I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service… Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honour giving preference to one another; … distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.
– Romans 12 vv 1,10,13
I have been struck by the theme of Paul’s writing in Romans 12, and that He includes in what is necessary for good church life an ingredient which is often missing today – that is, the art of hospitality. He goes further than this, and says that we should be ‘given to hospitality’. We should have a ‘default’ tendency to hospitality.
I do not think it is any coincidence that the chapter commences with the exhortation to surrender our bodies to the Lord as a living sacrifice. Hospitality costs us something. Perhaps a little quiet time, or nap time, or time alone with the family – we have to share that precious time with others. Time alone with the family, or even nap time, has its place – but we are called to something which can be a great pleasure, and a great blessing, but which is costly – it involves sacrifice.
The expression ‘given to hospitality’ is strong in the original language. We could render it ‘persecuting the entertainment of strangers’ – which sounds a little odd! ‘Given to’ means ‘absolutely committed to’ – to the point of making your pursuit of this end a matter of great pressure, a hot pursuit. Hospitality – the entertainment of strangers – is vital. We all hear the usual encouragements to be hospitable, especially from church growth ‘experts’, but I wonder if we overlook the incredible benefits hospitality brings to home and family life, and to our outlook on the world.
As most readers know, I grew up near the centre of London, England from the 70s, through the 80s and into the 1990s. In this time, the city became increasingly ethnically diverse. In current times, it seems every nation and culture on earth is represented among the millions now living, working, studying or visiting this vast metropolis. For all the diversity, the area where I lived was mostly white and English, and so my schooling up to age 11 was among those who were most like myself.
All this changed when I went to Secondary School – ‘High School’ for American readers! This was in a different area, and suddenly I went from being an ethnic majority, to being in a tiny minority of about five per cent. I was bullied and racially abused on a regular basis for three years – but of course it was not recognised as ‘racism’ because I was the wrong colour for that. I struggled with feelings of anger and resentment. I could have become a hardened and bitter racist myself because of the cruelty of those other boys. But I never did.
Why not? I was not born again at this time – that came later when I was 15 and had moved to a ‘better’ school. I would like to suggest that the reason I did not allow the behaviour of some to alter me was – hospitality.
This white boy, with white parents who came from the countryside (and could have returned there for a gentler lifestyle, but chose to stay urban for the sake of the gospel), shared meals with men and women from all around the world. Rich and poor, from every continent; some with good English, some with a very poor grasp of it – many of them of course followers of Christ, but not all. On Sunday we got to meet the whole world – first at church, and then as representative parts of the world came in to our home. What room for racism and prejudice could there possibly be?
I know that there were times that we siblings childishly resented the intrusion on our family home, but we had such an example from our parents. We knew that while one ‘stranger’ might have insulted us at school – there were many more who loved us, and not just those from Africa or the Caribbean, but I remember visitors from China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, India, and so many far flung places. The entertaining of strangers was an education more useful, more broadening, and more instructive than any politically correct attempts made by the state to introduce us to ‘diversity’!
Fast forward to the recent past in Cheltenham, and Clare and I were able to invite a German tourist back for a Sunday meal. My son, and other regular guests, were at home, and here was a man from many miles away with a strange accent and a good but sometimes flawed grasp of English – a stranger indeed. But I asked him to share his testimony after our meal, and it was wonderful to hear of what the Lord had done for him. To my delighted ears a stranger became a brother
We live in quite small communities here in South Gloucestershire, but one thing that I can almost guarantee is that from time we will be visited by strangers. Entertain them – overcome your cultural discomfort, or shyness – whatever holds you back. Entertain strangers – the Lord will bless you, and your house with you, perhaps in ways that a lifetime will never fully reveal.
What an evil and a blight is prejudice and racism – it has no place amongst the people of God. What, my friends, is the last verse of Romans 12?
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
May God so help us and bless us, that by instinct, and through love to Christ who loved us when we were strangers, we may all be truly ‘given to hospitality’.