Jesus told a parable in Matthew 25 about when we feed the hungry we feed him, and the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers , for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrew.13.2).
In Genesis 18 we read: “The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.”
The Lord appearing to Abraham as three strangers, and Abraham responds by offering immediate hospitality to the three men, inviting them to rest under a tree and preparing a feast for them. Indeed scripture does not elaborate on God appearing to Abraham in this way but instead the conversation they have is quoted as “the Lord says”.
In Abraham’s culture offering hospitality to strangers was of supreme importance -and not to do so would be considered shameful,, which is so very different from our culture that believes ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’ and we treat the stranger with suspicion, although superficially friendly, often we hold people at arm’s length, maybe chatting over the fence but never invited across the threshold!
Indeed much of our western relationships are filled with fear, the phrase “stranger danger” is drummed into us from childhood, despite the fact that normally the people most likely to harm you are the people we already know. I prefer to think (glass half full?) of a stranger as being a friend I’ve not met yet.
In my previous parish we planted a church “all souls -the idea of a church where everyone was welcome- and our tag-line was “where strangers become friends and friends meet with Jesus”.
In meeting strangers we encounter God, the interruptions and disturbances to our normal routines are often those moments of breakthrough and growth.
In encountering new people, people not like us we are changed -and often vice versa, yet too often we raise the walls in inhospitality not allowing ourselves to be known or be changed, the hospitality of the heart allows us to be known, and to be transformed as we grow together, and in growing together we are changed.
Too often we mistake polite greeting and acknowledgement superficial friendliness for hospitality -a pale insipid counterfeit of the real thing-. A friend moved to a new area and tried to find a new church community and said: “I don’t want to go to a friendly Church, but rather one I can make friends in”. In this statement he unearthed the nub of what hospitality is and is not, a real community wanting to share life (and food) with you rather than just empty smokes a polite chit chat.
Within the Church I believe one of our greatest obstacles to mission, discipleship and Kingdom living is the way we can keep ourselves to ourselves, live in hermetically sealed bubbles and operate in impenetrable cliques, we never allow strangers to meaningfully interact with us which leaves the church and the world depleted, the work of Christ frustrated, depriving us of meeting with God through other people.
Our Churches have become like meals in posh restaurants where everyone had a place specially set for them how they like it, but impenetrable for those who feel uninvited, where as a more Biblical model of Church is like a old fashioned feast with long tables and benches where we can say “budge up there is room for another one”.
Hospitality begins, I believe, is about a heart attitude than welcomes the stranger and treats them like a brother or sister, as ultimate the message of Genesis is that is who we are, brothers and sisters who belong together.