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Aloma Jonker is an alumna of Tyndale Seminary (MTS, 2011). She is hoping to pursue doctoral studies in theology.

June 2010

Volume 3

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1 Peter 4.9 says simply: “Be hospitable to one another … .” Hospitality is a crucial Christian practice that manifests the welcome of God extended to humanity through the death, resurrection and ascension of his son, Jesus Christ. Through this event God made a way for strangers, alienated from him on account of their sin (unbelief, rebellion and idolatry) to become part of his household (Coloe, “Welcome into the Household of God”, 412).

The practice of hospitality has a long and rich history in the bible. The well known account of Abraham, a foreigner in Canaan, extending hospitality to three men associated with God is narrated in Genesis 18:1-8. The event is set in the context of the covenant that forms the basis of the establishment of the people of God. (Gen 17: 11-14). Abraham is depicted as leaving the comfort and safety of his tent, hurrying towards the men lingering near his abode, bowing before them and imploring them to “not to pass him by” (Gen 18:3). Abraham’s lavish provisions for his guests included water so that the men “may wash their feet” (Gen 18:4, 6-8). He arranged for a feast to be prepared for them, slaughtering a “choice calf” (Gen 18:7) which he served to his guests. Upon completion of the meal the men announced the good news that a son will be born to Abraham and Sarah (Gen 18:10). Isaac was the promised seed from whom were born the people of God later known as Israel. It is significant that the bible juxtaposes Abraham’s right action towards the strangers and the blessing of life bestowed upon him and Sarah with the injustice and immorality, indicative also of a lack of welcome, of Sodom and Gomorrah that precipitates their subsequent destruction (Gen 19).

The Gospel of John takes us to another scene of hospitality, this time in Jerusalem. It is set in the context of the Passover festival, a meal that commemorates the deliverance of Joseph’s descendants from enslavement in Egypt and their formation as the people of God in the wilderness (John 13-17). The meal had commenced but Jesus suddenly got up and started washing the feet of his disciples, taking on the role of the host who welcomes his guests by cleansing them of the dirt accumulated along their journey thereby preparing them to come to his table (John 13:1-17). It is against the background of the foot washing and the meal that Jesus announced that he was going to prepare a place for his disciples in His Father’s house (John 14:1-14). These acts of hospitality framed Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit which become the way through which the new household of God was established, set apart for God in Christ (Coloe, “Welcome into the Household of God”, 411-415). Seen against this backdrop, the many meals Jesus shared with those barred from the temple, can be understood as foreshadowing the messianic banquet (Torrance, Atonement, 416,417) as the scattered people of God are gathered to him after being cleansed by the host. Jesus’ words, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9) to Zaccheus, a tax collector despised by the Jews, indicate the restoration inherent in inclusion among the people of God.

When Jesus sent his disciples and the seventy two as emissaries proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom it became clear that receiving them amounted to receiving the King and his blessing while rejecting them invited destruction similar to Sodom (Luke 9,10). Early Christians therefore considered hospitality towards Christian strangers imperative since receiving them was tantamount to receiving Christ himself. (Arterbury, “The Ancient Custom of Hospitality” 56). Itinerant evangelists such as Peter and Paul spread the gospel in the context of hospitality and it is not incidental that the most prominent conversion in Acts involved an act of welcome. In this instance Peter played the part of the host who received Cornelius’ emissaries thereby in effect accepting Cornelius, a gentile, among the people of God (Acts 10:23 ff). This was a powerful act that signalled a breach in the barriers that had heretofore prevented non-Jews from being included among God’s chosen.

Today we celebrate the Lord’s supper as one of the two sacraments of the protestant church. This meal at which Jesus is still host is central to understanding the nature and function of the church. At this meal the church is anchored firmly in the historical event of Jesus’ death and resurrection which made the way for table fellowship with God. This is symbolized by the breaking of the bread that signifies “ratification into a spiritual covenant and initiation into religious fellowship” in accordance with ancient Hebrew custom. (Cohen, Abraham’s Hospitality, 171).

The current era inaugurated by Jesus’ life, ministry, cross, resurrection and ascension is one of hospitality. At this time the proclamation of the good news of God’s kingdom comes in the form of an invitation to become part of the household of God, by placing our trust in Christ as the one through whom relationship with God is restored. But as Jesus’ commission to his disciples and his visits with people like Zaccheus demonstrated, belief is signified by welcoming the king and his emissaries. This means making room for them, setting aside usual routines and goals to cater to them, following Abraham’s example who interrupted his rest to attend to his guests with the best of his time and resources. It means allowing the king to set the agenda, rearranging priorities and bringing our time, resources, space, talents and gifts and letting him determine what to do with it. In return the church is assured of his sustaining presence and power as they labour under often discouraging circumstances.

For the church to exercise the ministry of hospitality means living out its call to invite people to enter into and share the Christian story as Jesus invited the outcasts, the misfits, the prostitutes and sinners to share in God’s kingdom. The church is meant to symbolize God’s welcome by receiving the stranger and welcoming them into his story, the narrative of the bible. This can be threatening as the alien brings with him or her, views, beliefs and behaviours that are different from ours and it requires that we hold in tension the need to be faithful to Christ while being in relationship with those outside the covenant as the early church had to do. While an obedient relationship to Jesus safeguards our identity as the family of God, the practice of hospitality to the stranger and alien assists us to fulfill the commission to spread the gospel (Matt 25: 28 ) and care for the foreigner and the marginal, bringing God’s justice to bear in a money and power oriented world. It also prevents the church from deteriorating into a pious ghetto as long as we remember that the intent is for all who enter Christ’s domain to leave behind the story that they were living, the narrative that dominated and determined their lives, to embrace life that unfolds in accordance with his will and purpose.

Bibliography

  • Arterbury, A. “The ancient custom of hospitality: the Greek novels, and Acts 10:1-11:18.” Perspectives in Religious Studies 29 (2002): 53-72.
  • Cohen, J. “Abraham’s hospitality.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 34 (2006): 168-172.
  • Coloe, Mary L. “Welcome into the Household of God: The Foot Washing in John 13.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 66 (2004): 400-415.
  • Koyama, K. “‘Extend Hospitality to Strangers’: A Missiology of Theologia Crucis.” Currents in Theology and Mission 20 (1993): 165-176.
  • Torrance, T. F. Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ. Edited by Robert T. Walker; Colorado Springs: Paternoster; Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2009.

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