God’s Radical Welcome

by Amy G. Oden | March 05, 2008

Hospitality conjures ideas of cookies and coffee or magazine covers of gracious living. We think of entertaining in the home, and of women making guests comfortable. In fact, the more hospitality has become associated with the home and women in the last century, the more it has been sentimentalized and trivialized. A Christian view of hospitality is so much more. It is God’s welcoming work through both men and women in the world. When we reduce hospitality to the domestic sphere only or assign it to “women’s work,” we lose the spiritual power of this counter-cultural and life-changing witness of our faith. I call this powerful witness “gospel hospitality,” or the radical welcome God offers to all people throughout Scripture. God’s welcome is the ground of all hospitality that we practice in Christian life.

Scripture records all people of God — women and men — practicing hospitality. Many men offer welcome and find themselves touched by God’s power: Abraham under the oaks of Mamre (Gen. 18), Zacchaeus with Jesus (Luke 19), the disciples feeding the 5,000 (Matt. 14, Mark 6, Luke 9, John 6). Gospel hospitality is at the heart of our work for gender equality because it welcomes us into a new way of seeing others. It almost always entails some kind of risk, and leaves all parties changed.

Marks of gospel hospitality

Often we expect hospitality to be accompanied by warm feelings and positive outcomes. Yet our experiences welcoming the stranger tell a different story, and Scripture does, too. Welcoming the stranger in the same way God has welcomed us is marked more often by stops and starts, by risky steps, by the disruption of a stranger who will change us, by meeting Christ in the stranger. 

My husband is an avid hiker but I’m much more tentative on the path. He’s shown me how the blazes on the trail, bright patches of paint on tree trunks, provide markers to let us know we are on the right path. In the same way certain blazes of paint found in Scripture help us to know we are on the path of gospel hospitality.

Abraham and Sarah’s welcome

Throughout the Christian tradition, the account of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18 has illustrated God’s powerful notion of hospitality. It is a familiar story: Abraham begs three strange travelers to stop at his home. Under the oaks of Mamre, Abraham washes their feet and serves the strangers himself, a surprising act for the man of the house. He stands by them, waiting while they eat. When they turn to ask Abraham about his wife, Sarah perks up her ears at the shocking idea that strange men should ask after her. One of the strangers says, unbelievably, that when he returns next year, Sarah will have a son. After God’s promise and decades of unfulfilled longing, the suggestion that aged Sarah would bear a child seems outrageous, even cruel. Yet as it turns out, these strangers — welcomed and refreshed — bring a surprising gift. They enter the picture as guests, the ones receiving welcome. Yet as the story unfolds, they become hosts, the ones offering welcome to Abraham and Sarah into a whole new life as parents. 

Readiness: Expecting strangers

The first mark of hospitality that we find in Genesis 18 is readiness to welcome strangers. Abraham is watching, expectant. He doesn’t know who is coming or when, but he doesn’t want to miss it when they arrive. Abraham is ready — ready to welcome, ready to enter another’s world, ready to be vulnerable. The readiness of hospitality exudes trust — an understanding that strangers bring gifts, and that offering them welcome will draw us all closer to God.

Abraham’s readiness doesn’t just appear one morning; it has taken root in his life. Readiness comes from practice walking with God. Before the story of the strangers at Mamre, Genesis chronicles Abraham’s radical openness to God’s call on his life, leaving all he had known and going to an alien land sight unseen. His readiness, a blaze of bright paint that marks his hospitality, is rooted in a lifetime of listening to God’s call. 

Without such readiness, our own hospitality is a house built on sand, swamped by the first wave of disappointment or rejection. Hospitality not marked by readiness can do damage because it is a welcome that cannot make good on its claims. The gospel is hurt by unready hospitality. 

For us to be ready to offer gospel hospitality, we may have some groundwork to lay first. Like Abraham, we will have to listen to God and open our hearts. The more we pay attention to our own experiences of God’s welcome in our lives, the more ready we are to participate in gospel hospitality. 

Risk: Disruptive and dangerous

Because hospitality has become sentimentalized in recent centuries, we tend to associate it with warm and fuzzy feelings. We can easily miss the reality, understood so well by biblical accounts and early Christians, that hospitality is disruptive and dangerous. For both Abraham and Sarah, hospitality is marked by the bright blaze of risk. 

The first risk Abraham takes may be the hardest one for us — he risks rejection. What if the strangers say no? For Abraham and Sarah, the next risk is the very concrete risk of physical danger — three grown men could easily overpower an aged Abraham and Sarah. Welcoming the stranger puts oneself and one’s community at risk. At best, the stranger is disruptive, bringing strange ideas and new, even wrong, ways of doing things. At worst, the stranger is dangerous, bringing disease, dishonor, or violence. 

Abraham and Sarah’s story teaches that when we welcome the stranger, everyone will be changed, host and guest alike. We can no longer maintain the status quo, keep things as they are, because the stranger brings a new frame of reference. Strangers bring the unexpected. Gospel hospitality is marked by risk-taking that trusts God is at work, both in the host and in the stranger. Risk can be scary, but when it accompanies welcoming, it’s likely we’re on the path of gospel hospitality. If we risk nothing, it is unlikely we are participating in God’s welcome.

Finally, hospitality risks the possibility that it may not work. Risk of failure can paralyze us. What does success and failure look like when we offer God’s welcome? Abraham’s only goal seems to be for the strangers to allow him to offer hospitality. Neither Abraham nor Sarah claim success as getting the strangers to join their family or follow their God or pass on the word about their great hospitality. In fact, Abraham’s invitation includes the recognition that the strangers will have refreshment and then “be on your way.” We usually get stuck in measuring our hospitality by others’ response to it, or by our own desired outcome. Genesis 18 teaches us that hospitality, risks and all, is God’s doing. Our hearts risk God’s leading, regardless of outcome. Risk is a spiritual mark of  hospitality. 

Repentance: Not regret but turning

Gospel hospitality is marked by new life, by change and transformation, not by business as usual. Welcoming the stranger inevitably brings challenges to our life together. Scripture describes this new life with the word repentance, which means not so much to feel bad or feel sorry, but to change course

Abraham and Sarah experience a turning. They have been on the road of despair for decades, waiting for a promised child that never came. In Genesis 18, the strangers bring news that requires Sarah and Abraham to turn onto a new path, a path of hope. Of course, they are at first skeptical about whether such a path exists; indeed, Sarah finds it laughable. Still, they both turn from resignation to expectation, a repentance (turning) that will bear great fruit. In many biblical passages, as with Genesis 18, it’s not just the guest, but the hosts who are turned, who are changed. 

Gospel welcome sees the world in a new way — that sees through the eyes of the other. Considering our own experiences of welcoming others, we know that we have been changed by our encounters. We may think to the first time we welcomed a woman to a leadership position and in turn found encouragement and inspiration through her. This is what repentance is all about. We approach the edge of the unfamiliar and cross it, if only by a step. When we are received into God’s life and, in turn, receive others, we encounter something new, whether we are the host or the guest. Such turning is a bright blaze on the path of hospitality.

Recognition: Eyes to see Christ

Finally, we turn to the last marker on the path to gospel hospitality, one which is at the heart of what it means to be gender reconcilers. When Abraham sees the three strangers, he addresses them with deference, claims to be their servant, and begs them to stop at his tent for refreshment. Abraham recognized these strangers as more than simply strangers. He could have seen the three men and quickly concluded: these are merchants on their way to market, drifters looking for a hand-out, or con men looking for an easy mark. Instead, Abraham treats the strangers as honored guests. 

How did Abraham know? How did he recognize them as perhaps more than they appeared to be? Later, explaining this episode, the author of Hebrews says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2, TNIV). 

Recognition is more than just seeing. Recognition is seeing deeply, seeing beyond what appears to be. Abraham is able to see past appearances to the holy presence within them, to know them. When God recognizes us as God’s children, rather than as strangers, God sees beyond our appearances. We have all had the experience of another person recognizing in us something greater than we ourselves could see: the teacher who could see our potential when we struggled in school; the supervisor who knew we could handle more responsibility; the mentor who took our dreams seriously, envisioning the people we could become; the youth leader who saw us as a preacher; the theology professor who recognized the budding scholar in us. That’s why it is so powerful to see ourselves or others through God’s eyes. When we see people in categories — young black man, tattooed teenager, soccer mom, older white guy — we too easily miss the opportunity to see Christ in each one. When we recognize strangers as Jesus, we, too, see beyond appearances (Matt. 25:35). Gospel hospitality is marked by such recognition.

Gospel hospitality calls us to look beyond stereotypes that box women and men in society’s roles and instead recognize the full equality of women and men that the Bible proclaims. When men and women step out of those roles, they can easily become strangers, even in their own communities. We welcome the stranger when we welcome the dad who wants to work in the church nursery or the woman who wants to lead Bible study. When we welcome these, we recognize the work of Jesus among us. No doubt the kind of deep seeing that hospitality invokes takes time and patience because it challenges our assumptions about gender. To recognize the presence of Christ in another we may have to get to know them, listen to their testimony — their life story — to fully appreciate Christ’s presence within them. We may have to work together or pray together before we begin to recognize Christ in the stranger. We may also have to modify our idea of what Jesus looks like!

When we can see Christ in another, we proclaim the good news of God’s welcome. We proclaim that God is already present and working, regardless of gender roles or social categories. Abraham had eyes to see deeply and indeed the strangers were considerably more than they appeared to be, bringing God’s promise to fulfillment. The bright blaze of recognition marks the path of hospitality. 

The welcome goes on

Gospel hospitality offers us a powerful experience of God’s welcome. Abraham and Sarah were both touched and changed. God has welcomed us, too, into new life, into life that is free from expectations based on cultural stereotypes and roles. As Christian men and women we extend this risky welcome and participate in God's welcoming work.