The Dangerous Act of Hospitality

Tim Blackmon
Thursday, September 1st 2011
Sep/Oct 2011

My grandparents began hiding Jews soon after the Waffen-SS confiscated the top floor of their church for a regional headquarters. In the basement of that same building, right under Nazi noses, a shelter was made. My grandfather was the pastor of this church. He figured the Jewish hideaways would be as safe there as anywhere.

When I was a kid, my grandparents told this story over and over. I always wondered why they took these risks. It would have been more sensible to leave the brazen takeover of the church's facilities unchallenged. Were they not concerned about the threatening consequences? Somehow the menace of their Nazi neighbors did not deter them. Did they not fear for their own lives and for the lives of their small children? How were they able to provide for so many people? They received almost no income from their church. They were often paid in the currency of chickens, eggs, fresh milk and produce, placed on their doorstep whenever a local farmer had a little bit extra. Yet they did not consider the scarcity of their own resources an insurmountable obstacle.

In one of my last conversations with my grandmother, then well into her ninth decade, I asked what kept them from complacency and spurred them toward such dangerous hospitality during the cold winters of World War II. She simply said: "We trusted in the coming kingdom of God. In the kingdom of Jesus there is always enough. We knew God would protect us and would provide for us. Because of that, we simply welcomed people who needed a place to stay and food to eat, even if there was a bit of a risk."

As far as she was concerned, the hazardous venture to open the church to the Jews was an inevitable response to and a natural expression of the gospel of the kingdom of God. The fact that the church building happened to swarm with Nazi soldiers was primarily a logistical challenge. My opa and oma offered food, shelter, and protection to those who desperately needed it. Because of their practice of dangerous hospitality, many of their guests lived to tell the story.

The Greek word for hospitality, philoxenia, literally means "the love of strangers." Loving a stranger means that I commit myself to the life and flourishing of a person who is without a place, without protection, or without the resources to survive, even if that commitment requires personal sacrifice. While we often associate hospitality with polite and dignified gatherings involving triangular cucumber sandwiches, spinach quiche and tepid tea with milk, true hospitality is different. It is deeply Christian and at times it is even dangerous.

Christine Pohl in her landmark book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition says, "Although we often think of hospitality as a tame and pleasant practice, Christian hospitality has always had a subversive, counter cultural dimension: hospitality is resistance." (1) Making Room is Pohl's passionate effort to reclaim the life-giving potential of the ancient Christian practice of hospitality. She ably argues that hospitality was crucial to the survival, identity, and growth of the early church. (2)

We read about this kind of hospitality in the letter to the Hebrews. It tells a story about Christians who showed compassion to those who had been imprisoned for their faith. At the time, prisons did not feature cafeterias or proper lodging facilities. The care and nurture of the prisoners was the responsibility of friends and family. If you did not have anyone willing and able to support you while in prison, it often meant you would die from hunger or exposure. The visit to prison was intimidating and dangerous’you ran the risk of being identified as a Christian and could also face imprisonment. In Hebrews 10:34-36 we read, "For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised."

Their compassionate care was the direct result of their theological vision. They "joyfully accepted the plundering of their property" because of their belief about the future; "since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one." Because of their assurance of life and flourishing in the age to come, they were committed to the life and flourishing of those who were now in prison. Their perspective on their resources and personal possessions was deeply informed by their perspective on eternity. The assurance of the abundance of the age to come transformed their behavior in tangible ways. Emboldened by their eschatological vision, they did not shrink back in the face of danger. They practiced hospitality.

This is how Christian hospitality works. Out of an ever-growing awareness of what God has done for us’our welcome at someone else's expense’we offer hospitality to strangers. Our ethical and virtuous behavior is grounded in God's saving work in Christ. Our deeds in this real world, in the present evil age, are transformed because of the dawning of life in the age to come. The Christian compassion shown to those in prison or to those hiding for their very lives is an inevitable response to what God has done in Christ. It is the embodiment of Paul's imperative in Romans 15:7, "Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God."

Geerhardus Vos, in his unparalleled sermon on Hosea 14:8 "The Wonderful Tree," shows us the deeply Trinitarian and covenantal roots of Christian hospitality. Vos comments on how the Triune God of the universe, out of covenantal faithfulness, welcomed Israel into a relationship with himself. Vos conceives of this Trinitarian invitation as an act of hospitality: "In redemption God opens up himself to us and surrenders his inner life to our possession in a wholly unprecedented manner of which the religion of nature can have neither dream nor anticipation." (3)

This Trinitarian hospitality resonates with Ephesians 2:18, "For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father." This divine hospitality is resourced by the unending "riches of his grace which He lavished on us" (Eph. 1:8). Vos memorably calls this Trinitarian welcome "absolute generosity born of supreme love."

This relation into which it pleases God to receive Israel with himself has in it a sublime abandon; it knows neither restraint nor reserve. Using human language, one might say that God enters into this heart and soul and mind and strength. Since God thus gives himself to his people for fruition, and his resources are infinite, there is no possibility of their ever craving more or seeking more of him than it is good for them to receive. (4)

Here Vos gives us the finest theological foundation for Christian hospitality. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit have offered "absolute generosity born of supreme love" to one another from before the foundations of the world. This eternal Trinitarian superabundance spills over in the creation of the universe. The Triune God makes room for creation to flourish. The Old Testament frequently uses hospitality imagery to describe the providential work of God. In Job 38:41 we read, "Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?" This hospitality comes out of a covenantal commitment: "He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant" (Ps. 111:5). God is the one "who gives food to all flesh, for his steadfast love endures forever" (Ps. 136:25). Throughout the Scriptures we see that God is a host, a faithful provider of food and shelter to the entire world.

After our fall into sin, God continued to give himself in "sublime abandon" to his people, ultimately by giving his own life. "For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for men" (Mark 10:45). Now God's covenant people practice hospitality out of their superabundant joy that comes from "fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:3). In turn, mirroring the Triune God of grace, who opens up his life to his people, Christians give themselves, heart and soul and mind and strength, in "sublime abandon" to the flourishing of others. In the words of Pohl, they "make room to help other people flourish." The practice of Christian hospitality is a "generosity born of supreme love." Out of a deep awareness of our gracious welcome into Trinitarian fellowship, we offer welcome and make an enduring commitment to help others flourish. Since this is the proper human corollary to God's hospitality, we bring glory to God by making room in our lives for those who need it most.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

Throughout his ministry, Jesus was frequently criticized for offering indiscriminate hospitality to flagrant sinners. In Luke 15:2 we read, "And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, 'This man receives sinners and eats with them.'" Jesus even earned the title of party animal: "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'" (Matt. 11:19). Jesus' welcome of these sinners was seen as a tacit approval of their wicked ways. As if the sinfulness of the sinners was a communicable disease, Jesus' contact with them was considered ill advised and immoral. (5)

Jesus' practice of hospitality is reminiscent of the dinner table scene in the 1967 film with Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, and Katherine Hepburn, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? The liberal persuasions of a young woman's parents (Tracy and Hepburn) are put to the test when her fianc!’the very black Dr. John Prentice (Poitier)’comes to their San Francisco home. In the same way, Jesus upends Jewish eschatological expectations and challenges the status quo of his religious climate by "going out to the highways and hedges and compelling people to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet" (Luke 14:24). Pohl writes,

God's guest list includes a disconcerting number of poor and broken people, those who appear to bring little to any gathering except their need. The distinctive quality of Christian hospitality is that it offers a generous welcome to the "least," without concern for advantage or benefit to the host. Such hospitality reflects God's greater hospitality that welcomes the undeserving, provides the lonely with a home and sets a banquet table for the hungry. (6)

My father grew up in North Carolina in the 1930s. He often told about the racism of the "whites" against "the coloreds." He remembered the segregated restaurants, buses, bathrooms, and schools. He knew what it was like not to be welcome. When my father was a college student in Washington, D.C., two elderly white ladies befriended him. Much to his surprise, they invited him over to their home for dinner. He was instructed to arrive after dusk and use the back door as the entryway. No one was to know a black man was visiting with these white women in the white neighborhood. This would not be safe for anyone. In spite of their attempts to keep their hospitality under wraps, neighbors soon began to talk. Not long after, the two elderly church ladies were known as "the nigger lovers."

This simple act of welcome was an important affirmation and acknowledgement of my father as a fellow human being and as a brother in Christ. They practiced hospitality because my father had what John Calvin called "a familiar mark…as one whom [God] has distinguished by the luster of His own image." (7) Pohl explains why this moment is so transformative:

Especially when the larger society disregards or dishonors certain persons, small acts of respect and welcome are potent far beyond themselves. They point to a different system of valuing and an alternate model of how we can relate to one another. People view hospitality as quaint and tame partly because they do not understand the power of recognition. When a person who is not valued by society is received by socially respected persons or groups, as a human being with dignity and worth, small transformations occur. (8)

Why We Must Recover the Christian Practice of Hospitality

While I've not had to put my life on the line the way my grandparents did in WWII, I am discovering that hospitality is not only the most natural response to the gospel, but it is also a practice our world desperately needs. I've spent most of my ministry in California. Many of our neighbors feel pressured to live increasingly fast, mobile, and private lives. Divorce, blended families, and life lived at a breakneck speed in tight margins often contribute to a wide variety of relational fractures. While they might work hard at keeping up with the Joneses family, they rarely ever eat with them. Too often, they don't even eat with the people who happen to reside at the same address. If and when they are at home, they often eat alone, or they eat on the run in the car. Their lives are so private they have to survive with few, if any, life-giving relationships. Because of this, people are desperately hungry for welcome. They long to be welcomed into a church and into a home.

I now serve an international church in The Hague in the Netherlands. This is a city where people from over one hundred different countries have come to live. Virtually everyone I meet is from somewhere else. They are all strangers. They are not at home. Without a proper welcome, these global nomads can live here for years and still remain strangers. They are sometimes without support structures for when life gets tough. This almost always results in lives marked by deep loneliness. Or worse, these strangers find themselves on the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination. Sure, there are institutions and businesses that are in the "hospitality" or "care" industry. They offer the guest’now known as "the client"’undivided attention, for a fee.

As a church in this community, however, we are uniquely equipped to offer welcome. We know what it is like to be strangers in the world. We are citizens of another kingdom, pilgrims on the way. This prepares us for the hard work of hospitality. In the Old Testament we see that the experience of Israel's marginality and sojourner identity became a surprisingly rich resource for their own practice of hospitality. "You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt" (Exod. 23:9). Because they knew what it was like to be a stranger, they were able to imagine and anticipate the needs and concerns of others who found themselves in a similar situation. This is the story of the Christian community: strangers welcoming strangers. In order for these postmodern social nomads to thrive, our church must recover the ancient Christian practices of hospitality.

It Takes Practice

Below are a few important lessons my wife and I are learning about hospitality in our home and in our church.

First of all, it would be tempting to talk immediately about the practical skills involved in offering hospitality. Some of us might still think of hospitality as mainly an extravagant display of culinary excellence and homemaking prowess that would make Martha Stewart blush. Done under the guise of genuine hospitality, we usually call this "entertaining." Sometimes it is not much more than a veiled attempt to impress others and show them what we have and how we live. Besides the fact that this kind of hospitality is not sustainable, it often tragically deepens the divide along socioeconomic lines.

Some might even worry that their home has not yet been featured on the Extreme Makeover television show. Wisdom tells us, "Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred" (Prov. 15:16). Offering hospitality is not so much a matter of elaborate gourmet dinners as it is about an enduring commitment to provide food, welcome, and shelter to those who need it most.

Hospitality is not merely a skill. Loving a stranger is first of all a disposition. Practicing hospitality means that my heart is genuinely and generously open to others. Regardless of our cooking and homemaking skills, our guests will often feel whether or not we have this disposition in rich measure. They notice it in the way we look at them, the way we welcome and receive them, and by the way we talk with them. The only way we get better at this is by experiencing the life-transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only then will we have the proper disposition and the generosity of heart.

As we grow deeper in our understanding of the gospel, we will inevitably begin noticing who our neighbor is. Our eyes will be opened to see the invisible strangers all around us. Chances are that there are people within your sphere of influence you have never noticed. They are invisible to you. You don't see them. You don't notice them. Simply begin by asking some questions: Who is the stranger in my world? Begin by giving this stranger your full attention. We pay attention to the people we value. Then ask: What do they need? What keeps them "outside"? How can I help? What can our church community do to bring relief and comfort?

It is also important not to think of hospitality as the next growth engine for your church. Hospitality is offered in light of our expectations of eternity and in response to the gospel, not as a strategic way to get an immediate return on investment. Guests are usually able to discern if they are being offered hospitality that is primarily a strategic method or a technique. They will sense that it is fundamentally coercive and manipulative. Instead, hospitality should be offered in light of our eschatological expectations. It is not done for strategic purposes. "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. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just" (Luke 14:12-14).

There are many ways a church can begin practicing hospitality. (9) Perhaps you will consider offering care to orphans or cooked meals for international students, or to collaborate with others in opening a homeless shelter. Before your church even begins to explore how to practice hospitality, however, begin small. Perhaps the most important practice is also the simplest. Begin by sharing meals together.

A few weeks ago, we opened our home to some guests. Eighteen minutes before our guests were to arrive, we discovered that the size of the group was twice as large as we had expected. Meanwhile, our own four children ravenously hovered over the chips and guacamole, anxiously awaiting the opening prayer. While quietly confident of 2 Corinthians 9:8 that "God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need," I still managed a fatherly squeeze in the arm and whispered the three letters "FHB"’code language for "Family Hold Back." Our kids (and Dad too) reluctantly moved to the back of the food line, serving themselves modestly only after everyone else had been amply served.

To recover the practice of Christian hospitality, simply begin by eating together and invite others to join. "A shared meal is the activity most closely tied to the reality of God's Kingdom, just as it is the most basic expression of hospitality." (10) Of course, hospitality has its limits. You can't do everything, and you can't have everyone over all the time. There comes a time to say no. It takes wisdom to discern when you have reached your limits, while prayerfully exploring how God may use you to make room for the strangers in your community.

One thing is certain: Because we are all so busy and because it is much easier to do life without exposure to "the stranger," a strong expression of hospitality will not be automatic. Unless there is an intentional commitment to practice hospitality, it simply will not happen. The work of hospitality is too demanding. Meaningful hospitality is too important to be stuffed in the margins of an inordinately full family schedule, nor does it fit into the over-programmed ministry calendar of a church. As we prayerfully rethink the gospel, we will inevitably rediscover that hospitality is an essential part of our Christian life together. This then must reshape our priorities and our practice.

1 [ Back ] Christine Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 13.
2 [ Back ] The life and writing of Dr. Pohl has made an indelible impact on my life. Almost everything I've learned about hospitality comes from her.
3 [ Back ] For Geerhardus Vos, "The Wonderful Tree," see .
4 [ Back ] Vos, "The Wonderful Tree."
5 [ Back ] For a full-length treatment on Jesus' table fellowship with sinners in the Gospels, see Craig Blomberg, Contagious Holiness: Jesus' Meals with Sinners (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005).
6 [ Back ] Pohl, Making Room, 15.
7 [ Back ] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559 trans.; reprint, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 3.7.6.
8 [ Back ] Christine Pohl and Pamela J. Buck, Study Guide for Making Room (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 13.
9 [ Back ] I highly recommend gathering with a few people at your church to study Christine Pohl's book and explore the study guide for how to best recover hospitality as a Christian tradition.
10 [ Back ] Pohl, Making Room, 30.
Thursday, September 1st 2011

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