I am no frequent flyer, yet the past decade has found me landing in airports far from home, in places where I don’t know the local language or customs. Every time my first impulse has been to scan the faces around me for someone familiar—for a known countenance and a smiling expression and a mouth opening to greet me by name. Without that, I’m just lost.
There’s nothing quite as unsettling and disorienting as being a stranger in a strange land, far from home, not sure where you are or whether you belong. But when a greeting comes from someone who welcomes you, then suddenly everything is OK.
In Romans 12:13, Paul writes, “Practice hospitality.” New Testament scholar Colin Kruse offers this definition: hospitality is “the process by means of which an outsider’s status is changed from stranger to guest.” The goal of hospitality is to be able to say, “You are no longer a stranger!”
That’s what happens when you land in an unfamiliar place and someone finds you, reaches out and enfolds you (literally or metaphorically) in welcoming arms.
But Christian hospitality involves something more. The Triune God of the Bible is a God of hospitality. He invites, indeed welcomes, us into community. In mission, God does a work of hospitality with us and through us. Simply put, hospitality is the calling of the Christian. It’s God’s call to the church.
It is a Friday afternoon in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The sun is shining and on this cool October day, Union High School is celebrating Homecoming. It’s a day to support the school, feed the players, and cheer for the team. Most of the action takes place at the school and on the field, but between the school day and kickoff, it’s eating time—at church.
Once upon a time, Union High was where most teen-agers who were part of First Evangelical Covenant Church spent their school days. No longer. The school, which is right across the street from the church, draws from places and populations that do not reflect the makeup of the church or the immediate neighborhood. The connection between the school and the church remains—yet the contours have changed.
For a good number of years, First Cov has sought to be a hospitable presence for the school. We open our facility for sports teams, dinners, and teacher institute days. We serve and pray and provide cookies and send birthday cards to staff and teachers. Church members together with other partners lead a Monday afterschool Bible club, complete with a hospitality necessity—pizza!
We also open our doors on Wednesdays after school when more than fifty kids enter the Family Life Center under the direction of Dale Dalman, who pastors our sister congregation, Esperanza Covenant Church. Before long, it looks and sounds and smells like what it is—a gym. The kids play basketball, then gather in small groups around the Bible. And then we eat dinner in the Fellowship Hall, a mix of church members (mostly white) and teenagers (mostly black and Latino) eating the same food and grabbing seats at tables together.
But today, before the Homecoming game, it’s First Cov members joining with Campus Life volunteers to prepare and serve dinner. The menu is simple: rolls, pulled pork, baked beans, and salad. Smells good, tastes good! Like Jesus long ago, it’s around the table that the bread is broken and the cup is filled and the conversation takes place. One more step in the journey that transforms a stranger into a guest.
One of the last books written by the prolific Robert Webber before he died was The Divine Embrace. Although the image has multiple sources, he references a collect found in the Book of Common Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you: for the honor of your Name. Amen.”
That’s what we are called to in the ministry of hospitality: open arms, reaching out in love, to make strangers guests and guests friends.
In John 1 we see that God entered this world with the purpose of stretching out his arms to invite everyone within the reach of his embrace. At the same time, God entered the world looking for the hospitality of human beings. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (“moved into the neighborhood” in The Message). But though he was here on our doorstep, the world did not recognize him. “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him….Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name he gave the right to become children of God” (vv. 11-12, NIV).
Jesus is the host. He hosts us at his table, then he turns and invites us to host him at ours—and then to invite others as well.
It is Saturday night out in the country west of Grand Rapids. It’s dark outside, but the lights are blazing in one house. The cars are pulling up and the students are piling out. They have driven from nearby, but they have come from all over. The monthly dinner for international students is a partnership between First Covenant Church and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. There are new friends to meet, laughter spilling out. Best of all, the food is good.
One couple from church meets two students from China. Before long that couple is driving the students to and from dinner, practicing conversational English together. They bring them to church—one week to the contemporary service, the next week to the traditional. They like doing it. Also they know a God who wants to embrace students in the wide open arms of the Son on the cross.
Church consultant Gary McIntosh challenges us to think about our language as we welcome people into our church buildings and worship services each week. The less-welcoming word is “visitor.” The rich word is “guest.” Visitors are people who stop by, strangers whom no one particularly expects or looks for. But guests? They are the ones we want to see, the ones we are getting ready for, the ones we are awaiting.
McIntosh also suggests that we say goodbye to the word “greeter,” and say hello to the title “host.” A greeter says hi because it’s her job. A host says, “Welcome,” because it’s her identity.
In Hebrews 13:1-2, we read, “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers.” We see two kinds of love here. They bleed into each other, distinct but not separate. Verse 1 encourages us in our philadelphia, our love of siblings, of brothers, of sisters. Verse 2 demands our attention to a counterpart to sibling love. This same community of believers is encouraged in philoxenia, our love to strangers, to those outside the community. It is not a command to greet the visitor—it is a call to welcome and extend our love to others beyond the family we know and who know us.
“Practice hospitality.” That’s the way most of our versions translate Romans 12:12. But what Paul wrote was even more intense and pointed and purposeful. The lexicon says the word often translated as “practice” actually means “pursue, strive for, seek after, aspire to.” Bible scholar C.E.B. Cranfield said it’s tragic that our translations don’t get that emphasis right. We are called not to simply practice hospitality, but to pursue it! Cranfield wrote, “One is not just to wait and take the stranger in, if he actually presents himself at the door, but to go out and look for those to whom one can show hospitality.”
I picture a father waiting, longing, praying, hoping, looking, leaning forward, until he sees the boy trudging his way down the dusty road. And then the father moves like no one thought he could move anymore, stretching out arms of love toward the boy. He will take that stranger and make him a guest. And a friend. And even a son again.