By MaryBeth Bratrud
In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer insightfully wrote, “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” I think there is often a temptation in our idealization of what community ought to look like to scorn the actual people that have been placed in our lives. Yet it is only when we choose to love those right in front of us that authentic Christian community can flourish. When we hear the word hospitality its easy to think of fancy dinner parties, beautifully set tables, or creative ways of entertaining new guests — and while these can certainly be ways in which hospitality is offered — they do not fully capture the depth and richness of biblical hospitality.
Justin Whitmel Earley writes in his book Habits of the Household that, “Entertaining guests is when you clean everything, make up nice plates of good and batches of drinks, and maybe get a sitter for the kids. At best, entertaining is where we honor our guests by offering an experience of comfort and beauty. At worst, entertaining is where we honor ourselves by showing off what we can pull off.” True hospitality, he suggests, is different. It is opening the door and welcoming someone, just as they are, into the reality of your heart, your home, your family — in all its messiness, lack, and humanity.
Abraham, the first patriarch of the Old Testament, is a profound model of how the gift of hospitality operates in the kingdom of God. When Abraham offers up bread, water, and a fine calf to the three visitors at Mamre, they reveal themselves as the Lord himself (note Trinitarian theology at play) and announce that Sarah will give birth to a son (Gen. 18:1-5). This is one of the earliest examples of hospitality in the Old Testament and it points towards New Testament hospitality.
For our Lord says in the gospel of Matthew,
“Then the King will say to those on his right hand, ‘Come, you whom my father has blessed, take as your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundations of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome...In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.’” (Matt. 25:34-35, 40).
Just as Abraham unknowingly welcomed the Lord himself into his home, so we welcome Christ when we open our heart and homes to one another. And miraculously this becomes the way in which the gospel is made tangible and real in our midst. When we welcome in the stranger, no matter the difference in worldview, theology, or politics, we transform them into our neighbor. When hostility is converted into hospitality, fearful enemies are made into welcomed friends.
Hospitality offers true belonging to the spiritually hungry. It does not require wealth or prestige because at its very core hospitality is welcoming the other into your life as it is and not as you think it ought to be. It is the act of widening your heart and opening the door. Henri Nouwen beautifully said, “Once we have become poor, we can be a good host. It is indeed the paradox of hospitality that poverty makes a good host. Poverty is the inner disposition that allows us to take away our defenses and convert our enemies into friends.”
Hospitality is a spiritual gift, and like all spiritual gifts, it is to be used to bless others and to display the truth of the gospel — “that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). As Rosaria Butterfield defines it, “Radically ordinary hospitality is this: using your Christian home in a daily way that seeks to make strangers neighbors, and neighbors family of God.” Christian hospitality is not optional, it is the lifeblood of communal living. It is the way in which we avoid the pitfall of worshiping the ideal community at the expense of the actual community.
So welcome in the stranger, the acquaintance, the friend, the fellow believer. Welcome them not into a perfectly cleaned home, set table, and the best of what you have to offer — but welcome them into your daily life and into your normal family rhythms . Love them just as they are, in all their humanity and brokenness. Offer them everything that you have and when you feel that you have nothing left to give, offer them even from your lack. And like the widow at Zarepheth, Christ will multiply your faithfulness.
Remember: poverty makes a good host. But more than all else, remember that it is not just the stranger you welcome, but Christ himself. For every human heart bears the image of God and holds treasures and glory to be revealed. Hospitality is not a ministry of charity so much as a ministry of love. It embodies the unconditional love that is central to the gospel and the foundation of a flourishing Christian community. It makes friends out of what might otherwise be an enemy.
May we, as a church, welcome the stranger into our homes with unconditional love. May we welcome one another into our messy lives as the family of God. May we open our hearts and make room for those who are underprivileged or simply different from ourselves. May we love the real people in front of us, and through authentic hospitality, build a community of life centered on the gospel.