In the small town where I grew up, where half of the seven churches were Mennonite, there were two main groups in school: those who went to church and those who didn’t. In elementary school, the dividing line fell between those whose parents petitioned to have “religious exercises” in school each year, and those whose parents asked that their child be excused.
In high school, a different dividing line emerged: between those who spent their breaks inhaling nicotine, and those who didn’t. However, there was something about “the smokers” that shamed this prim, smoke-free, Christian girl: they were welcoming.
It’s never easy to be a new student in school, but it’s particularly difficult when nearly everyone else has shared the same classroom experiences since Kindergarten. Yet, while that lack of history was palpable to a newcomer trying to break into the Christian youth group cliques, somehow, everyone was on equal ground at the smoking entrance. If you were willing to share a light and a cigarette, you were welcomed; you belonged.
This minority defined by a bad habit was perhaps the friendliest, least judgmental, and most diverse group in a school where the majority proudly considered themselves “good Christians.”
Then, as now, I suspect the church is supposed to look more like the smokers than the “church kids.” A motley crew from different income brackets, age ranges, educational levels, and ethnocultural backgrounds, whose only admission requirement is a willingness to share one thing. For the church, that one thing is a love for Jesus that leads to continual life transformation. And if a newcomer isn’t yet sure about our friend Jesus, he or she is welcome to hang out with us to get to know him.
“Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality” (Romans 12:13), we read, and think of potlucks with our church friends or of grandma’s famous home-cooking. And though it’s good that the hospitality committee organizes potlucks for the congregation, and that Oma Giesbrecht always has borscht and zwieback ready when her grandchildren drop in, that’s actually not biblical hospitality.
In biblical hospitality, the emphasis isn’t on showing love to those already in the circle of believers, but those outside it, even antagonistic toward it. Perhaps we ought to split Romans 12:13 down the middle, connecting the instruction to practice love-of-stranger with the following verses on blessing those who persecute you (14) and extending graciousness to those who would harm you (17–21).
In the Middle East (as on the Canadian Prairies!), the elements can be harsh and unforgiving, so offering food and drink (or shelter) to a travelling stranger may be a matter of life and death. Old Testament law decreed love of stranger (Leviticus 19:33–34), and one of the things that got Israel in trouble with Yahweh was their failure to do so (Ezekiel 22:7).
Abraham modelled this biblical hospitality when he ran to meet the three strangers on the road (Genesis 18:2) and begged them to rest and eat under his protection. Similarly, Hebrews 13:2 exhorts Jesus followers to treat each stranger as though he or she were our Lord himself.
Though Abraham entertained God, and the men on the Emmaus road actually hosted Jesus incarnate, not every extension of hospitality will be so remarkable. There may be little tangible reward in extending hospitality to a traveller who will soon depart, or to a refugee or homeless person whose needs far outweigh resources.
Nevertheless, hospitality is integral to the church’s mission as God’s workers on earth. As we welcome strangers into our homes and our lives – whether for a moment, a month, or a lifetime – we open a door to conversations about our amazing friend Jesus, who showed us the way.
Practicing true biblical hospitality means turning outward, to offer that cup of coffee not merely to friends, but to foreigners – refugees, weary servants, international visitors, even people we prefer to characterize by their sin – and welcoming them in. We may need to hang out at the “smoking entrance” accepting people as they are, and sharing with them the light of our friend Jesus.