The central role of the church is and always has been receiving and welcoming. It is an active role to which we are all called, and Jesus does not mention that there is a role for the mere spectator. To welcome the stranger is to receive another by intentionally offering friendship, by granting access to one’s self.” Jesus offers himself freely to us and he receives us without qualification and without reservation. If we are to find strength as God’s people (church) or strength in our own personal walk with Jesus, we must re-encounter the ancient concept of radical hospitality. We must embrace the stranger, the people who come seeking Christ among us. We must practice radical “welcoming” and “receiving” of the stranger, the homeless, sick, imprisoned, —the “least of these.” We can accomplish our mission when we recognize that the heart of our common life must include attentiveness and vulnerability; we must practice “Radical Hospitality.”
“Radical Hospitality” is a much deeper spiritual practice that goes beyond simply the friendly handshake and welcoming smile. The notion of a “Radical Hospitality” requires a personal and communal attentiveness to the needs of the stranger. “Radical Hospitality” washes away the awkward and strangeness of the encounter with new folks who enter our lives. Radical hospitality requires a deep commitment, and it requires embracing our God-given spiritual gifts of making, others feel included, by granting them access to our deepest vulnerabilities, and by accepting their differences as a part of our evolving community. Hospitality is as simple as making others feel at home.
Tamara, a twenty-something college student was sitting with her grandma one day, who asked why Tamara did not come to church with her any longer. Tamara replied, “I’m not sure I’m welcome. I have to dress up, we sing songs with which I am not familiar, it’s difficult to follow what’s going on during worship, and no one really speaks to me after the service.” Imagine a similar experience in which, Tamara could show up in old cutoff jeans and a spaghetti strapped shirt, where everyone was dressed casual and everyone seemed to feel at ease, where the music, although different from what she knew, was beautiful and uplifting, where the worship bulletin was easy to follow and well done, and where the atmosphere exuded a holy presence that she had not experienced in a while.
Whether real or merely perceived as such, there are barriers to welcome, and they can be a deterrent to a welcome in which others might experience God’s grace. If we are to answer the church’s call to pass the faith on, we have to be attentive to the possible perceived barriers of exclusion and we will have to work diligently to break down those barriers. We must be attentive and we must also be vulnerable.
Not many people honestly enjoy taking personal risks that come with vulnerability. Some folks have a strong aversion to social settings that include engaging in the ritual of “working the crowd.” Right after I graduated with my undergraduate degree, I took a job that required I attend business social gatherings. I held those events in disdain, because I knew that in order to meet new people and to be a part of the crowd, it would require vulnerability on my part. It is risky to put yourself out there and meet new people. Like any stranger who comes to any new community or social setting, I am sure we all have experienced a high level of anxiety associated with vulnerability. That being said, the worst enemy of “radical hospitality” is the fear of vulnerability, the fear of not being accepted, of not knowing the traditions, of having to open oneself up to scrutiny.
Jesus embraced his own vulnerability and demonstrated what “radical hospitality” might look like for Christians. Jesus one day, was sitting at a local watering well, when all of a sudden a woman came by to draw water. He asked the woman, a Samaritan woman to give him a drink. This was such a radical act on Jesus’ part. These two cultures did not associate with each other and yet, Jesus broke down that barrier of cultural exclusion and asked her for hospitality. He took a risk.
On another occasion, Jesus encountered a tax collector and once again showed us what radical hospitality is like. Tax collectors were conspiring with the Roman government and as a result, they were labeled sinners and outcasts by the living in Roman occupied lands. Our Lord did not care about all that, he walked up to Matthew working at his tax collector’s booth, and asked him to become a follower. Jesus went even further, and he had dinner with Matthew and several others who were thought to be “sinners” and “outcasts.” Jesus broke down cultural boundaries and radically, intentionally, became vulnerable so that others might be welcomed.
There are so many other examples of radical hospitality. Consider Paul who was bold and made himself vulnerable by being accessible to Gentiles, so that the churches in the Hellenistic world would flourish. Consider the witness of millions of Christians today who have made a difference, who have taken their place among those early disciples. They were not always evangelists, apostles, prophets, they were just ordinary Christians like you and me. For me, one of those ordinary folks was Mammaw Bales who took care of my siblings and me and through her love, she showed me what hospitality and welcome was all about. In my teenage years, one of those ordinary Christians was Greg Howell, my youth minister who showed me Christ’s love through his witness and hospitality. I bet if we thought about it, we all could name folks who have made it possible for us to be here today. Someone, somewhere, somehow welcomed each of us and helped us on our journey as followers of Christ. Someone in your life took the risk and was vulnerable, someone walked with you and had a part in the growth you experience as a disciple of Christ. The question with which, we all must wrestle, is with whom will we make ourselves vulnerable, and by doing so, help come to know the welcome embrace of Christ?
We are followers of Christ that is what it means to be a disciple. Like Our Lord, we must practice “welcoming” and “receiving” and be attentive to the potential barriers, whether perceived or real, that may block our Christ-given call to welcome the stranger. We must with intention, remove those barriers, and take actions to insure that all that comes to this place are fully and completed granted access and embrace. We must accept our responsibility to support the stranger’s growth in their love and commitment to Jesus Christ.
Breaking down walls helps us to recognize the unique challenges of passing on the faith in the 21st century. If we can honestly say that our faith journey in this place has been fulfilling, enriching, and life-changing, then that should be the driving force for us to invite others to join share in that experience. “Radical Welcome” begins when we invite our friends and acquaintances to experience God’s grace in this community alongside us. Beyond inviting, we need to insure that in all we do, our worship life is accessible to the stranger. The challenge for us is that no one should ever feel awkward or uneasy and this can be put into practice, by simply committing to sitting with a new person and making him or her feel at home.
Beyond inviting and making folks feel at home, we must be willing to walk the journey of faith alongside all that come to our community. Inviting, comforting, mentoring, not easy tasks, but if we embrace these practices, they will serve as the means of passing the faith on. When we personally embrace one new person, and draw them along side us as we continue our journey growing in love and commitment to Christ, we are answering the Great Commission.
This challenge is not an easy one, because it requires us to step outside of our comfort zones. For the sake of God’s Kingdom, for the sake of the future of the church, we must accept our God-given call to “radically welcome” the stranger. The future of our witness rests squarely in our hands. This is not merely the job of the clergy, we all have our part as individual disciples and as the community as a whole. We can never forget that we worship Our Lord this day, in this place, because of those faithful disciples who so long ago, committed to pass the faith on to us. We must be ready to accept our responsibility, our commission, our God-given mission, to pass the faith on to the next generations. We can accomplish this mission only when we are ready and willing to commit to invite, to welcome radically, and to embrace with vulnerability the least, the lost, and the lonely wherever they may be.