Hospitality and the Gospel – by David Baldwin

Have you ever rooted around at the back of an old medicine cabinet and discovered some archaic looking medicines they don’t seem to make anymore? Usually it goes straight in the bin, even if the bottle’s pretty, but just occasionally you might find something really potent, but sadly forgotten.

The medicine I’ve just rediscovered, mouldering at the back of my cabinet, is called Filoxenos. Sounds like a fancy new drug, marketed by some slick pharmaceutical company, doesn’t it? If I tell you that it’s a wonder drug with a sinister and deadly antidote, I hope your ears will prick up. If I add that the antidote is phoboxenos, or xenophobos, you’ll start to see through me.

Yes, I’m talking about a pair of words from the Bible, which you probably suspected all along. We immediately recognise one of those words from common usage; xenophobia, the fear of strangers. But the other doesn’t seem to be very current; philoxenos certainly hasn’t cropped up in any recent conversations I’ve had.

Here’s the ‘Did you know?’ section. Did you know that philoxenos, which translates literally as love of strangers, is most often translated as ‘hospitable’ in the New Testament? Did you know that, with its related words like ‘hospitality’, it crops up several times in the NT, often with imperative force:

  • Pursue hospitality … it requires effort (Romans 12:13)
  • Practice hospitality … it makes us grumble (1 Peter 4:9)
  • Don’t neglect to practice hospitality … your guests might be angels (Hebrews 13:1-2)
  • Elders should be hospitable … a key leadership qualification (1 Timothy 3:2)
  • Widows get listed for help … only if they’ve been hospitable (1 Timothy 5:10)
  • Missionaries must be welcomed in hospitably … and thus sent on again (3 John 5-8)
  • Jesus teaches us to welcome strangers … because actually its him (Matthew 25:35)

Many of us seem to have a cultural blind spot here. We have somehow formed a corporate delusion that hospitality isn’t for everyone. There are always those in the church who are very good at it, so we naturally want to stand back and let them get on with it. In so doing, we assume that hospitality is more like a spiritual gift or a ministry preference than a normative Christian grace.

And so we leave it to those who seem natural at it, those with lovely big homes, those who have enough time, those with the bank balance to make it feasible, those who are married, those who have separate dining rooms, those who can cook, those who ‘like to entertain’.

The very heart of the gospel

But the Bible won’t let us see hospitality as an optional extra – a nice thing that some are gifted to do. Along with many writers, I’d argue that the gospel itself is hospitality – God’s incredible hospitality to us. God is the ultimate host, and we are the strangers, now guests, at his table. He’s delighted to have us. Forgiveness in Christ is the main course; wonderful side dishes adorn the table. Good friends are there; none of us deserving the invitation.

If we rightly identify Christ’s Easter passion as the very heart of the gospel, how strange is it that Jesus considered the best way to remember his saving work was through communal eating and drinking? Not a shared creedal statement, but a shared meal. How weird is that?! (Don’t worry, I like creeds too.)

Then there’s Jesus himself. As Tim Chester points out in A Meal With Jesus,[1] yes the Son of Man came to seek and save (Luke 19:10), to serve (Mark 10:45) but bizarrely he also came ‘eating and drinking’ (Luke 7:34). So prominent was this, that ‘glutton and drunkard’ was the tab he was labelled with. He hung out with unworthy people, in unworthy homes, around unworthy tables, eating and drinking. One writer comments of Luke’s gospel, ‘Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal.’[2] Did Jesus have a problem … or do I?

If we’re still not convinced that eating together is a gospel thing, just look at what kicks up the early church stinks. If the food distribution problem of Acts 6:1-6 serves as a trailer, some of the most gripping and tense scenes in the movie surround homes, food and tables. Consider poor Peter on his roof in Joppa trying to pray (Acts 10:9-16). Three nightmare food visions jolt him awake and a few minutes later there are three Gentiles enjoying his hospitality (10:23). A day or so later roles are reversed; Peter is one of seven Jewish believers staying in Cornelius’ home for a few days (10:48). Gospel work is done, people become Christians.

When the Jerusalem mother church leaders hear about it, what are they most concerned about? It is the fact that Peter didn’t finish his sermon? No, it’s table fellowship (11:3)! Feel the weight of this – the founding apostolic witnesses are most concerned about what went on in homes and around tables. Because that’s the heartland of the really important stuff.

And we don’t have time to consider Paul conflict with Peter about his ‘backsliding’ in this same regard, which turned out to be a gospel issue (Galatians 2). Much of the important action in the NT seems to surround big food fights. The final action of the NT is a huge food fiesta (Revelation 19:6-9)!

But I wasn’t even on the NT shelf of the medicine cabinet when I rediscovered the importance of philoxenos. I was way back in Genesis where everything got started. When Abraham and Sarah welcome the three strangers by the oaks of Mamre they heard from their lips a crucial message (Genesis 18:1-16). I realise that the promised son was more important than the 22 litres of flour Sarah made into bread, the curds, the milk and the fatted calf, yes, I get that. The ‘main point’ of the passage isn’t ‘be hospitable’. But the excessively generous hospitality and its acceptance somehow seem to be wrapped up in the main business, not just the context for it. We already know Abraham to be a man of faith (Genesis 15:6) so maybe these guest-host exchanges are enacting greater things that are going on. This hospitality around the tents, the first recorded example, seems to be a distinguishing mark of true faith.

When I turn the page into Genesis 19 I’m sure of it.

The dark side

Genesis 19 tells the torrid tale of Sodom’s destruction and Lot’s salvation. Like Abraham, Lot demonstrates his faith through his hospitality (19:1-3). He’s saved. Likewise, the people of Sodom demonstrate their godlessness through their in-hospitality (19:4-9). Hospitality graciously brings in and gives out; the Sodomites ruthlessly seek out to suck dry. Was their main sin sexual at all? Divine judgement follows.

The same pattern plays out again in Judges 19, when God’s people were at their lowest spiritual ebb. The writer lingers over the lurid detail of the unnamed Levite and his concubine to illustrate the dark depths to which Israel has sunk. Here’s what ‘everybody did as he saw fit in his own eyes’ looks like. Lack of true faith among God’s people will out! As in Sodom, now in a little town square in Benjamin, it shows itself through violent inhospitality; ‘for no one took them into his house to spend the night’ (19:15). The story goes from bad to worse and people die.

Rosaria Butterfield in her recent book, The Gospel Comes with a House Key,[3] comments that, ‘Hospitality is the ground zero of the Christian life.’ Surely not Lord! She continues, not being hospitable is, ‘an act of violence and cruelty…’ Surely not Lord! She persists, ‘It is deadly to ignore biblical teaching about serving the stranger…’ Surely not Lord! – Surely not cruel, deadly violence!

Call that hospitality?!

Is inviting church people around for a meal, say Sunday lunch, hospitality?

Well…. yes and no.

In a recent essay, fourth year student Song Tsai, argues that asking contemporaries over is more like entertaining or ‘having a dinner party’ than what Luke-Acts has in view. Inviting your church friends round to share your home cooking may be little more than ‘having your mates round for a nice meal.’

While inviting people home from church might not be the full philoxenos picture envisaged in scripture, it’s certainly a start. A very good start, I’d say. And you’ve got to start somewhere. How can that start be built upon?

What else is in view? Andrew Arterbury makes five observations about NT hospitality:[4]

  1. Hospitality may be initiated by either host or guest
  2. NT believers seek out hospitality from other fellow believers in new locations
  3. Food and lodging are vital components of hospitality
  4. Hospitality entwines guests and hosts intimately
  5. The host provides for the guests onward journey and escorts them as they leave.

And then there’s the whole ‘stranger’ thing. Ouch! That all sounds like a whole lot more than most of us thought we were signing up for.

Rosaria Butterfield describes a ‘radically ordinary hospitality’ that is radically different from prevailing norms and ordinary in its deliberate simplicity. She’s onto something. Occasionally there may be a place for a gourmet feast with the finest dishes and choicest wines (Isaiah 25:6) but that’s not how we normally eat. Normally it’s something like pasta.

Most of our hospitality should be incredible ordinary, which really takes the pressure off. What should be special is not the food but the time we give to our guests, the warmth of our welcome and the loving space we create in our homes for them to open up like flowers and, as it were, unwrap their gifts.

She writes as somebody whose own heart was first warmed through the loving hospitality she experienced in a Christian home. Though she was an adversarial stranger to the Christians who lived there, she first saw the gospel fleshed out in an ordinary home.

Please read the label

So how should philoxenos be taken? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Start with small doses and gradually build up
  • Don’t bother with a silver spoon, any old cutlery will do
  • Don’t keep out of reach of children – if taken wisely, children thrive on philoxenos
  • Take both internally and externally – apply liberally to heart and mind then allow philoxenos to inform muscle memory
  • Not only to be taken individually, try taking philoxenos as a group
  • Warning! Philoxenos, though costly, will make you a bit giddy with gladness

In a Christian subversion of Feng Shui, perhaps we might take a wander round our homes with a bottle of philoxenos in our hands? Go stand at your threshold and come in, imagine you are a variety of different types of guest. Come in, pause inside the door. What happens here? When you’ve been a guest, what has made you feel welcome?

Move into the other rooms, lingering in each. What does the guest see? What wordless messages are conveyed? Where are the obvious spaces for guests? Sit a while in your lounge, what is the main feature in this place of sitting and who is it for? How might the space say ‘strangers are welcome here’? Whose home is this? What might need to change? Whose time is measured by the tick-tock of your clock?

 

 

[1] Tim Chester, A Meal With Jesus: Discovering grace, community & mission around the table (Nottingham: IVP, 2011).

[2] Robert Karris, Eating Your Way Through Luke’s Gospel (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2006), 14.

[3] Rosaria Butterfield, The Gospel Comes With a House Key (Wheaton: crossway, 2018), 111, 115.

[4] Andrew Arterbury, Entertaining Angels: Early Christian Hospitality in its Mediterranean Setting, New Testament Monographs 8 (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2005), 152-53.