Our Journey With Jesus (2) — Welcoming

This morning, we continue in our series entitled “Our Journey With Jesus” as we look together at some spiritual disciplines that will help us to shape us into the image of Jesus Christ. Because, more than anything else, we want to be a group of people who look like Jesus, who talk like Jesus and who love like Jesus. And as we make this journey together, we want to encourage one another and challenge one another.

Last week, we looked at the discipline of “letting go” and we talked about the need to let go of anything in our lives that may be hindering our relationship with God. Because it is possible for our lives to be so full – full of stuff or full of activities — that we don’t have room for God. And so, before we can fill our lives with God, we need to create some empty space.

This morning, I want us to take a look at the spiritual discipline of “welcoming” or “showing hospitality”.

I love the story I heard many years ago about the new preacher who loaded up his car with his large family and drove out to visit an old deacon on the farm. After everyone in the family had introduced themselves, there was an awkward pause as the unexpected guests looked for chairs to sit on. The deacon’s living room only had two chairs in it.

The preacher said, “Brother, I don’t believe you have enough chairs.”

The old man said, “That ain’t the problem. I got plenty of chairs — just got too much company!”

Hospitality doesn’t come easy for all of us. But the New Testament is clear that showing hospitality is one of the identifying marks of a Christian.

Peter must have had Christians like that old deacon in mind when he said, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.” (1 Peter 4:9)

In Romans 12, Paul said to the Christians of Rome, “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” (Romans 12:13)

A few chapters later, he said, “Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Romans 15:7)

And the Hebrew writer said, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:2)

Showing hospitality was especially expected of those who were leaders in the church. In both I Timothy and Titus, where Paul lists the qualifications of an elder, one of those qualifications in both of those lists is that he must be “hospitable” (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8).

And in I Timothy 5, where Paul is talking about widows that the church should support, he says to only to support those who have “shown hospitality” (I Timothy 5:9-10).

Which all seems to place a lot of emphasis on something that we don’t talk about much in the church. In fact, I’m not even sure that we even understand or appreciate what hospitality is.

What is hospitality?

For example, if I were to ask you, “How do you show hospitality?”, you would probably say that it’s when you invite your family or friends or somebody from church over for dinner. And I suppose you could certainly say that that’s hospitality on one level. But that’s not what the Bible is talking about when it uses the word “hospitality”.

The Greek word for “hospitality” is the “philoxenia.” (fee-lox-a-nee’-a), and it’s actually composed of two other Greek words that you may be familiar with. The first half is the Greek word “philo” which you may recognize as being one of the Greek words for love.

The second half is the Greek word “xenia”. And that may not sound familiar to you, but you have probably heard of xenophobia, especially over the past six months or so. Xenophobia is a fear of people from other countries, or strangers. So, “xenia” means “strangers”.

Now, when you put those two pieces together, “philoxenia” literally means “to show love to strangers”.

Or, to put it another way, hospitality is taking the sort of kindness that you normally reserve for your friends or your family, and showing that same sort of kindness to strangers who are in need.

And that takes hospitality to a whole new level. Because we would like to think that we have been hospitable when we invite people from church over for dinner. People that we know. People that we get along with. But in the Bible, and for most of church history, hospitality has been about welcoming needy strangers.

And I think Jesus made this clear when he told the story of the Good Samaritan. When Jesus told a lawyer to “Love your neighbor as yourself”, the lawyer responded by asking, “But who is my neighbor?” Is he the guy who lives next door, or the guy I go to church with, or the guy who lives across town? And, of course, Jesus told a story about a Samaritan, a man who was hated for being from a different country, with a different religion, to make the point that your neighbor is anyone who is need. Hospitality toward strangers is the very essence of hospitality.

And maybe part of the reason that we don’t place a high value of the practice of welcoming needy strangers is that, in our culture today, most of us don’t know what it’s like to be a needy stranger.

In ancient times, there were very few inns, and the ones they had tended to be like the Tropical Motel on Bragg Boulevard. And so if someone was traveling, they wouldn’t stay at the inn. Rather, they would plan to spend the night in the city square — hoping that perhaps a kind resident might invite them to spend the night and prepare a meal for them. To us, this would be absolutely unthinkable — it would be dangerous, it would be irresponsible. But that’s why hospitality was so important.

Some of you can remember a day when preachers would travel to a church to hold a gospel meeting for them. And the normal thing to do was for that preacher to stay in somebody’s home for a week, and eat in someone’s home every night. Even back in those days, local motels weren’t very nice and there weren’t a lot of restaurants to eat out at. Home cooking was a lot better than eating out.

But, nowadays, if a preacher comes to preach a gospel meeting, it’s considered rude to expect him to stay in someone’s house. And he may eat all of his meals out at restaurants. Because restaurant food and local hotels are generally excellent in quality— sometimes better than homes.

And that’s true, not only of preachers, but everyone else as well. Most of us have sufficient resources so that we don’t need to depend on the personal hospitality of strangers for food, or shelter, or safety. When we travel away from home, we usually eat our meals in restaurants and sleep in a comfortable hotel.

And unless we travel in a foreign country, or we live through the devastation of a storm or an earthquake, or we run into car trouble on the road, we are unlikely to know what it’s like to be a vulnerable stranger needing someone else’s help. In fact, in a highly individualistic society like ours, depending on the generosity of others is difficult for us to do and sometimes feels downright degrading.

So, as a result, whereas in ancient times, all strangers depended on someone’s hospitality to get by, today, it’s only those who are poor and who have no resources of their own who are in need of the provision of food, shelter, and protection that characterizes hospitality.

But I think we can expand the definition of hospitality from “love of strangers” to a willingness to show love to everyone, and to care for others in need, no matter who they are.

Jesus made it clear that we need to get beyond the comfort zone of our own neighborhood or social group. He said in Luke 14, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:12-14)

What Jesus describes here is familiar to us, because we all tend to invite only those people into our homes that we like, and we expect for them to repay the favor someday and invite us into their homes. But Jesus said that love cannot be dished out on the basis of what we might get in return.

And hospitality is not defined by fine linen tablecloths, elegant crystal, or gourmet cooking. Rather, it consists of a generous heart and a welcoming spirit that leads to tangible expressions of care for others. And perhaps, most importantly, it includes a genuine concern for those people who are different from us.

The Jews and Hospitality

The idea of welcoming strangers was nothing new to the early Christians, because welcoming strangers was an important practice all through the Old Testament.

In the Torah, the Law of Moses, the Hebrew people, who had experienced harsh oppression in a foreign land, were taught to treat the strangers in their midst with generosity and respect. God commanded them in Exodus 23, “You shall not oppress a sojourner [a foreigner, a stranger].” He goes on to say, “You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

God says, “There was a time when you were the stranger. You were the one that nobody recognized because you were from a foreign country. And so, this idea of sympathy and identity with strangers is a recurring theme in the Old Testament.

But we see this love of strangers expressed even before we get to the Law of Moses. Remember what happened when those three strangers came to Abraham in Genesis 18?

“…He sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on.’” (Genesis 18:1-5)

Although Abraham addressed the leader of this group as “lord,” he didn’t yet realize that this actually was God in the flesh. These were angels, but Abraham didn’t know that. At the time, he simply thought they were men. He gradually became aware of their true identity. But, as soon as he saw these men, he ran to greet them and bowed before them.

And then he said, “Take a seat in a cool spot and rest. Let me wash your feet. Let me fix you something to eat.” And don’t miss the significance of what happens next. Abraham tells Sarah to take three measures of flour and make some bread. Three measures or seahs would have been about twenty quarts of flour. Folks, that’s gonna make a lot of bread! Abraham had said to them, “Let me bring you a morsel of bread”, but this was a lot more than a morsel! On top of that, Abraham killed and served the meat from an entire calf. There’s no way three men could eat that much food.

But offering food, water, and rest to total strangers was typical behavior in that culture — and it still is among the Bedouins. There’s a website that describes the Bedouin community in great detail and it says on that page, “Hospitality is the highest Bedouin virtue.”

The website says,” A complete stranger could stay as long as 3 days without being asked of his whereabouts. He was considered and treated as a guest and enjoyed the clan’s full protection.”

So, what Abraham did was normal for that culture, but he took his hospitality to an extreme level. And, of course, those three strangers turned out to be messengers of God. And that story provides the basis in Judaism for providing hospitality. You welcome strangers because you never know who they might be. They could be sent by God. Which is why the Hebrew writer said, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:2)

Jesus and Hospitality

When we come to Jesus, we’re not surprised to find this same quality of hospitality. Now, if we limit hospitality to simply inviting somebody into our home, we don’t find Jesus doing that a lot simply because he spent so much time traveling. But we do see it in John 2 where Jesus told Peter and Andrew to come to where he was staying, and they went and stayed with him that day.

But showing hospitality is not just providing meals, which is one reason I chose to use the word “welcoming” to describe this discipline. Jesus was definitely someone who welcomed others. It was a central theme of both his teaching and his practice. The idea of hospitality is found in his stories like the parable of the Good Samaritan.

But, more importantly, Jesus’ welcoming spirit is seen in the way he treated everyone he met, even the lowest and most neglected members of society. Jesus consistently showed his concern and care for those who were on the margins. And, in fact, he was such a welcoming person that it made him a scandal to those who were not very welcoming.

The Early Church and Hospitality

No one before Jesus had ever taken hospitality as far as he did, and the early Christians became passionate about demonstrating philoxenia (fee-lox-a-nee’-a), and they showed a radical love toward those who were on the margins of their society — the sick, the hungry, the homeless, destitute widows, travelers. And by doing do, they made a tremendous impact on the world around them. In fact, it may well be that it was church’s practice of hospitality that was the number one reason why they were able to grow into a dominant religion by the fourth century.

You may find it hard to see how hospitality could make that much difference, but keep in mind how different that made them from everyone else around them. For example, catastrophic plagues raged through Europe during the second and third century, killing hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps millions. At the height of one epidemic, it is said that 5,000 people a day were dying in Rome.

And while everyone was running as hard as they could to get away from this sickness, Christians risked their lives, and compassionately ministered in the name of Christ to those who were sick and dying. And the really surprising thing was that they took care of pagans who were sick as well as fellow Christians. And they took notice. So that after the plague was over, many survivors who owed their lives to Jesus’ followers began to follow Jesus themselves. And the church flourished because of their hospitality to the sick.

Hospitality took new forms in the centuries to follow. Throughout the ancient world, Christians established “hospitals” (notice the similarity between “hospital” and “hospitality”). So, they set up these hospitals, but these were not hospitals in the sense that we think of hospitals. We think of a hospital as a place where doctors take care of sick people.

But, when these early Christians set up “hospitals”, they were actually “places of hospitality”. The Greek word for “hospital” was “xenodochia”, which means “a house for strangers” or “a house for guests.” These Christian hospitals were houses where they took care of people with all sorts of needs — widows, orphans, strangers, the poor, travelers, as well as the sick.

The unbelieving world had never seen anything like this kind of concern, and it astonished them. Not only did they say of the Christians, “See how they love one another!’ But they also marveled and said to themselves, “See how they love us, people who are not even of their faith!”

Around the turn of the fourth century, we read about the church in the city of Antioch. They started providing for the poor people in their city. Before long, they were feeding 3,000 widows and unmarried women – every day (because, in that culture, women typically couldn’t work). They also took care of the prisoners in their city, and the sick. They took care of the disabled. And they took care of people who were traveling and away from home.

The amount of hospitality shown by Christians in the ancient world is staggering. And it should inspire us to develop a welcoming spirit both in our personal lives and in the life of this church.

Why Should We Show Hospitality?

Let me give you three reasons.

1. Hospitality flows out of a grateful response to God’s generosity

Remember that this was the primary thing that motivated the Jewish people to show hospitality. During the time they lived in Egypt, they were the foreigners. They were the strangers. But God always took care of them. God protected them, and provided for them. He was generous with them.

So when a Jew came across someone who was needy and vulnerable, he was supposed to remember his roots. He was supposed to remember where he came from. He was supposed to remember that he owed his very existence to the generosity and kindness of God. And Israel was supposed to treat others with that same hospitality, that same generosity.

And while we’ve never been slaves in another country, we can all remember just how much love God has shown to us, even at times when others didn’t want much to do with us. It’s like what Paul said to the Gentile Christians at Ephesus, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” (Ephesians 2:19).

We’ve all experienced what it’s like to be on the outside, to feel unwanted, to feel unnoticed, but God, through his grace and love, has pulled us into his family. And so, it only make sense that we would want to open our hearts, our lives, and our homes to other needy people out of an overflowing gratitude for all that God has done for us.

God welcomes us, so we welcome others. That’s one reason for hospitality.

2. Hospitality is one of the ways that we express our love for Jesus

We’re familiar with the passage that Justin covered in class last Sunday. Jesus said in Matthew 25, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we [do all that]?…And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:35-37,40)

Let’s be honest. If we knew that Jesus actually walked through that door and entered this room, we would fall all over ourselves to show him attention, to see if there’s anything he needs. But Jesus says, “Every time you help someone who is in need, and especially when you welcome a stranger”, you’ve done it to me.

We as Christians ought to be constantly searching for people in need, welcoming them into our lives, finding ways to serve them and to meet their needs. Because when we pay attention to that needy stranger, then we are literally loving the Jesus to whom we sing all of these wonderful songs. We are loving Jesus in a tangible way.

3. Hospitality gives us the opportunity to be like God

In Luke 14, right after Jesus said, “When you throw a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind”, he told a parable about a man who threw a banquet. And when those he had invited didn’t show up, he said to his servant, “Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.” (Luke 14:21). And Jesus said that’s what the kingdom of God is like.

The early church saw hospitality as an imitation of God, and that’s so important. Because we don’t help people just because it’s a nice thing to do. We don’t do it to make us feel better about ourselves. We do it in order to imitate God. We do it to become like Jesus, who invites everyone to his table.

And so, when we show hospitality to people whom our society looks down upon, the ones who are vulnerable to injustice and exploitation, the powerless, the poor, the widow, the fatherless, the elderly, the mentally ill, and seriously disabled, we become imitators of God.

When we open our hearts, and open our homes, and make room at our tables and our spare rooms for the ones who have no ability to repay us for our kindness, we become imitators of God.

From a theological standpoint, hospitality is not a small thing. It’s part of what it means to be like God and to be like Jesus. Which is why the early Christians not only gathered for worship with one another, but they extended hospitality to everyone around them who was in need, including total strangers.

Why Don’t We Show More Hospitality?

Let me ask one more question before I close. If showing hospitality, if welcoming others, is so important, then why does it seem to be so rarely practiced among Christians? And the reason I say that it’s rarely practiced is because I’ve witnessed it. And I suspect that you have, too.

How many of you have ever visited another church, gone in, sat down, spent an hour in worship and left without even one person speaking to you? How do we expect to show love toward strangers and meet their needs, if we can’t even be bothered to say hello when one of them is sitting right next to us?

Now, personally, I think that many of you do an outstanding job of welcoming those who come into our midst, so I’m not trying to step on anybody’s toes this morning. But generally speaking, you know as well as I do, that Christians often don’t do a very good job of this. And there are many churches who don’t seem to do anything to meet the needs of the people of their community.

So why is that? Why are we hesitant to show hospitality? And I think there are probably a number of reasons, but there are three that come to mind.

First of all, we like being comfortable. And showing love to others will often make us uncomfortable. It means that I have to actually make an effort to find out what your needs are and then I have to make an effort to meet those needs. It’s much more comfortable for me to just ignore the strangers around me, slip out the door, get back to my house and sit back and enjoy myself.

Secondly, and this relates to what I preached about last week, many of us are just too busy to meet the needs of others. Our lives are so busy — crowded with appointments, ballgames, deadlines, and countless activities. Hospitality takes time and we can’t do it if our lives are already full.

Thirdly, and perhaps this is the biggest reason why we are hesitant to show hospitality to strangers, is fear. We’re afraid of people we don’t know. Afraid of someone who’s different from us. Afraid of being harmed. Afraid of being rejected.

But we have to realize that showing love always involves takes a risk. If those early Christians had been afraid of getting the plague and had not taken the risk of helping others who were sick, they never would have shown hospitality. And the world around them never would have seen Jesus living through them.

I’m not saying that we should be foolish, that single women should bring in men off the street to feed them in their homes. There are things that we can do to be cautious. But, in the end, love is always taking a chance. And as long as we are motivated primarily by fear, we will do nothing. And the world will never see Jesus living through us.

Let me close with these words by Max Lucado:

“Not everyone can serve in a foreign land, lead a relief effort, or volunteer at the downtown soup kitchen. But who can’t be hospitable? Do you have a front door? A table? Chairs? Bread and meat for sandwiches? Congratulations! You just qualified to serve in the most ancient of ministries: hospitality.

“Something holy happens around a dinner table that will never happen in a sanctuary. In a church auditorium you see the backs of heads. Around the table you see the expressions on faces. In the auditorium one person speaks; around the table everyone has a voice. Church services are on the clock. Around the table there is time to talk.

Hospitality opens the door to uncommon community. It’s no accident that hospitality and hospital come from the same Latin word, for they both lead to the same result: healing. When you open your door to someone, you are sending this message: ‘You matter to me and to God.’ You may think you are saying, ‘Come over for a visit.’ But what your guest hears is, ‘I’m worth the effort.’”

Folks, love will always seek to welcome the stranger, reach out to the outcast, feed the hungry, comfort the sorrowful, shelter the destitute. The question is — are we willing to be Jesus to those who are in need around us, both as a church and as individuals?

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