online book group: Practicing Our Faith, chapter 3

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There are many who say that hospitality is the key Christian practice–the purpose of all we do is to learn hospitality. Stories such as Abraham “entertaining angels unawares,” Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, the wedding at Cana, Jesus in the home of Mary and Martha, the feeding of the 5,000, and the walk to Emmaus give us a glimpse of the kind of hospitality God asks us to practice. Worship practices such as communion offer us the opportunity to receive God’s hospitality so we can share it with others. And, of course, being Presbyterians we can’t forget about our ever popular fellowship opportunities like potlucks and dinners in our homes that help us practice too!

Hospitality is a hard practice in our world today–so often people are excluded and isolated, and we treat one another as strangers rather than brothers and sisters. We have learned to fear our neighbors and have lost the art of welcoming people (friend or stranger) into our spaces. Our understanding of relationship has come to be based on power rather than mutuality, independence rather than interdependence. The Christian practice of Hospitality seeks to address our fears, right our injustices, and bring harmony to our relationships with each other, the world, ourselves, and God. If each person is a child of God, made in the image of God, then our task is to find ways to welcome the Christ in whatever form he may take.

Ana Maria Pineda, who wrote this chapter, notes that “no one is strange except in relation to someone else; we make one another guests and hosts by how we treat one another.” In the New Testament the word philoxenia, love of guest/stranger, is often used to talk about hospitality. Notice how it’s basically the opposite of xenophobia, fear of stranger? Practicing philoxenia is part of the path of transformation into Christlikeness–we love because God first loved us.

The early church met in homes–what we now call “house churches.” It was part of their understanding of Christian practice–to gather together, in each other’s homes, to seek God together and to practice the way of grace. This practice led them also to care for strangers, for widows and orphans and the destitute and the alien (as commanded repeatedly in the Old Testament and the New, “for you were once aliens in the land.”). Through practice, we not only welcome “strangers” but also recognize their holiness, we see the image of God in them as in those we already know and love. Pineda says “To welcome the stranger is to acknowledge him as a human being made in God’s image; it is to treat her as one of equal worth with ourselves–indeed, as one who may teach us something out of the richness of experiences different from our own.”

How do we practice hospitality in a culture that is so often inhospitable? How can we create spaces where we learn to give and receive? How do we look for the image of God in people so different from us, from different places, different backgrounds, different walks of life…or even in people close to us, for that matter? “Within the biblical story, it is clear that all God’s people are spiritually descended from migrants and wanderers, and that all are called to hospitality.”

At a basic level, we can resist the unjust treatment of other human beings. It seems obvious, but it is harder than it sounds!

We can make an effort to open our home more frequently–have potlucks with our friends, or host dinner parties or movie nights. Once we get into that habit, perhaps start a practice of having each friend take a turn inviting someone new–so there’s one or two new people to meet each time you gather for a meal. A way to extend our networks of friendship as well as to open our doors to strangers.

We can find the needs in our neighborhoods and find ways to address them–are there people with nowhere to go for a holiday? Can they come to your house for the holiday meal or the big game? Are there people struggling for food? Perhaps a weekend lunch for several families, some in need and some not, would be a way to ensure kids get a meal outside of the school week as well as a way to build connections across the socio-economic divide. Are there people in need of shelter? Can we get together and create a safe space for them during the season when most shelters are closed?

What ideas do you have for how we might practice hospitality, and so potentially entertain angels unawares?

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