A People Who Embrace ‘The Other’

by JR Woodward

Christian hospitality, JR WoodwardI was walking down Hollywood Boulevard toward my apartment and saw this guy walking the other way with his head down, reading a book as he walked. I was curious what had captured his attention, so I asked him what he was reading. This conversation led to the beginning of a friendship that has lasted for some time.

My new friend was from Tajikistan. Like most from his country, he was a practicing Muslim. As we deepened our friendship, he told me that I was the first American he had eaten with since moving to the USA and that I was his first American friend. He had been here for an entire year, yet not one person initiated a friendship with him.

In contrast, I also learned that if I were to visit his home country and was without shelter, I could go up to any home and they would welcome me to stay at their home and feed me.

As our friendship developed, I asked myself, “What has happened to our sense of hospitality?”  If there is one practice that we as the people of God ought to be practicing in this day, it is hospitality. Throughout scripture we see that God is a welcoming God, and His people have a long history of practicing hospitality as a way of life.

In fact, Jesus, the God-man, our redeemer and model, demonstrated what a life of hospitality looks like as He perfectly reflected the heart of the Father.

One of the ways Jesus practiced hospitality was that He extended the table to those whom the religious leaders and society had dismissed and damned—the tax collectors and ‘sinners’. Not only that, but Jesus accepted invitations to dinner parties where many disreputable people could be found, and He even invited Himself to dine at the table of Zacchaeus, who was a crook.

This was a big deal in that context—for a Jewish person to eat a meal with someone meant that He was to literally become part of them; it wasn’t just a social meal. Eating with someone was incredibly significant.

But Jesus not only showed hospitality by extending the table; He also talked with the Samaritan woman at the well, while almost everyone else avoided her. He forgave the prostitute when everyone else was accusing her. He touched the untouchable, and made visible those whom society had made invisible. Jesus was constantly crossing boundaries that others had made in order to demonstrate that God is a God who welcomes all. Jesus was and is a welcomer, an embracer. He created a welcoming space for people.

When we truly begin to follow Jesus, we will find ourselves becoming people who embrace ‘the other.’ We will welcome those whom society rejects, for as Paul says, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you” (Rom. 15:7).

We become people who embrace others when we remember how Jesus embraced the world. Henri Nouwen puts it this way:

In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found… Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them a space where change can take place. [1]

Too often in our divided world, the stranger, the refugee, and the forgotten are more likely to be subject to hostility instead of hospitality. But if Jesus is our redeemer and model, we will extend our table to all.

Because Jesus stood with the poor and oppressed and welcomed the rejected, He was eventually nailed to a cross. Len Sweet puts it this way: “Jesus was killed because of his table talk and his table manners—the stories he told and the people he ate with.”[2] We are told that Jesus went willingly to the cross, and was crucified with his arms wide open. It’s not surprising that He died how He lived, with His arms wide open.

How then shall we live?

 

[1] Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Doubleday, 1975), pp. 65, 71.

[2] Leonard Sweet, From Tablet to Table: Where Community is Formed and Identity Found (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014), p. 6

JR-Woodward-2JR Woodward (@Dreamawakener) is a church planter, activist, missiologist, and author of Creating a Missional Culture and co-author of The Church as Movement.He co-founded Kairos Los Angeles, the Ecclesia Network, and Missio Alliance. He currently serves as national director for the V3 Church Planting Movement. He serves locally at the District Church in Washington DC and is pursuing a PhD at the University of Manchester (U.K.).