I love Eugene Petersen’s translation of 1 Peter 4:8-9. In the NIV it reads, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” But in The Message, Petersen puts it like this: “Most of all, love each other as if your life depended on it. Love makes up for practically anything. Be quick to give a meal to the hungry, a bed to the homeless—cheerfully.” Love each other as if your life depended on it! I can’t help but wonder what our churches might be like if we loved one another as if our life depended on it.
Hospitality – the generous, spontaneous sharing of who we are and all that we have – flows out of this kind of love. In its purest form, hospitality is the divine mechanism by which God demonstrates his love for all creation, through us. In Making Room, Christine Pohl says that hospitality isn’t so much a task as it is a way of living our lives and sharing ourselves. It’s not just a matter of providing shelter or sharing a meal. These are entry level steps – important practices but small first steps. Pohl suggests that we learn how to practice hospitality in small increments of daily faithfulness. First a sharing of what we have but ultimately a sharing of who we are and of the love that God has invested in us for the good of others.
In our society and even in our churches, this kind of hospitality is rare. We are conditioned to be prudent in our sharing, to maintain proper boundaries between our lives and the lives of others. Our cultural milieu is one of distance and distrust. Openness, transparency, vulnerability and honesty are often seen as childlike qualities that must be overcome as a matter of safety. We need to take care of ourselves after all – and above all. Really? But this is a clever deception and not at all what God intends for us or for those – strangers, foreigners, friends – who he places in our path.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is a case in point. We ought not to be too hard on the priest and Levite. They did what was expected of them – in the hierarchy of rules, best to give a half dead man a wide berth. The Samaritan, on the other hand, was not constrained by purity rules. He was free to show mercy, to treat the helpless and wounded man as he himself might want to be treated had he been the one to fall into the hands of thugs. The kind of compassion he demonstrated is rooted in a spirit of hospitality.
Compassion may compel us to look after someone who is in need – to provide medical care, food, clothing, shelter, encouragement. But hospitality is about giving AND receiving. Hospitality transforms us. As it turns out, sometimes the needs we don’t see – the attitudes and prejudices and ethnocentrism and arrogance – are actually MORE debilitating than the needs that we do see – the poverty, addictions, wounds, lack of opportunity. These are lessons that our global field staff learn quickly as they live among people groups around the world. They soon discover that people with pressing material needs have much to teach us about hospitality and the state of our hearts.
Who is our neighbor? Well, in Canada, the neighborhoods are often diverse, especially in the larger urban centers. But diversity is spilling out into the rural areas as well, as governments at all levels and businesses are recruiting immigrants to work in their factories and to populate our towns and villages. There are challenges and opportunities for churches. And the way forward must, I think, be rooted in an understanding of, and commitment to, the practice of biblical hospitality – loving one another – whether family, friend, foe or foreigner – as if our life depends on it.