It was the perfect meal plan: lunch for three with French fries and chicken pot pies—a two dollar lunch that even I could cook. I read the instructions on both packages and simply averaged oven times and temperatures to thirty minutes and 400 degrees for everything. It was August in Philadelphia, and the defunct A/C window unit created only noise, blocked any breeze, and was no match for the oven. We moved to my bedroom to eat. Our female friend gestured to my other guest and me, indicating that we could take the chairs while she would sit on the bottom bunk. That bunk only enjoyed two surviving slats near the center of the mattress. Each night my roommate sat carefully on the midpoint of the bed and gingerly spread himself north and south at an even pace, minding the weight distribution on either side of the fulcrum. Thinking my choked noises and hand waving were merely expressions of chivalry, she plopped herself down cheerfully at the foot of the bed, only to lurch to her feet as the bed gave way beneath her—thus whacking her head on the steel support of the bunk above. Dizzy with pain, she fell backwards, hot chicken broth spilling onto her lap. Within minutes they had thanked me for lunch and were gone.
I think word got out. Occasionally innocents would come for a Sunday lunch, but the best defense is a good offense, and most people would invite me over to their home or volunteer to bring a lunch to mine. My friends thought it was another bachelor trick. To this day, I continue to protest that I have never deliberately injured a guest.
The word hospitable actually means "lover of strangers." There have always been times and places where traveling Christians have found it difficult to find or afford public lodging. Leaders in the church are to care for these people and to set an example of hosting the people of God who happen to be passing through. At the time of the early church, inns were generally risky or raunchy, so hospitality to any person was an act of kindness. But as we can see in 1 Peter 4:9, Christians were especially called to "show hospitality to one another." Christians were often poor—particularly traveling Christian teachers. And even if they were not in dire straits, Christians thrived and grew from good fellowship. Still today, hospitality is not only for those who really need it; it is also for any who could be encouraged by it. This does not mean that the homes of pastors and elders need to serve as hotels for vacationing Christians. It does remind us, however, that God places a premium on leaders serving those who have no realistic opportunity of serving them or their church in return, and traveling strangers often fit that bill better than anyone else.
Paul sees hospitality as a key qualification for elders, and I am sure we can infer a few reasons for this. Suffice it to say that many people come to love Christ and his church because the people are so kind, not because the preachers are so helpful. In fact, my awareness of hospitality did not start with an interest in the pastoral ministry. I grew up in a Christian community where some of the traditional Reformed casuistry about what was permissible on the Sabbath was solved with a simple sandwich: worship at both ends of the Lord's day with hospitality in between. The Sabbath-supper club, or dinner club, made almost intuitive sense, as three biblical authors and four books of Scripture urge Christians to show hospitality (Rom. 12; 1 Tim. 5; Heb. 13; 1 Pet. 4). The Sabbath offered the easiest time of the week to carry out this calling, and, with all its faults, the church of my youth saw a practical opportunity and seized it.
Cyril of Alexandria once wrote that "if you receive a brother, do not be distracted by too much serving, and do not attempt what is beyond your strength. Unnecessary effort is always tedious, and such exertions will only embarrass your guests." Hospitality is not entertainment. At the same time, we are not supposed to offer hospitality only when it is convenient! That is why Cyril went on to say, "Do not let your guest become a cause for impoverishing yourself, but even in hard times be as generous as you can."
To say that an elder is hospitable is not the same as saying that an elder is to "entertain," at least not in the modern sense of that word. Today, entertainment suggests offering great food and displaying good dishes. It promises hosts who are fresh and attentive, a home that is presentable for guests. Entertainment can be wonderful. But it is not to be confused with a service per se.
Hospitality can involve serving leftovers or hot dogs. It might involve bringing people into a house that has not been readied. Perhaps a caveat can be issued to explain that nothing fancy will be served. The point is that hospitality extends itself because of the needs of others and not because it is convenient for ourselves. Christian hospitality sometimes needs to be radical. It may often be unplanned and even wearying. It considers those who are traveling through town on a Sunday—strangers, the lonely, or the needy—and not simply old friends and exciting guests. It is a home that is open for those who trust in Christ and for those who still need to.
In an age of commuter churches, will someone really want to visit when we live a half hour from church? Surprisingly often, the answer is yes. Christians are starved for "real" face time, much more so than good cooking. And it's okay to start small. Early in our marriage my wife and I offered people straightened coat hangers, hot dogs, and the fireplace in our living room. Add a few pizza bagels and everyone was happy to cook what they wanted. That is not to say that there was no cost. We had less time together, and sometimes we invited people to our home hoping the Lord would give us strength to go without some much-preferred rest. He often rewarded us with sufficient energy and renewed joy.
Offering hospitality has never been easy, perhaps especially to overnight guests and especially for the early church. You can just imagine Josephus Christian entering his kitchen and noting that the Apostle Paul had once again beaten him to the Galatia Daily Gazette or the Pontus Morning Post. The host's daughter is pouting because the apostle accidentally took her favorite chair. His wife gives him a look that says, "It's lovely to host the missionaries, but when will they be going to Macedonia?"
Peter calls us to show hospitality without grumbling (1 Pet. 4:9). That's disappointing, because Christians are skilled grumblers. We prefer the path of easy obedience, and we dislike the expense or the inconvenience of hospitality. Truth be told, we sometimes set up spouses or roommates for grumbling when we surprise a cook with visitors. In my mind, it could help a little if we tried to anticipate hospitality in advance—stocking up with some easy meals in the freezer or expanding the grocery budget, if possible, in hopes of being able to love another Christian in a practical way.
Of course, thinking ahead about hospitality is just the sort of thing that our Father in heaven has done for us. He had a plan for welcoming us into his home from the beginning. And when it came time for Jesus Christ to leave his disciples on earth, what did he promise? That he would go and make a place for them. In extending hospitality, we are doing to others only what he has done for us. He has prepared a place for us, and his home is always open.
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Issue: "Feasting with Christ" Sept./Oct. 2014 Vol. 23 No. 5 Page number(s): 26-29
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