“The end of all things is at hand.” We felt like that on 9/11. We still do.
It certainly feels like the end is near, with all the economic, political and natural upheaval of our day. I expect people have always felt this way, however. Media just allows us to see more trouble in more places more often.
But the Apostle Peter says this is happening in ! Peter 4 , just before he gives an interesting and unexpected command.
Under these deteriorating circumstances, he says, we should “show hospitality to one another without grumbling”: a responsibility we undertake cheerfully, as “good stewards of God’s varied grace.”
That’s one way to keep from grumbling, realizing that whatever we share was a gift in the first place. But the clear intent here is to let us know that the harder things get, the more we should reach out to each other.
This is no latter day revelation. Ever since Abraham hosted angels without knowing it, his physical and spiritual offspring have honored his example. Over and over ancient Israel was reminded to care for and welcome strangers, because they were themselves once strangers in Egypt.
Jesus fed the 5000 and greeted the woman at the well, showing his compassion and desire to meet both our physical and spiritual hungers. And he invites us, ultimately, to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, a great banquet where his own Father will be the ever-gracious host.
This invitation is both our salvation and our standard. And such hospitality is how we welcome others as Christ himself welcomes us.
That doesn’t make it easy.
Hospitality is often complicated and messy. It involves sacrifice and service. People break stuff and spill stuff. They make bad jokes and tell awkward stories. They eat too much or they won’t eat at all. A woman once brought her own prepared hot dogs to our house because her children wouldn’t eat anything else.
But a common table is a great equalizer. It says we sit at the same level and eat the same food, sharing the same need and enjoying the same grace. And Christian hospitality requires us to do that with people less like ourselves.
Certainly our own family members are sometimes strangers to us. And when we include any one at our table we are accepting them and extending grace, no matter how well we know them. Or at least we should be, even if they do bring their own hot dogs.
But Peter’s instruction goes far beyond our family and friends; we all instinctively know this. We just grumble about it. And we misunderstand it too. We confuse hospitality with cloth napkins and matching dishes.
I’m not saying a few cut flowers on the table are not appreciated or even appropriate. I’m just saying they aren’t necessary. Hospitality at the simplest level is a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name.
It starts with what you have. A warm bowl of soup can be perfect. Katie and I welcome students from the college all the time, with nothing more than a cup of tea and a store-bought cookie. Hospitality requires neither elegance nor extravagance.
What it does require is a gracious and generous spirit that desires to put people at ease. The real expense is an emotional investment, not a financial one. It takes time and energy to ask thoughtful questions and listen attentively. In fact, it takes energy to make people feel welcome at all.
But it helps if believers remember we too were strangers in Egypt, or as the New Testament reminds us, alienated from God himself. It helps if we remember the times we felt isolated and bewildered. And alone.
Then we just have to make sure people don’t feel that way in our homes or our churches. Single people, elderly people, and poor people often feel this way. So does everybody else.
They are all strangers until we invite them to our table. There the grace of God flows through us and into the world. All we have to do is serve a grilled cheese sandwich, with a little coleslaw or compassion on the side.