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In my Midwestern hometown, hospitality usually takes the form of tables piled high with food and surrounded by people, squeezed in so tight you can feed your neighbor more easily than you can feed yourself. The dishes might be recipes handed down through multiple generations, or something more of the Hamburger Helper variety, but it is always made with love. And the people around the table might be family, life long friends, new acquaintances, or any combination of all three. Hospitality means making room at the table, filling empty bellies, and making memories.
As a child, I thought my mom was the queen of all hospitality efforts. We always had a dining table with at least one leaf insert, sometimes more, so it could extend to fit a crowd. When my older sister called from college to say she was not only bringing her boyfriend home for the weekend, but half of his rugby team was coming too, my mom made sure there was enough spaghetti and garlic bread to keep them satisfied. When my cousins would bring their significant others to the family Christmas gathering, my mom made sure there was plenty to eat and a present for each one to open.
My mother, while very kind and generous, would never have called herself the queen of anything, even hospitality. She stood in a long line of faithful hosts who had gone before her. Abraham and Sarah are two of the first that come to my mind. You may remember how they were greeted by three strangers in the heat of the day and their first instinct was to offer water and food and invite them to stay a while (Genesis 18).
In the New Testament, we encounter another couple who are quick to offer the comforts of their home to others. Aquila and Priscilla were forced out of Rome when all Jews were ordered to leave, and they started over again in Corinth. Knowing all too well the value of a warm meal and safe place to sleep, they offer their new home to the Apostle Paul without hesitation. As the recipient of such generosity, Paul was able to continue his missionary journey in this city, testifying to the people that the Messiah had come in the person of Jesus.
Following the pattern of many other locations on Paul’s journey, his teaching initiated an early church community in Corinth. Jews and Gentiles alike who committed to following Jesus as their Savior and Lord began to worship together, study, and share life together. Unfortunately, some time after Paul leaves, divisions grow. A community born from an openness to new teachings is now drawing lines and forming teams, closing ranks to protect their corner on the love-of-Jesus market. This, too, is a pattern. One we know all too well.
When three strangers surprised Abraham and Sarah, they offered food and water. Today, strangers are met with suspicion at best; in the worst cases strangers become victims of violence.
Aquila and Priscilla would be considered immigrants today, and be forced to face all of the challenges that come with such a label.
The church of Corinth, in many ways, is the church of today. We are the recipients of a gift: the good news of a Messiah who came so that all might know the love of God and a life everlasting. Rather than share that gift, we fight over who is more deserving of it.
It seems to me, and I think Paul would agree, that now is as good a time as any, quarantines and all, to break those patterns. Instead of mindlessly handing off our conflict and division to the generations to come, we could return to the timeless practices of hospitality.
While now may not be the time to invite people into our homes, we can still invite them into our lives. We can make space for new, even disagreeing, voices in our conversations, our news feeds, and our prayers. We can practice listening to understand rather than just waiting to offer a rebuttal. We can work together, over Zoom if we have to, to put food on every table and a roof over every head. We can refuse to assign status to one another based on skin color or hair type, the languages we speak, the total of our bank accounts, and even our denominational affiliations.
In the Kingdom of God, hospitality includes, but is not limited to, offerings of food or warm beds. It is about making room for the love of Jesus to reach anyone and everyone. That tradition, together with a few of my mom’s recipes, is one I would like to pass along to the next generation.