For many years, I thought that hospitality was no more than providing meals or even overnight stays for people in our homes, or within the church—a cup of coffee and some cookies, accompanied by warm greetings for all in attendance at worship.
It wasn’t until I realized that hospitality is actually a spiritual discipline that I began to grow in an expanded understanding of hospitality.
The reason that hospitality receives so much attention among theologians, spiritual directors and biblical teachers is that it is such a prominent theme throughout Scripture. Throughout the Old Testament, God acts graciously to the covenant people and repeatedly instructs them to likewise be gracious and inviting to others.
According to Leviticus 19:34, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (see also Ex. 22:21, Lev. 19:34, Deut. 10:19). And who can forget the familiar statement in Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it”?
As a church planter and, perhaps even more, as a person who grew up outside the church but was welcomed in by gracious, winsome people whose warmth and love made me want to know more about their faith community, I value open hearts and minds to welcoming all whom God will bring our way within our churches.
In 2009, my husband and I were able to take a 3-month sabbatical for which we had our own growth goals in place. But, another “lesson” was divinely woven into our experience. During three conversations with friends about our plans for that summer, prior to the beginning of sabbatical, their gracious invitations to stay in their vacation homes while they were absent led to some of the richest experiences we had during that time frame.
When we unexpectedly came upon a small house for sale that needed lots of repairs, but was in a wonderful location, we actually bought that house, knowing that we, too, needed to make the house available to others in need of hospitality. Since then, we celebrate whenever we are able to invite missionaries to stay in a place with no work responsibilities; we also use the space for personal renewal, or for part-time church staff people on limited budgets who need a get-away; as well as many others who receive the gift as a response to the grace we’ve received and want to share with others.
Hospitality. It’s a big deal.
In the reading from 3 John, the apostle John makes this comment on the behavior of Diotrephes: “he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church,” and then goes on to exhort: “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good.”
Lack of hospitality is a big deal to God because it falsely represents the nature of God… especially when it is perpetrated by the church. John knows that the witness of the church that may say that it is centered on gratitude for the grace received in Christ can be compromised and even negated when people are not welcomed in and valued as gifts from God to the community.
As we reflect on our own sense of hospitality within our churches, let’s ask ourselves these questions:
Whose voices are we listening to most closely?
Those who advocate for exclusivity or inclusivity (Diotrephes and his type, or Demetrius who received commendation from John for his loving leadership)?
Those who boldly block those whom they don’t want to let in (and try to sanctify their responses by claiming authority that goes beyond their legitimate bounds) or those who welcome others with the ethos, words and actions of Jesus who welcomed all?
Those who undermine the teachings of those who teach the way of Jesus through slander/gossip because they themselves do not want to practice a costly, self-giving form of discipleship or those who are so grateful that they personally have been accepted and welcomed into the community of faith that they gladly welcome others freely?
Examples of real people in each of these categories come to mind easily for me, as I am sure they do for you if you have been in the church for more than a few years. I give thanks for those who have embodied the grace of Jesus for me and for so many others. Their very lives have been a “welcome mat,” inviting me to walk more fully into the community of faith on so many occasions.
On the other hand, there are those who believe they are doing God a favor by keeping the church pure from those whom they believe would sully it. For these, perhaps a little self-examination would be in order. Whenever we fully take stock of our own lives, we recognize that none of us deserve the grace that God has so lavishly poured out on us through Jesus Christ. Being watch-dogs with a worthiness or purity litmus test is not an instruction that Jesus gives us. Rather, He spends more time warning those who are stumbling blocks to others to change their ways.
The following piece was written by Rev. Sam Shoemaker in 1958, so its use of the word “men” throughout could be updated to include women and children in the spirit of Sam’s witness to all people. Regardless, it captures the essence of hospitality that I hope characterizes our churches more and more as people come to our literal and figurative doors.
I STAND BY THE DOOR
I stand by the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out.
The door is the most important door in the world –
It is the door through which men (women and children) walk when they find God.
There’s no use my going way inside, and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where a door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind men,
With far outstretched, groping hands.
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it…..
So I stand by the door.
The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for men to find that door – the door to God.
The most important thing any man can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands,
And put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks
And opens to the man’s own touch.
Men die outside that door, as starving beggars die
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter –
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live, on the other side of it – live because they have not found it.
Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him….
So I stand by the door.
There is another reason why I stand there.
Some people get part way in and become afraid
Lest God and the zeal of His house devour them;
For God is so very great, and asks all of us.
And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia.
And want to get out. ‘Let me out!’ they cry.
And the people way inside only terrify them more.
Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled
For the old life, they have seen too much:
Once taste God, and nothing but God will do any more.
Somebody must be watching for the frightened
Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,
To tell them how much better it is inside.
The people too far in do not see how near these are
To leaving – preoccupied with the wonder of it all.
Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door,
But would like to run away. So for them too,
I stand by the door.
I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not yet even found the door,
Or the people who want to run away again from God.
You can go in too deeply, and stay in too long,
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him, and know He is there,
But not so far from men as not to hear them,
And remember they are there too.
Where? Outside the door –
Thousands of them, millions of them.
But – more important for me –
One of them, two of them, ten of them,
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So shall I stand by the door and wait
For those who seek it.
‘I had rather be a doorkeeper…..’
So I stand by the door.”