Over the course of the past several years my good friend Dave Holtz (Executive Director of Luther Crest Bible Camp in Alexandria, MN) and I have been thinking about hospitality in the extreme, and recovering it not only as a ministry of the Christian community, but as the very center of what it means to follow Jesus, and be connected within a community centered in his life, death, and resurrection.
Simply defined, hospitality is welcoming strangers. We struggle with welcoming strangers into our communities and into our lives. I know I am not the only one to visit communities of faith and feel like I am an afterthought, or made to feel uncomfortable, or worse – in the way (and I’m a pastor! Imagine what people feel like that have few or no connections to churches at all…)
I wonder why churches struggle so much with hospitality. Maybe we struggle with hospitality because so many churches have such strong ethnic or denominational ties or histories that we have not looked beyond ourselves much before. Maybe we struggle with hospitality because we are afraid of what might happen if we are made uncomfortable by those who are not like us, think differently, or challenge our sense of what we think is right and salutary by their real life struggles and needs. Maybe we are just out of practice, or maybe we just feel inadequately prepared to offer hospitality in a complicated, fractured and segmented world.
“In past centuries…welcoming strangers into a home and offering them food, shelter and protection were the key components in the practice of hospitality…For the most part, the term ‘hospitality’ has lost its moral dimension and, in the process, most Christians have lost touch with the amazingly rich and complex tradition of hospitality. Today when we think of hospitality, we don’t think of welcoming strangers. Often we think of the ‘hospitality industry,’ of hotels and restaurants which are open to strangers as long as they have money or credit cards. Perhaps large churches come to mind, with their ‘hospitality committees’ that coordinate coffee hour, greet visitors, or help with the parking. In any case, today most understandings of hospitality have a minimal moral component – hospitality is a nice extra if we have the time or the resources, but we rarely view it as a spiritual obligation or as a dynamic expression of vibrant Christianity.” (Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. [Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999], p. 4.)
So what is “extreme” hospitality?
Jesus defines hospitality in the extreme this way,
“‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40)
Jesus calls us not only to welcome strangers, but welcome them as if he himself was at our doorstep. This is both an extreme challenge and an extreme opportunity, and actual changes the nature of the ministry we do. We tend to think of ministry as means to an end: ministries for youth; ministries for the poor; ministries for young families and children; ministries for seniors; ministry for those recovering; ministries for (name whatever demographic group you like); and so on. The term ministry becomes synonymous with the word program. Just substitute the word “programs” for “ministries” and ask yourself if the meaning changes all that much: programs for youth; programs for the poor; programs for young families and children; programs for seniors; programs for those recovering; programs for (name whatever demographic group you like)… See what happens? Ministries (or programs) morph into activities designed to keep people out of trouble, stay busy, or help us feel like we are doing something to help. Based on the results we see we run the danger of getting either too inflated or too discouraged. Many times the results we are looking for are not always equal to the effort we put into them. Yet to be sure, no matter how successful or unsuccessful we become at “doing ministry” – good still stuff happens all the time. Friendships, shared experiences, and faith development all build relationships and strengthen communities, and certainly the Spirit utilizes our best or even feeble efforts to do so. Centering our own lives of faith in extreme hospitality within our communities leads us to ask the question, ‘What if the means and ends are not the point?’ Jesus makes the point that he visits us as every other person we encounter. With that reality in mind, we can start to ask a different question:
How do we welcome him?
When Jesus visits as the teenager with a heavy heart or a gift to share?
When Jesus visits as the person in need, whatever that need is?
When Jesus visits as the child that needs comforting or calming down?
When Jesus visits as the retiree looking to give back to others?
When Jesus visits as the over busy parent shuttling their kids around?
When Jesus visits as the grumpy person having a bad day?
When Jesus visits as the neighbor next-door I have never met?
When Jesus visits as the kid picked on at school, or the kid who is bullying them?
When Jesus visits as the friend you are meeting for lunch?
When Jesus visits as the loner in your office?
When Jesus visits as the faceless refugee or forgotten poor?
When Jesus visits as the new family in church?
When Jesus visits as the estranged family member?
When Jesus visits as the person looking back at you in the mirror?
How do you welcome him?
When we start asking these questions and start realizing we are meeting Jesus in the others we meet, wherever we are (church, home, work, school, neighborhood or otherwise) our outlook changes. We are not gathered to do ministry for people, but called into an encounter with Jesus in all the things we do. When we welcome Jesus in the others around us we start to realize it is not our strength, understanding or efforts that make the difference – as we turn around (repent) to see the King of the universe welcome us into his kingdom to come in the here and now. When we see Jesus welcoming us though we don’t deserve it, “seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” ceases to be a moral exercise we continue to fail at upholding or spiritual ambition we can never achieve and becomes the joy of seeing the savior smiling back with open arms – with the extreme hospitality opened to us at the cross.
“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Romans 15:7)