The Unity of the Saints

Fourth, hospitality can reveal the unity of those who belong to the kingdom of God, specifically in the context of shared meals. For instance, the disciples on the road to Emmaus recognized Jesus for who he was when Jesus assumed the role of host and broke bread. The clearest example of this, however, occurs in John's epistles. On the one hand, John commends Gaius for taking in "these brothers, strangers [xenos] as they are" (3 John 5). On the other hand, he commands a church to refuse hospitality to false teachers (2 John 10; cf. 1 Cor. 5:11).

I don't know that we can say that the incident Paul recounts in Galatians 2, where he opposes Peter "to his face" for refusing to eat with the uncircumcised group, pertains to hospitality, as such. Yet Peter's temporary unwillingness to share a meal with the Gentiles was the outward picture of a deep problem. Peter was implicitly adding circumcision to faith as the means of justification, dividing the body. Again, the refusal to share a meal pictured this. Applying this to the question of hospitality, then, it's worth asking whether there is any Christian—in your church or not—with whom you would not eat? If so, are you sure you understand the unity that Christians share in the gospel? It's not difficult to understand why Paul intends for elders in the church and older women to be marked by hospitality.

I have heard some Christians propose that hospitality can only be given to outsiders or strangers, that is, those who are literally from outside a local church's fellowship. Some go further and say that it can only be given to non-Christians. I don't see the New Testament drawing either of these lines.[2] In fact, I tend to agree with those who say the preponderance of occurrences of hospitality in the New Testament occurs toward other Christians.[3] And at least one passage strongly suggests it can occur between one church member and another (1 Peter 4:9). Ultimately, however, I think that drawing these sorts of lines misses the point. The kingdom emphases of the New Testament writers seem largely to fall on the wonders of post-Pentecost, new covenant realities, where Jews would eat with Gentiles, Greeks with barbarians, owners with slaves, poor with rich, and so on. That's why the picture of the early church gathering and sharing with one another "as any had need" is so striking (Acts 2:45). That's why the apostles took very seriously the trouble that arose over a distribution of food between the Grecian Jews and the Hebraic Jews (Acts 6:1). That's why Paul could urge Philemon to take Onesimus the slave back as a "beloved brother" (Philem. 16). The various class, racial, economic, ethnic, and gender categories human beings use to separate themselves from one another—the lines which make human beings "strange" to one another—were erased by the person and work of Jesus Christ, as given expression in the inaugurated reversal of Babel at Pentecost. The giving of hospitality between Christians, whether members of the same church or not, present one opportunity to paint the picture of the unity Christians have in the gospel. At the same time, the gracious picture of salvation Christians present by giving hospitality to non-Christians.

The Church's Alien Status

Fifth, just as the incarnate Christ was a stranger, and just as the Old Testament Israelites were continually displaced from their lands, hospitality reminds those who are joined to Christ that we too are strangers and aliens. Peter writes his first letter "To God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia" (1:1). Living by faith in the care of our fellow saints helps us from becoming too tied to this world and its goods. Living by the grace and hospitality of others reminds us that everything we have is a gift from above, which is why Peter's command for Christians to show hospitality to one another ties together with a reminder that the end of all things is near.