"When you're on the mission field, do you do anything besides travel around and eat?"
The question surprised me. I was in the United States on home assignment, traveling to churches and telling people about the work of missions in the former Soviet Union. On these occasions, I usually pulled out pictures of some of the dear people with whom we worked. Not until I was asked that question did I realize that nearly all of my pictures were of people sitting around tables laden with food! I realized that the people of the former Soviet Union taught me a great deal about hospitality — we spent many hours communing around tables.
Fellowship and hospitality have always gone hand in hand in the church. Soon after the day of Pentecost the book of Acts records, "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer" (Acts 2:42). A few verses later we read, "Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts" (Acts 2:46).
Today we live in a very busy world. Everything is designed to be fast. We have drive-thru restaurants, drive-thru pharmacies, drive-thru banks and even drive-thru dry cleaners. If we plan our day accordingly, we can go without having to spend extended time with people at all! However, Paul tells us in Romans 12:13 that we are to "practice hospitality." How can we practice hospitality when we are zipping from one thing to another?
To practice hospitality, we must stop and spend time with people. We must enjoy others as a priority.
The church and the world are filled with people who desperately need to know Jesus Christ. They will not get to know Him deeply and personally if church worship and relationships become like drive-thru experiences. People are hungry for true Christian fellowship, which they find only when we are hospitable.
The Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia, which actually means love of strangers. We may enjoy being hospitable to our friends, families and neighbors, but what happens when a stranger comes along? Do we show hospitality to strangers, and invite them to be part of our fellowship? Too often we are simply too busy and we reserve hospitality for those closest to us.
Hospitality as Encouragement
In John 3, John admonished believers to show hospitality to the brothers who were traveling in their area, sharing the gospel. As believers in the congregations showed hospitality to these people, the brothers could continue their ministries.
Missionaries on home assignment know the blessing of this kind of hospitality. After months on the road, a warm home-cooked meal becomes a real treat. A quiet and cozy room in which to rest is a blessing. A gift card to buy toiletries can absolutely make their day!
John pointed out that when believers in his congregations showed hospitality to those in the ministry, they had a part in that ministry. We all can't go to a distant city or country, but we can participate in a person's work by showing hospitality.
Peter also talked about hospitality. He wrote to his dear friends, knowing they would face difficult days. As he encouraged them, he reminded them that they were to love one another and offer hospitality without grumbling (I Peter 4:8-9). It seems that hospitality was a way of showing encouragement.
When people are going through tough times, nothing rejuvenates them as much as someone inviting them over for a cup of tea, or out for a snack and coffee.
Overcoming the Barriers
Why do we find the act of offering hospitality so difficult? Besides the problem of busy lifestyles, I often hear people moan that their homes are too small to entertain guests. Or they say they don't have time to fix a fancy meal and invite visitors. Maybe they can't have guests during the Christmas season because they don't have the appropriate holiday china.
I think somewhere along the line we have redefined what it means to be hospitable. As a result, we set up barriers to practicing this type of behavior, which has been encouraged since the day of Pentecost. However, we can still discover first century hospitality today, in the most surprising places.
One of the most poignant examples in my family's experience was when we drove for hours in a freezing van through western Ukraine. Then we came to the end of the road, literally. In the darkness, we maneuvered to the rock path and bounced for another couple of miles until we reached a very small, poor village. We pulled up to a tiny house, where the director of the local school, a fellow believer, greeted us at the door. She hugged and kissed us all, and welcomed us into her home.
We squeezed into her warm kitchen, heated by the wood-burning brick oven in the center of the house. We sat on split-log benches, elbow to elbow as she poured steaming cups of hot tea to thaw our frozen bodies. As we sipped the tea she began to place food on the table. Where it all came from, I'll never know. First came piles of cabbage rolls, served with heaping spoonfuls of sour cream. Then came homegrown pickled cucumbers and tomatoes, along with fresh Ukrainian bread. We ate until we were warm and full.
Just when I was amazed at her hospitality, this woman's husband came home. He, too, wanted to show hospitality. Since this humble home had no indoor plumbing, he wanted to prepare a place where we could bathe. He went out to a small shed, called a banya, and began to heat water over another wood-burning stove.
He worked for more than an hour to prepare enough hot water for each of us to have a turn washing up. In the meantime, his wife arranged a place for us to sleep. Two of us slept on chairs that reclined, while three climbed into the double bed.
That kind of example does not go unnoticed.
One night, as we returned home to Moscow from a long trip with fellow missionaries, five of us stepped into the elevator with our suitcases. Unfortunately, the elevator became stuck. Meanwhile, our two preteen daughters and other guests climbed the stairs to our apartment. By the time we were freed from the elevator, most of our guests had gone home, but I was overwhelmed when I got to the apartment. Our girls had set the table, made tea, and served cookies to our guests. Seeing all they had done touched my heart, but then I realized they were simply doing what they had seen countless others do.
The people of the former Soviet Union have taught me a great lesson about hospitality. In the midst of so little, they give so much.
A great, martyred Russian priest of the 20th century, Father Alexander Men, traveled from home to home to share the Good News during the years of communism. As these persecuted people practiced hospitality, he sat at their kitchen tables, encouraging them in their faith.
Often up to 30 people would gather in small apartments for this. When we listen to these sessions on tape, we hear Men's comments above the ding of clanking forks, clattering teacups, and crying children. These people offered hospitality even in crowded, less than ideal situations. They shared of themselves even when their lives were in danger for doing so.
The excuses we may use should not be obstacles to sharing of ourselves. Genuine hospitality happens when we share whatever we have with our families, friends, co-laborers, and even strangers.
God can use whatever we give to further His Kingdom.
Today we must ask ourselves whether or not we will practice hospitality. Will we continue this tradition that has existed within the church for centuries? Or, will we let it fade into the distance as we pull into another drive-thru? Will we worry about what we have to serve or whether we have room?
If we choose to practice hospitality, this act will not come easily or naturally. We will need discipline to follow this New Testament command and make it a natural practice in the church today. However, I believe that as we practice hospitality, we will experience just a little taste of the fellowship that is to come when we all gather around the Father's table in heaven.
I'm grateful for all the evenings my family spent around tables in the former Soviet Union. I even have the pictures to prove it!
Carla Sunberg, along with her husband Chuck and daughters Christy and Cara, was a missionary in the former Soviet Union for 13 years. Carla was recently elected as the 43rd General Superintendent of the Church of the Nazarene and is the second woman to serve in this role.