When I went to Chiapas, Mexico in 2006, I went prepared to learn about a different culture. I went prepared to learn some Spanish, and maybe a little Tzotzil. I came ready to be a student, and ready to find a few souvenirs to help me remember the things I saw and experienced.What I did not expect was a crash course in being a Christian. I didn’t expect to learn how to “do faithfully whatever you do for the friends, even though they are strangers to you,” as the Elder wrote in 3 John. But that’s exactly what happened. I wonder if any of you have had similar experiences.
A few days into our trip, we had the opportunity to stay with host families. Jeff and I were fortunate enough to end up at the same home where our professor and guide would be staying. He was fluent in both Spanish and Tzotzil, and he comfortably translated for us all of the things our hosts were saying. He helped us learn of a prayer need in the family, and as I prayed for the family’s aging grandmother, he translated for me, and all of our tears flowed.
That night, Jeff and I slept on a bed with a plywood mattress, and were awakened every fifteen or twenty minutes to the sounds of jingling and bootsteps outside of the open window near us. I did manage to peek out the window one time, and noticed the people marching by were armed with military-style assault rifles. My breathing quickened. I’m not sure how much I slept, but it was very little, and when I woke up, my hips were sore from sleeping on the wood.
We gathered for a light breakfast, and I pointed to a mat on the cement floor and asked our guide what it was. “That’s where your hosts slept last night. They gave you their own bed.” Wow. My sore hip bones were suddenly a reminder of amazing hospitality and sacrifice on the part of my hosts. Following our light breakfast, we walked to church. On the way to the church, I started thinking about the meal we ate at the church the night before. Our hosts had set up long tables with chairs. They filled our bowls to the brim with chicken soup and vegetables. They urged us, “Eat, and don’t be afraid. We boiled our water for 24 hours to make sure there would be nothing here to make you sick.” In between each plate, they had stacked homemade corn tortillas so high that I wondered if they would tip over.
We were eating, and enjoying ourselves, when I turned and noticed that our hosts were seated in a small room, on a dirt floor, sipping only broth and eating a few of the remaining tortillas. They fed us with an abundance, and gave themselves what very little was remaining. I turned to our guide and I said, “No. This isn’t right. They should sit here with us. They should be eating with us. Can we at least give them something for serving us this way?” And he said, “They wouldn’t accept anything you wanted to give. You are their guests. If you want to repay them, give generously in the offering plate at church in the morning. They would never return an offering you gave to God.”
Our group got to the church, and we worshiped with these Chenalho Christians, many of whom had walked considerable distances to worship. And when the offering was received, we filled the plates to overflowing out of our immense gratitude for what God – and the people of Chenalho – had done for us. We were strangers to them, and yet we were also their friends. They had never met us, and yet we were their brothers and sisters. They gave to us faithfully – sacrificially – and left very little for themselves, a radical kind of hospitality that is a rare diamond among the rocks.
The letter of 3 John teaches us about the importance of radical hospitality, and about the joy we experience when those who have learned about Jesus from us – our children in the faith – walk in the truth in their own lives. We give, and give, and give, and someday we will be overjoyed as we see the fruit growing in the lives of those around us.
3 John is a personal letter written privately from “the elder” to Gaius. The elder commends Gaius for showing hospitality to missionaries who had traveled and stayed with him along the way. The hospitality Gaius shows is an outward sign of his love for Christ, a love that causes the elder to rejoice because Gaius is “walking in the truth.” In contrast to the way Gaius has shown love and hospitality, Diotrephes does not recognize the authority of the elder, he spreads false charges, and he does not “welcome the friends,” like Gaius has done. In a very real sense, 3 John sees hospitality as an outward sign of what is going on in our hearts. In fact, the word for “welcome” used in verse 10 can also mean “to acknowledge” or “accept” someone’s authority. By refusing to welcome the people the elder sent, Diotrephes was also rejecting the message they carried. For the elder, an open door and home reveals an open heart.
As Christians, we are called to be a people who show radical hospitality – people who remember how the hospitality of God saved us, and continues to save us. We are strangers in this world, travelers walking along the road together as we seek to follow our Lord. This is our history, and it is our truth even today. As we are reminded in the book of Leviticus, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34). We are a people who ought to know what it’s like to be a stranger, and as strangers, our eyes should be ready to recognize the strangers around us.
This week I came across an article that made me take a hard look at myself and the way I show hospitality to others. In the article, Kristen Welch talked about her experience with the mission she runs – Mercy House – and the struggle she has encountered with people donating things that are worthless to missionaries and to those who are impoverished. In her article, she encouraged the church to think about the way we give – whether it is out of our surplus, and we’re merely getting rid of things that really should just go in the garbage – or if it is sacrificial giving that changes the way we live.1
Or, as Ann Voskamp wrote: “We’re not giving what we’re called to give, unless that giving affects how we live – affects what we put on our plate and where we make our home and hang our hat and what kind of threads we’ve got to have on our back. Surplus Giving is the leftover you can afford to give; Sacrificial Giving is the love gift that changes how you live – because the love of Christ has changed you. God doesn’t want your leftovers. God wants your love overtures, your first-overs, because He is your first love.”
We gather in worship as a community of Jesus-followers who are still learning, growing, and becoming like Christ. We sing songs of praise as we overflow with gratitude for all that God has done. We join together in prayer, asking for forgiveness for our sins, and offering our requests – for people we know and love, and the world around us – before our God. And, then we gather around the Table for a feast unlike any other feast. At the Table we experience the radical hospitality of God who feeds us and cares forus. We are overwhelmed by the magnitude of our God’s love, who spared nothing to bring us back into relationship with him. And we are trained – trained in hospitality and sacrificial love.
Randy Smit, director and founder of Compassionate Connection as well as a minister in the RCA, recalled serving communion in this way: “We shared together one by one. I’d bless them, and they’d leave the service. It was very meaningful, because we all got the sense of being one who is fed and now feeds others.” At the Table we are fed, and we are sent forth to feed others. Smit says that, “The story of Scripture is the hospitality of God, who invites us to come home. That hospitality is more than we know how to think about or contain. That’s why we’ve been invited to take part in sacramental mysteries, so God can open our eyes again and again.”2
When I come to the Table, I can’t help but remember the Christians in Chenalho who filled my bowl to the brim with their very best. My mind wanders to the family who gave me their bed while they slept on the floor. I think about the piles of corn tortillas served to our group of strangers by people who knew how to “welcome the friends.” At the Table we experience the welcome of Christ, the One who gave himself for us while we were still sinners. He is our host, and he feeds us. And, being fed, we are called to go forth and feed the world with the radical hospitality of God. May God open our eyes time and again so that we can see the lavish spread that is before us. May we become people of radical hospitality, people who welcome the friends even though they are strangers. And, in so doing, may we be people who can’t help but open our doors because God has transformed our hearts.
- 1 Kristen Welch, “Dear World, Let’s Stop Giving Our Crap to the Poor”
- 2 Joan Huyser-Honig, “How Communion Trains Us in God’s Hospitality”
- Note about featured image – this picture is in the bedroom of our host Lorenzo’s house in Chenalho. Don’t mind the look on my face. I was *freezing* everywhere we went. Ha!