Down To Earth Discipleship    .    Getting real with issues facing young Christians today
Chapter 7
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7. Hospitality - the forgotten ministry

  • Hospitality is a basic Christian expression of openness and practical love.
  • It is central to Christian identity.
  • It can be the epitome of Christian witness in respect to lifestyle.
  • It is an important means of ministry and witness.

Hospitality is a very basic expression of God's character of openness, in practical ways. It is a context and opportunity for exercising love, as well as being a witness. In the Bible it is an expression of the character of God's people, and is therefore central to Christian identity. It is a manifestation of God's Kingdom.

Hospitality demonstrates the authenticity of faith. More fundamentally, God is hospitable to us, and we need to invite others to experience that. The Greek word for hospitality, philoxenia, means 'love for strangers' - the antithesis of the related word xenophobia

Hospitality is often the epitome of Christian witness in respect to lifestyle and simple engagement with people. In exercising hospitality we can very effectively demonstrate Kingdom values. It needs to reach out well beyond those we are familiar and comfortable with to correspond with the cultural norms of biblical times.

The paradigmatic story is Abraham and Sarah, who in providing hospitality to strangers, unknowingly entertained angels (Hebrews 13:2).

Important aspect of giving
Hospitality is related to both individual stewardship and fellowship, as well as other topics above. While most obviously this has connotations of food and home, it is fundamentally something personal, making space for another person and giving them honour and attention. In modern cities we often cope with crowds by avoiding engaging people with eye contact or more, and in a basic sense hospitality is the deliberate and selective reversal of this, opening the heart well before opening the home.

The Lord's main teaching on hospitality is in Luke 14:12-14, about inviting those who are in no position to reciprocate. In the context of a culture which was bound up with status and reciprocal obligation we learn that hospitality is an expression of God's Kingdom and it should reject both considerations. It is important that it should include those who cannot reciprocate and it should be an expression of grace with absolutely no regard to status. Then you (not just them) will be blessed! That is a very radical call and is emphasized in the following parable of the great banquet, where the invited guests make excuses so are replaced from the streets and lanes.

While staking out that principle of grace as important, in practice allowing reciprocity avoids the appearance of being patronising.

Hospitality is often not easy, and can be complicated, as cultural tolerances are stretched and disagreements are exposed. Hospitality enables us to demonstrate that love transcends disagreements, as Jesus famously did in eating with sinners. Much depends on the Holy Spirit to overcome and enable.

Holding back from hospitality because you feel you cannot do it well enough is profoundly sinful! It amounts to letting pride displace love. The quality of food or anything else material is beside the point.

There are two distinct circumstances for considering hospitality: the shared home and our own home.

In the shared home
Most of us have a period of our lives, after leaving the family environment where we have been subordinate, when we come to share a home of some kind with peer group individuals. Whether long or short, this period is one with its own challenges and opportunities.

In particular it means that the way we operate and interact ceases to be what has evolved under parents and becomes an expression of our own personal Christian values and identity. Sometime that expression raises a few questions!

How do we best show love and consideration in our domestic behaviour? For many of us when we detach from the parental apron strings that is an immensely challenging question which we shy away from. One reason we do so is that we want to assert a new freedom from tidiness and domestic order which may have been imposed. That is cool, whereas replicating the parental way of doing things is not only uncool but likely repressed, hung up and 'anal'.

But what does a chaotic kitchen and eating area piled high with dirty dishes and pans mean? Most obviously it means a lack of easily accessible clean cutlery, crockery and cooking gear, not to mention much diminished space to operate. It also has health implications perhaps. And it establishes a pattern of lazy avoidance that becomes harder to break out of as time goes on.

But the main thing it means is that we are consigning our personal responsibilities to the commons. We are in effect saying that we don't care if our laziness makes life less convenient and more stressful for our fellow housemates - perhaps so much less convenient that they can never exercise hospitality to their friends in any significant way over a meal (unless they make a Herculean effort to clean up a bit first). Hardly an expression of love and care. (Of course there will be times when we need to dash out without washing up, but an apology followed by attending to the mess as soon as we can is the civilised way to go.)

In fact quite apart from consideration of others around us, cleanliness, organisation and personal discipline make our own lives easier if we think about it, and enable us to focus on more significant things than the washing up. They also have social outworkings as touched upon in the first part of chapter 4.

Dealing with a congenitally lazy minority in a shared house is a challenge, and where reasoned persuasion fails, less subtle and more creative means may be needed. But the expression of love and care in so doing is no less needed than in our individual behaviour as a domestic group member.

Interaction in a shared house or flat involves consideration of others in all our behaviour. There needs to be a sense established of what we are each able to put up with happily or perhaps a bit grudgingly from the others and what we expect them to put up with from us. This applies to noise, music, amount of personal junk left around in common areas, use of kitchen and bathroom (eg time under shower!), and so on. Getting to a mutual understanding and agreement on a range of such matters is wonderful training in life skills, and is at the heart of the value of living together.

Beyond that is the question of what communal life - in a sense, group hospitality - there is in a shared home. It is possible simply to live under the same roof with minimal interaction, but often there is a positive opportunity to interact in fellowship at some level. In this case some agreement needs to be reached on the priority given to this, and if weekly shared meals are a routine, then they need to be accorded some priority.

The guiding principle is: how do we express love and consideration to one another in our routine behaviour? How do we witness to people that we are not just lazy and self-centred?

In our own home
One of the great benefits of having one's own home - whether bachelor flat or family residence - is the opportunity of utilising it for hospitality, and one of the richest rewards of having such a home is the exercise of hospitality in it. Hospitality in the New Testament, as in experience today, needs to be a distinctive attribute of the Christian or Christian family. Sadly, it is not always so, and this should be challenged, as hospitality is a primary means of both fellowship and outreach, two of the basic purposes of the church. Make your home a centre of your ministry!

Sometimes people feel unable to offer hospitality because they cannot "do it" as fully or lavishly as they would like. So they do nothing, which surely misses the point. Though in a sense hospitality can be considered a gift (and thus not ubiquitous) we all need to be able to offer some hospitality at all sorts of levels, from the very ordinary, where we do not go out of our way at all beyond opening the door and sharing our table and our time, to occasions when we go to a lot of trouble for guests, preparing special food and organising time-consuming trips to events and places, etc. It is the basic level that is important for every Christian, and which witnesses most eloquently to the values of the Christian.

As mentioned in the previous chapter on Stewardship, the need to exercise hospitality may impose limits on our lifestyle. We must be able to exchange hospitality with others on a reciprocal basis without embarrassment. If there is too much disparity in lifestyle and dwelling, this becomes fraught and if it is within our power, eg to move to a more modest level in either respect, we need to do it.

Our hospitality needs to be thoughtfully inclusive of those who would otherwise be alone and lonely. Plan hospitality to include such people on special occasions such as Christmas day, and also routinely.

Enjoying the hospitality of others
Relying on many other people's hospitality (if traveling or arriving in a new place) gives one a sense of how important this is. Without it, life would be much more expensive or maybe worthwhile things would be out of reach. People's hospitality gives expanded opportunities coupled with a fresh realization of the need to treat everything we have as not really ours but as God's, for us to utilize as stewards. The reciprocal of this realisation of course is the real blessing that exercising hospitality brings!

A significant aspect of hospitality in the home is bringing people together. Intelligent and prayerful matching of people to come together over a meal or other occasion can bring great blessing and joy to them. There need be no grand agenda in this, no matchmaking in the marital sense, but simply connecting and extending fellowship in the context of time to talk and share, often with the enjoyment of food.

Making it happen
Whatever our situation, we ought to set up our homes and our lives with hospitality in mind, and we can expect to be greatly blessed as we do so and enjoy the exercise of hospitality at all levels. It needs to be seen as a gift and not in anticipation of being paid back in kind. If there is any sense of repayment involved it needs to be in the sense of paying it forward, to others.

Christian hospitality is of course not solely an expression of Christian fellowship, though that is fundamental (Rom 12:13). It is also an opening of ourselves and a giving which is not restricted in scope, and as such is often a powerful witness.

If hospitality brings a significant financial cost increment on living expenses, we should include it as part of our personal stewardship budget. But there are many ways in which we can set up our homes to enable easy hospitality. One obvious aspect is what drinks one keeps on hand - soft drinks, beer, wine, spirits, etc - beyond one's own and family preferences.

How we exercise hospitality needs to be a significant aspect of our prayer.

In Jewish culture, the meal table is central to relationships and hospitality. It is an occasion to acknowledge God's provision in the food we eat, and to express the relationship of our common humanity. In the New Testament context, eating with someone implied acceptance of them; so it is today. You never know who you may be entertaining by opening your house to people, nor how much it means to them. You can never tell how God may use this opportunity and what may come out of it, which is why it is so important always to put hospitality at the forefront of our priorities.57

"Playing host is a supremely Godly act. We open up our homes and our resources to others, tendering to them something of ourselves, offering them sustenance, hospitality and friendship, seeking their betterment and ours. Small wonder that Jesus marked the end of his earthly life and the start of his resurrection one with meals." "Food's purpose is relationship." 58 The table needs to symbolise Christian engagement with people, in sharing food, in conversation, in opening hearts and lives both within and beyond the Christian community. There is ample precedent and example in the gospel accounts of this, and Jesus' teachings point forward to the great banquet, God's ultimate hospitality!

Ch 7 Discussion questions:
What are you main opportunities for hospitality?
Could you organise your life to increase them?
What have been some of the blessings you have received in offering hospitality?
What are some of the challenges and complications you have experienced?
Which is the bigger issue for you: the principle of grace or the principle of reciprocity?
If in a shared house: what are the main challenges to your exercise of hospitality?
In your own home: are there particular ways in which you need to do more hospitality?
What have you learned from the hospitality of others?
Is exercising hospitality a significant aspect of your prayer?
Why not set out to invite at least one person or work colleague from outside your normal circle for a meal each week?

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57 Jesus' words re hospitality in Matt 25:34-46 are very relevant.

58 Nick Spencer, LICC, 25/8/06 and Simon Holt, Zadok Perspectives 113, summer 2011 respectively.