The power of hospitality
Most Christians, if asked to list five of the attributes of God, would probably come up with words like loving, powerful, forgiving, just, holy, and so forth.
These are all important descriptors of God’s character as it is revealed to us in the Bible and supremely in Jesus Christ. But today I am thinking of another word that powerfully sums up how God deals with sinful, weak, needy people.
The word is hospitality. I was reminded of this attribute of God’s character by a recent post on Richard Long’s excellent blog at Together Canada. Hospitality is a trait that I would normally associate with people, not with God. Yet, when we understand Him as He is described in Scripture and portrayed by Jesus, we see that our God is amazingly hospitable.
Looking at the gospels, we see that in one of his parables, Jesus depicted God as a concerned father welcoming his runaway son home to his household and throwing a party for him. Jesus tells us elsewhere that in his Father’s household there is room for all his children to find a home. Jesus himself is depicted in Scripture as the coming Bridegroom who welcomes all who place their hope in Him to His wedding banquet. Our God longs to welcome people in, that they may find their home in Him.
When we look at the qualifications for elders in the New Testament, we discover that the New Testament church placed high value on hospitality as a trait for leaders. Evidently, the first century apostles understood that Jesus’ sheep need leaders who reflect His generous, hospitable heart.
Last night Marion and I watched Harvey, a movie from an earlier era of cinematography. Harvey was originally filmed in 1950, and I found it interesting to see how movie making has changed in 60 years. But beyond the technical aspects, what struck me most in this movie was the generous and hospitable nature of the film’s lead character, Elwood P. Dowd, played by Jimmy Stewart. Dowd is portrayed as a middle-aged eccentric who has inherited a fortune and does not have to work for a living. Rather than pursuing the business opportunities that would have been wide open to someone of his means, Dowd goes through life talking to an invisible 6 foot 3 inch rabbit. He spends most of his time at the local bar (where his invisible friend is quite welcome), listening to people that no-one else except the bartender has time for, and frequently inviting them to his home for dinner. This exasperates his sister and niece, who share his home. To be truthful, almost any normal person would find it difficult to live with someone as impractical, unpredictable and eccentric as Elwood P. Dowd. That said, he is an uncommonly likeable character, who excels in kindness and generosity.
When I woke up this morning, I realized that God was speaking to me through this aspect of the film. He showed me again the power of a hospitable life to communicate the good news of Jesus to people who are hungry for spiritual reality.
When we open our homes and our lives to people who are hungry and thirsty for true life, and become their friends, our understanding of what it means to share the gospel of Jesus undergoes a radical transformation. Instead of being a project, evangelism truly becomes a way of life. It is no longer just a matter of verbally communicating spiritual truth, or even praying with people for them to receive Jesus or for the Holy Spirit to touch their lives – although both of these aspects remain important. When we open our homes and our hearts to people, trust is fostered in the people we befriend, and over time, God uses this atmosphere of acceptance and friendship to prepare their hearts for genuine conversion. This, of course, requires that we be transparent with those we are reaching out to, so that they can see us as we really are. That’s how disciples are made – through relationships of honesty and trust, in which the good news of Jesus is communicated on many levels.
Marion and I have been rediscovering the transforming power of hospitality over the past several weeks as the Holy Spirit has opened the door to a friendship with our next-door neighbours. It all started this past summer when Orlando Suarez, a church-planter from Cuba, visited our life group on several occasions this past summer. Orlando spoke to us of his passion for sharing the good news of Jesus with the people in his neighbourhood. As I listened to him, I realized that the Spirit of God was speaking to me and telling me to become more active in reaching out to our neighbourhood. Marion and I invited several people to our home to watch the Alpha videos and talk about the true meaning of life. The couple next door accepted our invitation, and it has been a delightful experience getting to know them better. We had already been on good terms before beginning this process. But now, the relationship is changing from cordial to intimate. As we talk about the Alpha videos and their growing realization that Jesus is alive, we are becoming spiritual friends. In this atmosphere of friendship, lives are being changed.
This, it seems to me, is what happened over and over again in the ministry of Jesus and the Apostles. I once did a survey of pivotal or life-changing events in the gospels and the Book of Acts, and discovered that a great many of them took place in someone’s home. When Jesus dropped in to Zaccheus’ house for dinner, someone’s life was changed because Jesus took time to accept hospitality from a man that any self-respecting religious teacher wouldn’t go near. Jesus knew Zaccheus needed to repent. By inviting himself to Zaccheus’ home for a meal, Jesus honoured this man whom others rejected, and offered an atmosphere of acceptance that made it easy for Zaccheus to turn away from his self-focussed life and make things right with God.
So – how are you doing with hospitality? It’s not really about how nice a home you have. That doesn’t matter. Your home doesn’t have to be spotless or elegant. Hospitality is not entertainment. And you don’t have to be limited to offering hospitality in your home. You can also offer hospitality in a friend’s house or apartment, a restaurant, a bar, a hospital, a workplace, a prison, or even on a street corner. It’s really about making time for relationship and having an open heart.
To be truthful, I’m not very good at this. I’m still learning. But Jesus is very good at it, and he is teaching me how to let my life be a vehicle for His ministry of hospitality. It’s all about learning to rest in the Father’s goodness, and invite others to come into His household and discover His delightfully generous love.