Friendship and Mission at the Margins: A Community of Hospitality
“Friendship and mission at the margins” – the focus of the missional church convocation July 24-26 in Chicago – is not some new idea about outreach. It is rooted in the historic, biblical and challenging practice of hospitality.
As a way of life, an act of love, an expression of faith, our hospitality reflects and anticipates God’s welcome. Simultaneously costly and wonderfully rewarding, hospitality often involves small deaths and little resurrections. By God’s grace we can grow more willing, more eager, to open the door to a needy neighbor, a weary sister or brother, a stranger in distress.…In the midst of a life-giving practice, we too might catch glimpses of Jesus who asks for our welcome and welcomes us home. 1
Long before there were hotels and motels to offer respite for travelers, long before Martha Stewart offered ideas for entertaining family and friends, and long before congregations had committees to welcome newcomers and oversee the coffee hour, hospitality was viewed as a pillar of the moral universe. Much more than custom or good manners, in the ancient Near Eastern cultures offering hospitality to the traveler, friend, or newcomer was viewed as a sacred duty to be observed by everyone. Within a hostile environment, hospitality might well be a matter of life and death, an issue of survival. The relationship of host and guest was often mutual. The host provided food, shelter and protection and the guest brought a break from life’s routine and news of the outside world. In some parts of the world this tradition of hospitality remains an important expression of kindness and mutual aid, particularly where a lack of resources make hospitable provisions necessary.
Religious belief strengthened and legitimized the practice of hospitality to strangers. Both the Greek epic tradition and Hindu legends include tales of gods who assumed human disguises and visited unsuspecting householders. If they were welcomed, the guests offered their hosts good news or extraordinary gifts. For the Jewish and Christian traditions, the foundations for hospitality can be found in Genesis 18:1-5, when Abraham and Sarah welcomed three strangers who turned out to be divine visitors with surprising news. The Bible is filled with accounts of hospitality and with encouragement toward its practice. The distinctive element in the New Testament is the welcome extended to those who were the weakest and most dependent and the least likely to reciprocate. Hospitality to needy strangers contributed to the development of hostels and hospitals, which eventually became more institutionalized and lost the personal aspect of biblical hospitality. With changes in the nature of the household and the family and with changes in the relationship of the church and the state, hospitality began to be viewed as an antiquated practice, out of step with busy lives and the commercial nature of industrialized societies.
Some groups have attempted to recover a more intentional and personal approach to hospitality. For Benedictine communities, guided by the Rule of St. Benedict, hospitality to strangers is a basic part of their identity and practice. In the 1930s the Catholic Worker movement made hospitality to the poor and disadvantaged central to their vision and purpose. But for the most part, the marvelous tradition of hospitality has been lost to the churches of Western culture. Within a fragmented and mobile society, where many people are yearning for respect, acceptance, and friendship, missional churches have the opportunity once again to become living examples of hospitality as “a way of life, an act of love, an expression of faith.” As Henri Nouwen states: “If there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is the concept of hospitality. It is one of the richest biblical terms that can deepen and broaden our insight in our relationships to our fellow human beings.” 2
God’s Hospitable Presence.
The Christian practice of hospitality is grounded in the biblical witness to God’s life-giving hospitality. For example, the people of Israel were dependent on God’s hospitable presence as God freed them from Egypt and led them through the wilderness, providing food and clothing. God brought them as sojourners into a land flowing with milk and honey, where as a generous host God offered them health, long life, peace, and fertility. As Israel received God’s loving care, so Israel was to love and care for others. “Israel’s covenant identity includes being a stranger, an alien, a tenant in God’s land—both dependent on God for welcome and provision and answerable to God for its own treatment of aliens and strangers.” 3
It is in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ that the fullness of God’s hospitable presence is manifested. As gracious host Jesus welcomed those who were considered “strange” by their culture: children, tax collectors, and sinners. He also lived as a vulnerable guest and needy stranger who “came to his own home” but was not received (John 1:11). God’s hospitality goes far beyond tolerance or sentimentality, since it is by Jesus’ death and resurrection that God’s costly and abundant love for humanity is revealed. It is through the intermingling of the roles of guest and host, as the one who welcomes and who needs welcoming, and as the one who sacrifices his very life for a rebellious humanity, that Jesus opens the way into God’s hospitable presence.
The freedom and joy of God’s hospitality will be fully experienced when God’s home is made among mortals in a new heaven and a new earth. Living in God’s hospitable presence God’s people will no longer weep, mourn, or suffer, for there will be no more pain or death (Rev. 21). The only appropriate response is to raise voices and hearts to God in thunderous hallelujahs, rejoicing and exulting in worship and praise for God’s undeserved grace and mercy.
The Stranger as Spiritual Guide.
Contemporary images of hospitality—and of community—tend to be shaped by an “ideology of intimacy.” Such an approach emphasizes sameness, closeness, warmth, and comfort. Difference, distance, conflict, and sacrifice are to be avoided at all costs. A facade of harmony is maintained by eliminating the strange and cultivating the familiar, by suppressing dissimilarity and emphasizing agreement. Those who are strange—“other than we are”—must either be excluded or quickly made to be “like us.” The image is of homogeneous communities of retreat where persons must be protected from one another—and from outsiders—and where reality is suppressed and denied due to fear and anxiety.
A recent account of a young boy lost on a camping trip brings home the contemporary fear of the stranger. He remembered two instructions from his parents. If he ever got lost, he was to (1) keep to the trail and (2) don’t talk to strangers. Thus when would-be rescuers came along, he got off the trail and hid. According to his mother, his biggest fear was that someone would steal him.
It is true that the stranger represents an unknown and sometimes dangerous figure. Yet three key events in the New Testament—Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost—all recount the coming of a divine stranger. In each case the newcomer brings blessings and gifts which both disorient and transform. “The child in the manger, the traveler on the road to Emmaus, and the mighty wind of the Spirit all meet us as mysterious visitors, challenging our belief systems even as they welcome us to new worlds.” 4 The stranger plays a central role in biblical stories of faith and for good reason. “The religious quest, the spiritual pilgrimage, is always taking us into new lands where we are strange to others and they are strange to us. Faith is a venture into the unknown, into the realms of mystery, away from the safe and comfortable and secure.” 5
Christian hospitality includes but is more than the offering of aid and comfort to the visitor or “outsider.” The openness and receptivity of hospitality draws attention to “otherness” in its many expressions. Strangers—those who are other than ourselves—not only challenge and subvert our familiar worlds, they can enhance and even transform our most intimate relationships and very way of life. By honoring strangers precisely in all their “otherness,” Christians are invited to embrace the new, the mysterious, and the unexpected: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb. 13:2).
Invited to God’s Banquet.
It is particularly within Jesus’ table fellowship that God’s hospitable presence is manifested. Jesus invited men and women into an intense communal relationship with him and with one another by sharing bread and wine, food and companionship. These meals symbolized God’s banquet, the abundance, celebration, and intimacy of God’s hospitality. While ordinary hosts invite friends, relatives, and rich neighbors, Jesus welcomed “the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind” (Lk. 14:13). Jesus’ acts of inclusion and recognition of those ignored or rejected by their society signifies the forming of a new community, a community of mutual giving and receiving, a community of koinonia (communion and partnership). Jesus’ meal hospitality cuts through human divisions (i.e., gender, class, race, sexual orientation). Those who had been isolated and alienated from one another are transformed and welcomed into a new world. They “are no longer strangers and sojourners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).
The biblical accounts of Jesus’ table fellowship manifest a particular way of life: a life sustained and enriched by the promises and gifts of God’s hospitality. “Whether in the temptation of fruit or in the promise of feast, meals in the Bible are replete with reality and are vital testimonies to divine activity, presence, and purpose. And since food and drink nurture and restore life, they are exemplary gifts of God’s care.” 6 Missional communities are called to cross the boundaries, to eat as Jesus ate, to be a people of openness and acceptance, of gratitude and generosity. Within hospitable communities, amazingly diverse peoples will allow them-selves to be formed by one Lord into one body around a common table. When the hospitality of the Christians is less than the fullness of Jesus’ example and invitation, they will eat and drink to their judgment (1 Cor. 11:29).
Contemporary congregations, like contemporary families, are often too busy to eat together. They fail to recognize the significance of shared meals. “When we eat, we do much more than renew our bodies with food energy. We are playing out the drama of life. We are establishing boundaries, letting down our guard, sharing stories, welcoming strangers into a more intimate circle, and renewing our souls.” 7 Shared meals, when taken together by choice, both express and constitute human relationships. The word companionship comes from the Latin cum + panis, meaning “breading together.” Meals are social realities of great importance. Becoming communities of hospitality who “devote themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42) will require courage and imagination. Courage in inviting people to set aside the time to be together and imagination to establish a creative and stimulating context for experiencing the hospitality of God’s banquet. 8
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What does it mean to speak of hospitality as a “pillar of the moral universe”?
- What aspects of contemporary culture contribute to the loss of hospitality as a cultural practice?
- How does Jesus open the way into God’s hospitable presence?
- In what way does the biblical tradition of welcoming the stranger challenge an “ideology of intimacy”?
- Read Luke 14:12-24. How does this parable reframe the church’s practice of hospitality?
- How is Christian hospitality currently practiced in your congregation? What are the barriers to a fuller expression of hospitality? How could the practice of hospitality be strengthened?
1 Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Eerdmans, 1999), p. 187
2 Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1975), p. 47.
3 Pohl, Making Room, p. 16.
4 John Koenig, New Testament Hospitality: Partnership with Strangers as Promise and Mission (Fortress Press, 1985), p. 5.
5 Parker Palmer, The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of America’s Public Life (Crossroad, 1986), p. 56.
6 John E. Burkhard, Worship: A Searching Examination of the Liturgical Experience (Westminster Press, 1982), p. 79.
8 A wonderful resource for congregational eating, drinking, studying, and sharing together is Feasting with God: Adventures in Table Spirituality, by Holly W. Whitcomb (United Church Press, 1996).
Christine D. Pohl, the 2014 Convocation presenter, has both the theological and practical credentials to stimulate and guide the discussion during the Convocation. She is Associate Provost and Professor of Church and Society/Christian Ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary. Before attending seminary and earning her Ph.D. at Emory University, Christine worked in various ministries for eleven years. She owned a Christian bookstore and worked in advocacy and refugee resettlement.
As the recipient of various grants, she has organized research projects that have led to the writing of several books, including Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Eerdmans, 1999) and Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us (Eerdmans, 2011). In collaboration with Chris Heuertz, international director of Word Made Flesh, Pohl wrote Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission (InterVarsity, 2010).
The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.