As I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve been thinking and reading quite a bit about hospitality recently. It’s important to me, because I think it’s one of the key ways in which the idea of love moves from the theoretical to the practical.
If we’re honest, there’s a lot of self-interest in the relationships that we cultivate. We generally prize and pursue those people whom we enjoy and who, through their affection, make us feel good about ourselves. And that’s natural. It’s a great thing to celebrate and enjoy good friends!
But there’s a sense in which the real test of love is how we are toward people who can give us nothing back—people who aren’t immediately appealing to us, who are confusing to us, and even threatening to us. How are we when it comes to extending our circle of love to the stranger? How are we at welcoming strangers into our family?
That’s what Christian hospitality is. Just as xenophobia means the fear of the stranger, the Greek word for hospitable, philoxenos, means a lover (philo) of the stranger (xenos). It’s an important word in the New Testament, because it is something that God himself exemplifies. Each of us, like the prodigal son, have chosen to become strangers to the God who made us. Yet God has pursued us, he has welcomed us, the prodigal children, home. Every week he invites us, his family, to the table of fellowship in his Son. And as people who now are called to become increasingly like our Father, we are called to show a similar hospitality to strangers.
Welcoming strangers into family seems so big and daunting, doesn’t it? To help me in my thinking I’ve broken this up into three questions. First, how do strangers become our guests? How do we take that initial step toward the outsider, the disconnected, the newcomer, so that they experience our initial welcome?
Second, how do guests become our friends? It’s one thing for a person to be invited, and even to show up on a single occasion. It’s another thing for a relationship to be developed. When someone, for example, visits our church, how do we move from getting to know them at first and being friendly to enfolding them into our community and truly caring for them?
Finally, how do friends become our family? The remarkable truth of the gospel is that in Christ believers are more than friends. In Christ we are truly brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and children to each other. That has enormous implications for how we understand commitment, privacy, and our priorities. What does it look like for us increasingly to become family to each other?
Strangers becoming guests; guests becoming friends; friends becoming family. This is what hospitable love in actions looks like. And it’s what our church is called to do.