By Graham Chipps

For me, when the word “hospitality” is used, my mind brings up images of warmth and acceptance-as-I-am, of warm fresh bread and relaxed conversation, and woven in between a sense of peacefulness.  Hospitality generates a feeling of at-home-ness even when one is far from home. Here there can be found a generosity of spirit that is wholehearted and real. But for you, what images come to mind?

Yet my images of hospitality must yield priority to that hospitality perfectly demonstrated by God Himself. As with all practice, hospitality must be shaped by Theology and not by social sciences or culture however much each has a valuable place. The hospitality of God is our benchmark and our culture. This is Douglas Knight’s focus in “The Eschatological Economy: Time and the Hospitality of God”.[1] Knight presents an argument in which all practice of our faith, to be authentic, needs serious theological engagement. From creation theology to eschatology, God is at work and hospitality towards the undeserving is paramount for our appreciation of His example for us. In this way, hospitality is earthed in God and provides a common foundation in contrast to the multiple opinions and practices produced by diverse personalities and cultures.

God welcomes Adam and Eve into the Garden; He welcomes Israel into covenant relationship, He welcomes sinners into new life in Christ, the Spirit welcomes us into the community of the body of Christ, and Jesus presents us with a vision of new creation to come in which hospitality is featured (Revelation 21-22). The earth welcomes the coming of the New Jerusalem and the New Jerusalem welcomes the entry of the nations. The thus renewed new heaven/earth welcomes the enduring full presence of the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb and into this presence all the people of God receive the full expression of our God’s hospitality.

All the usual reasons apply for hospitality[2] and true hospitality is never just a matter of welcoming strangers with a meal and a bed. True hospitality is a mind-set; a way of seeing the world in general and fellow human beings in particular. Hospitality that is authentic and sincere is an everyday openness to others and not something that is switched on only when a new person shows up on the door step of the church building. It is an attentiveness to the other. And it is an attentiveness to the Spirit who persistently works to strengthen and deepen the networks throughout the body of Christ.

A church that is hospitable to one another is the church that will extend hospitality to the stranger and the alienated. The reverse is equally true; the church that welcomes the outsider is the church that is better equipped to love one another. Authentic hospitality does not pick and choose.

But even more so in the International Church (IC). The IC lives in a world of nomads and strangers; of the rapidly growing global diaspora in which so many more people are away from home.  The IC is on the front line of this world in which most come from somewhere else. The IC, when at its best, lives and breathes multicultural hospitality.  But the increasing realities of massive migration and multiple diaspora communities are unfolding in a global context that brings as much threat as benefit. How might church live and grow in such a world while also being salt and light in bringing together a world of strangers? This is the challenge brought to us by Fernandez in “Burning Center, Porous Borders: The Church in a Globalized World” and for which the IC is being prepared by God to serve the wider church community.[3] The IC, more than most, is on the front line of the globalised world described by Fernandez. In this world, several mega-challenges present big questions for our ecclesiology and mission and typical ICs have been asking these questions and figuring out Godly responses for many years. Yet Fernandez’s description leaves us in no doubt that this globalised world has only just begun. If the IC is to honour our God in such a context we will need to be communities in which hospitality towards the multi-everything global community is highly valued.

Hospitality is a virtue but as Smith and Carvill advocate in The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality and Foreign Language Learning”, hospitality is also metaphor and practice.[4]

  • Metaphors stimulate our imaginations and bring a greater awareness of new possibilities. Hospitality to the stranger serves as a metaphor for understanding and interacting with otherness. [5] In turn, hospitality has metaphorical force to deepen our appreciation of God’s love for us and generate greater vision for what the church could be.
  • Practice in essence is the art of being at home and helping others feel at home with you.

Yet, more than just this, hospitality is also glory, symbol and preparation.

  • Glory; because the more we imitate our God in Christ, the more His glory is revealed in us.
  • Symbol; because hospitality represents the excellent lifestyle to come in the new heaven/earth.
  • Preparation; because it is good even now to be learning the ways of the community life around the throne of God in the new creation.

Hospitality requires an open community into which the strangers, aliens, lost, homeless, refugees, migrants and travellers are welcomed with warmth and care. Hospitality, if genuine, is not determined by whether or not others measure up in some way. The life of the church that lives and breathes hospitality is one what is porous: one in which it is easy for others to join in and feel at home even if for some, faith in Christ is still an open question. Our focus is on Christ’s person and work rather than those secondary things that churches have often used, sadly, to keep people out or at least quite uncomfortable.

Hospitality is more than just the hand-shake or kiss or bow that accompanies the brief word of welcome. Hospitality is food and shelter, friendship and fellowship, intentional inclusiveness and persistent caring warmth. Hospitality is at its best when genuine and wholehearted in including the unpleasant and the unclean.

Hospitality reflects all the best of being members of one another. Our practice is best when it is empowered and shaped by the common Spirit who indwells us all and makes visible the unity of the church. The IC is ideally placed to portray the global ties within the world-wide body of Christ: and without much hospitality as an essential colouring of the everyday practice of the church, the Spirit is grieved.

Hospitality requires learning. Only a church with a culture of learning is able to be hospitable especially when we are considering the multicultural and multinational character of the IC. Such learning includes language, culture, history and geography, as well as developing an understanding of the realities of changing countries while leaving behind much that is either full of horror or full of joy. But more on the church as a learning culture another time.

There must also be the learning from Scripture with the Spirit’s enlightenment so that theologically that we might appreciate more thoroughly, comprehensively and deeply the hospitality of God from creation to the new heaven/earth. Only then will this perspective and virtue of hospitality be embedded in our DNA. The role of the church’s leadership is to ensure that this theology is understood and appreciated as comprehensively and thoroughly as possible.

Only God in Christ ever gets it right with any consistency. We may mess it up but God never. Our efforts may be flawed but the gracious hospitality of God will work it out for good; for the completion of the new creation already begun.

[1] Knight, D.H., 2006: The Eschatological Economy: Time and the Hospitality of God, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[2]  For example: Exodus 22:21, 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 10:18-19, 24:17-18, Psalm 39:12, Matthew 25:35, Mark 9:37, Romans 15:7, Philippians 2:29, Philemon 17, Hebrews 13:2, 1 John 4:12, 19.

[3] Fernandez, E.S., 2011: Burning Center, Porous Borders: The Church in a Globalized World, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.

[4] Smith, D.I. & Carvill, B., 2000: The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality and Foreign Language Learning, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[5] Smith & Carvill, p. 88.

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