The late Christopher Hitchens quipped that he rarely found a Christian who could tell him without slight reluctance or wincing that he would end up in hell. “I have come to the conclusion,” he said, “that this has something to do with the justly famed tradition of Southern hospitality: You can’t very easily invite somebody to your church and then to supper and inform him that he’s marked for perdition.”
However much you and I can relate to the awkward difficulty of talking about heaven and hell over supper, Hitchens’s dilemma misses the point. We’re not like doctors who need to work on our bed-side manner. Actually, all of us who believe were at one time marked for perdition ourselves. But you could say that hospitality saved us. We were once strangers to God, but are now welcome (Eph. 2:12); enemies, but now friends (Rom. 5:10). The Lord Supper’s reminds us that we are traitors not just forgiven of treason, but brought in for supper.
In Luke 7, when Jesus chides Simon the Pharisee for not lowering himself enough to wash his feet as a hospitable courtesy, we get a foretaste of the hospitality of Jesus. He not only wrapped a towel around his waist and carried a basin for his followers, but he also eventually put a crown of thorns on his head and carried a cross so that curtains could be ripped and veils torn, bringing us into God’s presence “with confidence” (Heb. 4:16).
So it’s no surprise when God calls his followers to demonstrates hospitality. For instance, when the Lord was giving Israel instructions in Exodus 20 and Leviticus 19 on how to treat strangers and outsiders, he said to love them and “treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you.” Why? Not because the foreigners were created in God’s image (though they were). He says, “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” and “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Suddenly, the grounding for love and hospitality shifted—not only, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” but also, “Do unto others as the Lord has done unto you.”
Jesus said something similar to his disciples as he was taking off the towel from his waist: “Love one another, even as I have loved you.” Or consider Paul’s reasoning: “Remember that you were at one time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in this world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near” (Ephesians 2:11-13). Paul simplifies his point later on in Ephesians: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 4:32-5:2).
This seems to be the pattern of the church in Acts from the very beginning. In Acts 2:42-46, Christians were eating together with glad hearts, sharing the Father’s hospitality. But notice the result: not just, “And they became closer friends and their fellowship was more intimate.” Remarkably, “the Lord added to their numbers daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).
Evidently, Christians managed to invite unbelievers to supper, sharing their food and homes, along with their faith—like Paul, who famously said to the Thessalonian church, “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves” (1 Thessalonians 2:8).
An illustration from our contemporary context may help make the point. Sarah and Lindsay both work in midtown Manhattan. Sarah is a Christian; Lindsay isn’t. After several attempts to share Christ with Lindsay, Sarah simply invites Lindsay over to dinner, where she has many folks from her local church coming over for a meal and fellowship. Lindsay meets a handful of singles and a few married couples with kids.
She spends the evening eating and talking about life, which naturally leads to faith, since that’s what everyone else shares in common. She witnesses thankfulness and hears about the providence of God in their lives. She sees how Christians interact with their friends, spouses, and kids. One single girl invites her to coffee, and another family invites her over for dinner, where a few other church members join her.
When she finally comes to church, she immediately recognizes a dozen people, rather than feeling alone. After a few visits, she attendes a Bible study that explains the basic parts of Christianity and tries to answer difficult questions and objections. She then joins a small group fellowship that regularly meets for meals and game nights outside of their study time.
After some time of visiting and engaging, Lindsay suddenly realizes, “I believe this stuff.” She doesn’t have all of her questions answered, but she feels a warm affection for Jesus and conviction of her sin. The gospel seems like such a great relief. She is added to their number.
What Lindsay Saw
Lindsay’s old community was replaced with a new one. Becoming a Christian can often be hard, because you can lose your friends, family (in some cultures), and respect from your companions and co-workers. There is a cost to Christianity. A new community is God’s gracious healing to what often feels like a punishing severance.
Lindsay also saw Christianity displayed in friendships, marriages, and parenting. What seemed like a vague religious concept suddenly took on flesh, acted out in real life. As Leslie Newbigin famously says, “The church is the hermeneutic of the gospel.” Hospitality and home life is an apologetic for Christianity that contains an appeal that one-to-one evangelism and preaching doesn’t provide.
Finally, when Lindsay attended a Sunday service, she didn’t feel like an alien in a strange land. She saw familiar faces. She was not alone.
Christians are called to be hospitable because we serve a hospitable God. If the gospel is central in the life of a church, Hitchens’s dilemma disappears. We may not jump with glee to share the fate of those “marked for perdition,” but we’ll want to have them over for supper.