– – I have been obsessively thinking about hospitality lately, which is part of the reason why I chose to focus on it for our women’s retreat. It started when a whole bunch of families started to bring me food to help with the crazy hardness of mom’s illness — my good friends but also almost complete strangers. It completely blew me away at how these people made room for us, using their family’s time and their family’s money to help steady us in this slippery time. It got me thinking and praying about how deep hospitality actually goes. And I’ve been challenged by it. So challenged by what it means to actually make room for others, especially other’s not at all like me, in my own heart. So here are some thoughts on that. I might be posting a few random things about hospitality as well. The essay starts with a long scripture passage, I know its not chippy enough to be a quick read. But its important to why this has grabbed my own heart so much.–
“In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.
So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.
And when I come I will give further directions.”
This is the passage of 1 Corinthians that we often read at communion in our church. Starting at “For I received from the Lord….” But when you put those few verses in front of it, the whole tone changes. This section on the Lord’s Supper becomes more urgent, more insistent. Paul is angry. He is sarcastic in this passage. He is frustrated.
In those first few decades after Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and then rose from the dead, the people who knew him were completely blown apart – and they told everyone about it. They started meeting together, followers of The Way. And they would meet in someone’s house, they would eat, maybe sing, maybe someone would talk or they would read a letter from an apostle that had come through town awhile back. They would pray. And they would eat together. This was church. This happened usually in a wealthy person’s home, for they would have had the room, the space in the courtyard to fit people in.
Paul is writing because he has heard that when this church in Corinth meets at this one wealthy person’s home, the wealthy person and his friends eat first. They eat separately and then they open it up afterwards for the rest of the faithful, without providing food for them, and without welcoming those others to eat with them. And THIS IS EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE of what coming together as the church was to be about. And it made Paul furious. Because it flew directly in the face of everything he was teaching about Jesus the Christ, it flew in the face of everything Paul knew about Jesus the Christ.
At the root of this anger is a betrayal of the core of our faith.
What I’m talking about is Hospitality. Yes, hospitality. Its funny what images pop into my head when I say hospitality. I think of “The Ladies,” I think of committees, I think of orange tupperware being set out on the potluck table. I think of friends who love to give dinner parties. I think of baby showers and tea at grandma’s house. I don’t think of strong and subversive and revolutionary Christianity. Honestly, I don’t even think of hospitality as being the core of what we do in churches. Its acknowledged as being important for building community at best but if we are honest, is thought about as women’s stuff and mostly peripheral to preaching and worship, to ideas and feel good experiences.
What the early church experienced and what was so profoundly attractive to people back then was this deep hospitality. In book after book about the early church, it is acknowledged that it was the quality of the hospitality of the believers that was responsible for the movement growing-not just preaching, not just getting people to mentally assent to something new. How people were welcomed to this table enabled a transformation that went so deep, they would die for it. How people were welcomed to this table was a physical correlation to what God did for them – a deep, honest, unafraid, free welcome.
Wealthy merchants, their wives, and their friends would be at the table – hosting, maybe providing for the meal. Maybe some craftsmen, maybe a now-out-of-work religious leader or two. There were more than likely fishermen, farmers, shepherds who wanted to meet. There were elderly people – there were young people. There were men and there were women. There were widows. There were Jews, circumcised and ritually clean their whole lives – and then there were Gentiles – eating, drinking, not washing hands all willy-nilly. There were free people, rich people and then there were lowly people, abused people, even slaves at this table. Just think of how completely astounding this would have been for them. Just think of all the boundaries that were completely crossed as this small group of people started to meet because they had been caught by Jesus. Each one of them somehow knew that welcome of Jesus to their tired hearts and were so taken by it, they were willing to cross every cultural boundary that had brought them safety and meaning to be with these others who also had been so transformed.
Anyone was welcome at this table, to eat with all the others. And the reason this was the new, very counter-cultural, revolutionary norm, was because of how Jesus was when he lived. They did this because of how Jesus welcomed others during his life. His life and ministry incarnated something of God. It incarnated something that God so desperately wanted them to know – His love for each individual, each lovely heart and mind. Jesus welcomed – sinner, Samaritan, woman, slave, teacher, wealthy, diseased. He welcomed in a completely subversive and shocking and free way. He was gentle and he was challenging but he always saw them for who they were. And he provided bread for them. And wine. And he told them that the bread and wine were for them. The broken bread, the poured out wine were for their bodies but also for their hearts. And he told them to eat and drink together so that they remembered this. And he said that whenever they ate and drank and remembered his welcome, they were proclaiming a bit of the reign of God. They were enacting something of the reality of what its like when God is in charge of his people, when God is at the table. And in that reality, we are all brought back to God, and we are all brought back to each other.
THIS is why Paul was so adamant. “You have not understood the body of Christ! You have not understood what we are doing here! You are eating and drinking judgement on yourselves when you do not open yourselves up to all of God’s people – all of God’s body.”
It is no coincidence that these words of Paul in Corinthians are nestled before a long discussion of the body of Christ – about giftings and the importance of every person to the whole (chapter 12).; and from there He talks about love. (chapter 13). You find something similar in Romans 12. Paul is thinking deeply about how each person is vital and valid and needed in the whole body, about how the diversity of this world is the unity of Christ’s very body. We have exhortations to know each person’s worth and exhortations to share and welcome each other BECAUSE of how Christ loved and welcomed us.
It is not too much to say that this, hospitality, is key.
What happens to you when you are welcomed, YOU, actually you are welcomed. Not a version of yourself you have to cultivate to fit in, or a version you have to edit to not be ostracized. But YOU.
Welcoming an Other, any other–a colleague, a stranger, a child, a parent, a refugee, an orphan, a widow, anyone in need, a boss, that person next to you at church – welcoming The Other can transform. Transform them, and transform us.
Jean Vanier, who built communities of unlike people, abled and disabled who lived life together, has thought a lot about what happens when we truly practice deep hospitality.
“My experience has shown that when we welcome people from this world of anguish, brokenness and depression, and when they gradually discover that they are wanted and loved as they are and that they have a place, then we witness a real transformation – I would even say a “resurrection.” Their tense, angry, fearful, depressed body gradually becomes relaxed, peaceful and trusting. This shows through the expression on the face and through all their flesh. As they discover a sense of belonging, that they are a part of a family, then the will to live begins to emerge.….
…To be in communion with someone means to be with someone and to discover that we actually belong together. Communion means accepting people just as they are, with all their limits and inner pain, but also with their gifts and their beauty and they capacity to grow: to see the beauty inside of all the pain. ” from From Brokenness to Community
Hospitality is not only about feeding people. Or caring for physical needs. Those things are a part of how hospitality is expressed but hospitality is, at its core, a heart attitude – towards others, but also towards ourselves and also towards God. Hospitality is making room in ourselves for others. It is also about making room for our own flawed selves. It is also about making room for the Living, Consuming and Very Good God. Hospitality is the free welcome of others without agenda, without caveats on who they are and how well they are going to take what you are giving them. It is the quality of hospitality that allows the transformation that Vanier is talking about, for giving people dignity and the space to make different choices, for providing people space and dignity to know themselves loved by God. And it is about trusting that God sees and knows that person just as much as he sees and knows you.
HOW we view people and welcome them face to face, even in our deep hearts, is foundational before we figure out what to do for them.
Deep Hospitality is for The Others. For those different than us. For those poorer than us, for those sicker than us. For those richer than us, for those smarter than us. It is for those meaner than us and for people a lot nicer than us. For those who would be grateful to us for making room in our lives for them, and for those who might not. Deep Hospitality is not for the deserving only – it is for the stranger, it is for orphan, it is for the refugee, it is for the widow, it is for the prisoner, it is for the sick. It is for the healthy, it is for the well-adjusted, it is for the person who is always worried, it is for the person who is always complaining, it is for the person who likes to be in charge, it is the person who never says a word, it is for the person who spends too much on clothing, it is for the person who couldn’t if they wanted to. It is bodily provision, bodily care and it is also soul care, soul space for healing, for rest, for encouragement. It is for us all, because we all are each other’s. Hospitality is core to our faith.
This hits home for me in a very real way. My (and many others’) beloved church merged with another church (also much beloved by their folk). Churches merging is almost unheard of in our culture, where we like to split up and start our own thing obsessively. (although, please know that there are times to leave a church…woah….whole other topic).
Its been such an eye-opening process. Into how and why we do church. Into what is important to church and to our church. And into how deeply we find our identities in our chosen group. And if I’m honest, how deeply we find our identities and importance in how important we are to our chosen group.
It’s been up and down for everybody in terms of how we feel about the merger. Sometimes we are excited for the possibilities. And sometimes we are terrified of losing what we love. On both sides, we are starting to trust the new people with ourselves. But there are also hesitations when we come across someone we don’t understand, someone we don’t get. This is present in every church. There are people we don’t understand and don’t get and who don’t get us no matter where we are. I think because it is new people (new to both original communities) that we feel the difference acutely. And there is fear for what we might lose, how things might change and of who we will be if we are not how we have always been.
When fear of The Other is at its height, I am starting to see that what I am actually scared of is that the certainty about who God is to me and who I am in this world, will be taken from me. I am afraid that my very self will be lost in the shuffle of all the other people, all the other needs. I see this in our small, beautiful church of people and I see it in the world all around us. We are afraid of what will be taken from us, we are afraid of being hurt or cast aside, when we welcome people, when we make room in our hearts for others, especially those different from us, especially when we don’t know how these new people will make things change.
And ALL OF THIS takes me back to the beginning of my thoughts today. When I think about what we are doing at church, how we have chosen to come together and to welcome one another, but now are having to actually work this out in real time, I am reminded about those early days of Christianity. Of how they had to work out what happened when people not like them were welcomed in. And they worked it out around the table. I think about how afraid they must have been. How afraid to welcome someone who could not care less about dietary rules when their own whole identity and meaning and existential reason was based on how well they followed those rules. Can you imagine what it would be like to be eating, really eating, really sharing with (and not just providing for) someone completely not like yourself back then? I’m imagining someone like a Vice-president of a energy company eating beside a 19 year old mom, with her baby in a high chair beside her, both having found meaning and hope in this one man who welcomed them, loved them in their entirety.
Maybe this is why Jesus liked to eat so much. He was always eating. And he was always eating with Others, with those not like himself, with those not normally welcome at such a table. It’s telling that it was this habit of His – of welcoming and eating with not-usually-welcome people and telling them things like “God loves you, you are forgiven” that is THE tension in the gospel. It’s telling that it’s this incredible welcome that gets Him hated and then killed. It’s telling that He was recognized after the resurrection, in multiple stories, only when He picked up some food, took a bite and passed it along. I think of those first disciples who must have then realized that the last supper they had with Him before all the trauma and awfulness of his death meant something huge, it meant something essential. And so they started eating together, remembering broken bread and free flowing wine. They remembered broken body and poured out blood. And they remembered how they themselves were welcomed into His heart. And they were compelled to do this together, to do this for everyone. And in the eating, and in the welcome, something new started to take shape. As they remembered Christ, they remembered who they were. They were God’s and they ALL were each other’s. And they now were the church, the very Body of Christ.
So for us in our little church, we will keep eating together. We will keep welcoming each other, even when we are afraid. And we will see Christ in those potlucks and salads in orange Tupperware as well as the bits of bread and juice passed around, touching each one of our hands.
Imagine going to a house, standing at the door, waiting for someone to open it for you. You are waiting, you know your faults. You know your insecurities. You know those areas where you are absolutely unable to get it right. You know where your crumple zones are. You know your thoughts. You know how tangly your yarn-heart really is. And you are tired. And then the door opens and instead of having to hide those parts, instead of having to play up the parts you can get right, you can just stand there. Your host opens the door and sees you. Sees what you really truly want. Sees a beautiful and broken thing, existing in its createdness as an altar to the good God. You are welcomed in, without makeup, in ill-fitting clothes. You are seen for everything that you are. And you are welcomed. And then you are given bread. And wine. And your ache starts to go away and your despair starts to dissipate. And you start to look around and see the others at the table, all being welcomed by this host. And you are scared – you don’t know them. You don’t know if they will take away from you, from everything you have carved out in this world. You don’t know if they will hurt you, make you dirty, make you feel afraid. But your host is looking at them too. THIS is the gospel. THIS is the good news. And there is nothing you really can do – other than take that bread, and eat it. Take that wine and drink it. And then pass it around, keeping an ear out for the next knock on the door.