulnerable and experiencing a crisis, then we must also be willing to be vulnerable and acknowledge our own crisis before others. We in the church have to admit that we are also in crisis and in need of love. True hospitality requires mutual vulnerability, mutual accountability, and mutual love. Jesus made himself vulnerable by emptying himself. Jesus opened his life to the disciples for them to share in his suffering and his glory. He made himself accountable to the Father. Jesus was willing to give love and to receive it.