Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. (Hebrews 13:2)
It was September 1967, and we had just moved into our first rental house in Darien, Connecticut. We had no car yet, so we phoned the nearby St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and were assured that we were within walking distance. The next morning we set off for church in our Sunday best with our two small children (22 months and 9 months old) in the baby carriage. It proved to be much more of a hike than we anticipated – 2½ miles to be exact. Bedraggled from our trek, we stumbled into church part way through the sermon. We were warmly welcomed and quickly assured that we would be given a ride home – we never walked to church again. Within days, Angela was invited to a morning coffee and a daytime Bible study, and we were all embraced by this vibrant community of faith. We still have friendships from that time, and in many ways our lives were transformed by the hospitality that we experienced.
When Jesus appointed his disciples, he first called them to be with him, sharing his life with them, before he gave them any assignments. (See Mark 3:14.) That was very much the model for the New Testament disciples. To become a disciple was to be called into community – there was none of the solitary spirituality that is dominant today. One of my favorite texts describing life in the early church makes this point abundantly clear:
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:44–47)
When we planted our first church in Lafayette, Louisiana, in 1983, we took this passage as foundational for our life together. It helped set the priorities for our common life and taught us the importance of hospitality. From the beginning, a great deal of the ministry of the church was done in our own home. After Sunday morning worship we invited everyone back to our home for lunch – and a good portion of the congregation came. It helped that the vestry had provided us with a spacious home and a pool!
We held lots of small group meetings in our living room and encouraged the formation of home churches where small groups of parishioners could meet together in their own homes for prayer, Bible study, and fellowship. We also created a pastoral network to ensure that needs were known, and help was offered. It was an exciting season of ministry as we witnessed the power of Christ-centered hospitality.
In ancient times, hospitality was considered a sacred obligation, and Abraham served as the exemplar of biblical hospitality.
His encounter with three “men” who turned out to be angels is cited repeatedly in Jewish and Christian literature. In Genesis 18:1–16, we find Abraham sitting in the doorway of his tent in the heat of the day when he sees three unidentified men standing nearby. He runs to greet them and urges them to stop and rest under the shade of the tree. Abraham offers to give them “a little water” with which they can wash their feet. He suggests that after eating a piece of bread and refreshing themselves, they might continue their journey. The travelers accept Abraham's offer, and he rushes into the tent and asks Sarah to bake bread and do it quickly. He then hurries outside to slaughter and roast a young calf. Once the food is prepared, he takes it, along with butter and milk, and sets before them a sumptuous feast. He stands by to serve them as they eat. At some point during the visit, the men inquire about Abraham's wife Sarah, and Abraham responds, “She is inside the tent.” One of the men then promises to visit again in the spring and adds, “Sarah your wife shall have a son.” Sarah, who overhears the conversation, laughs because both she and Abraham are well past the age of having children. The man reassures her, saying, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” And the rest is history – our history.
My wife Angela has always had a ministry of “radical hospitality,” and we have welcomed people into our home from our immediate neighborhood, the wider community, and across the Anglican world. One of the results of this practice is that our children and grandchildren have come to know and appreciate an amazing diversity of people. This has proved to be a great blessing, especially as they have begun to travel to distant places and often discover that we have family friends or connections in the neighborhood.
On one occasion, our grand-daughter Alex was taking part in a study semester in Valencia, Spain, and feeling rather lonely. Through our contacts in Australia we discovered that a young Australian CMS family was planting a church in Valencia. A few more phone calls and emails and she was warmly welcomed into a new community of faith, and before long she was part of the family! They even gave her a birthday party. The family myth that we have friends everywhere continues!
Hospitality is not only a Christian virtue – it is also a powerful antidote to the increasing scourge of loneliness. In recent years, the astonishing growth in the use of mobile phones and information technology has failed to improve social cohesion – instead, it has contributed to greater polarization and personal isolation.
This isolation, together with all of the social distancing and quarantine restrictions due to COVID-19, has led to a dramatic increase in loneliness – so much so that young people of today, ages 6–24 (sometimes called Gen Z), are now described as the “loneliest generation.” This loneliness is costly – it increases the likelihood of depression, stress, substance abuse, and suicide.
Our church is uniquely equipped to provide a solution – we are a community called by God to reach out and welcome the least, the lost, and the lonely. And – who knows? Sometimes, we might welcome angels unawares!
Your brother in Christ,