Welcome the Stranger
Diane belongs to an organization that provides college scholarships to young women – and one of the ways it raises money for these scholarships is a bed-and-breakfast program. Some members volunteer to host other members in their home for a nominal fee – but the money doesn’t go to the host. Instead, it goes to the organization. We have hosted some fascinating people in the past several years, and we hope they have enjoyed our hospitality. I belong to the Bridgeport Rotary, and we opened our home in 2000 to an exchange student from France. That hospitality started a friendship that is still active today. In fact, Julien’s parents are staying with us right now, and will leave with us tomorrow on our vacation in the West.
But that hospitality is enjoyable – or at least helpful. In the ancient Middle East, it was vital. Inns were few and far between, as were the towns in which they were located. From Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan we can conclude that travel was dangerous – even more so at night. Bands of robbers lay in wait for travelers to come around a blind corner, where they would beat them, take their valuables, and leave them to die.
So hospitality could be a matter of life and death. Taking in travelers was an important part of the culture. Saint Christopher is now considered the patron saint of travelers, but in the Roman Empire they were supposedly protected by Zeus Xenios – from the Greek word for stranger. Those who were asked to take them in usually did, because they wanted that god to smile upon them.
Another motivation that drove hospitality then is driving it again today: check out the couchsurfing.org website sometime. It’s a network of ten million people all over the world who can crash on each other’s couches free. They are total strangers – or, as they like to say, “Friends they haven’t met yet.”
In the ancient world, it worked much the same. If you took people in, you could get a token to use when you were traveling and needed a place to stay. Hospitality was especially important for the early church. And if the pagans would take each other in, shouldn’t the Christians be even more hospitable? In fact, the Greek word for hospitality literally means “love for strangers.”
Pastor John McArthur writes that it goes all the way back to Pentecost. Jewish pilgrims from all over the Mediterranean were in Jerusalem at the time, and more than three thousand of them came to faith as a result of the Holy Spirit’s work and Peter’s preaching. The Church in Jerusalem was the only Christian church in the world at the time – the Presbyterians had not built one in every town in middle America yet – and many of the new converts wanted to stay in Jerusalem to remain part of that church. As news of Pentecost spread, more people came to Jerusalem to look into this growing religious movement.
So the little church in Jerusalem had to absorb all the new believers and meet their needs for food and shelter. Somehow, the church was able to do it. The Apostle Paul later took a collection in order help the church support the strangers who never went back home.
Then as believers took the Gospel from city to city, believers along the way provided them with a safe place to sleep as well as food and moral support.
This is what John is writing about in the middle of his third pastoral letter.
Yes, he writes of truth and of his protégés walking in truth. But a big chunk of this little letter is about two members of the church under his care – Gaius [GY-us] and Diotrephes [dy-AH-treh-fehs] – and their different approaches to hospitality.
John praises Gaius from the beginning, as he calls him “my dear friend, whom I love in the truth.” He gets to the heart of the matter, though, in verses 5 and 6:
Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love.
There’s those words – strangers and love. Gaius is being hospitable – loving toward strangers, toward fellow believers who are carrying the Gospel to other parts of the world.
As John goes on, you get the sense that either Gaius is going beyond the minimum requirements for hospitality, or should be:
“You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worth of God.”
John is writing about providing supplies for their journey – not just their immediate needs. As you often do when visitors leave your home – sending them on their way with bottled water and some sandwiches or granola bars.
Of course, the believers would not get help from non-believers – “pagans,” as John writes – so Christians should help them as they spread the Gospel.
But that is not always the case. Not everyone in the church under John’s care does as Gaius does. In fact, John wrote to this unidentified church – apparently asking to be put up along with other messengers of the Gospel – but Diotrephes, the leader, won’t have anything to do with them.
Not only won’t he take them in, but he is also slandering them – spreading malicious gossip. And Diotrephes is throwing out members of the church who want to extend hospitality to the travelers. Nice guy, huh?
So John wraps up this part of his letter in v.11 by warning Gaius not to imitate Diotrephes and his evil behavior, and to continue to do what is good.
John is not the only one to encourage the faithful to show hospitality. God commanded the Hebrew people on their way to the Promised Land to do it. We read in Leviticus 19:
“When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him.
The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt.”
In Job 31, Job argued that he was a righteous man because
“… no stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler …”
And in Psalm 146, we read
The LORD watches over the alien …”
Jesus confirms that when He tells the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25:
“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in …”
The Apostles stayed true to our Lord’s message. Paul wrote in Romans 12:
Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
And at the end of the letter in chapter 16:
Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole church here enjoy, sends you his greetings.
Gaius was a very common first name in the Roman Empire. In fact, that was the first name of both Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus. So, the Gaius Paul wrote about may or may not have been the same one to whom John wrote.
Paul wrote to Timothy that anyone who wanted to be an elder in the Church had to be hospitable. That’s not part of our ordination questions, although we do ask elders to vow that they will be a friend to their colleagues in ministry, which should include hospitality.
Paul also wrote to Timothy that any widow who wanted to receive help from the Church had to be known for her good deeds, including hospitality and “washing the feet of the saints.” Foot washing was part of the practice of welcoming someone into your home in those days.
Peter added a new wrinkle in his first pastoral letter when he wrote in chapter 4:
Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.
Begrudging hospitality is not love for strangers, so it doesn’t count for much.
John is not telling people to fling their doors open to anyone who knocks – in fact, he warned in his second pastoral letter against hosting those who deny that Jesus is the Son of God in the flesh.
But his third letter reminds us that hospitality is a mark of the Christian faith – and we do well to be hospitable to each other, be it inviting each other over for dinner, hosting a Bible Study in your home, opening our home to a visiting missionary, taking in someone who lost their home to fire or flood,
or offering a meal to someone who lost a job.
During the Depression, a lot of hobos rode the rails through the Ohio Valley because they knew that the people here – who worked hard for a living and knew what it meant to live with economic uncertainty – were more likely to feed them if they knocked on the door. That’s a heritage to be celebrated – and to be reclaimed.
That’s where hospitality becomes more challenging – when it involves strangers. But loving the stranger is the very meaning of the word hospitality.
Would we open our home to a stranger – or a family of strangers? Would we do so for a family of refugees – many of them Syrian Christians – who are looking for a place to settle? What about a family of undocumented aliens? How hospitable could we be to a total stranger who shows up at the church door – just in time for worship? Perhaps with three fidgety children? Would we ask them to sit with us? Would we take them to lunch? Invite them to our home for lunch?
If those questions make you feel uneasy – spend some time this week asking your those same questions. Wrestle with the difficult challenges that being a follower of Jesus presents us.
In his book Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Methodist Bishop Robert Schnase attaches a modifier to the word “hospitality” – “radical.”
Radical Hospitality goes far beyond a handshake and a smile – or even an invitation to stay for the Coffee Hour:
People need to know God loves them, that they are of supreme value and that their life has significance. People need to know that they are not alone; that when they face life’s difficulties, they are surrounded by a community of grace; and that they do not have to figure out entirely for themselves how to cope with family tensions, self-doubt, periods of despair, economic reversal, and the temptations that hurt themselves or others. People need to know the peace that runs deeper than an absence of conflict, the hope that sustains them even through the most painful periods of grief, the senses of belonging that blesses them and stretches them and lifts them out of their own preoccupations. People need to learn how to offer and accept forgiveness and how to serve and be served.
This is hospitality as Jesus sees it. And it is a lot more work than saying, “Welcome to our church.” It involves taking responsibility for the well-being – the Shalom – of the stranger. It is time-consuming and often messy. But it can be very rewarding.
Perhaps the most interesting mention of hospitality is in the letter to the Hebrews – and we don’t know who wrote that. In chapter 13 we find:
Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.
That’s a neat thought – that in welcoming the stranger, we may unknowingly host an angel. And there are many stories told by people who believe they did take in an angel in the form of a stranger.
But our true motivation should be the knowledge that when we show hospitality to someone – especially another believer – we are doing it for our Lord Jesus.