Meeting God in the stranger: a missional reflection on hospitality
The stranger pops up all over the Bible, writes Mark Ord. An awkward but significant presence, Scripture shows us that an encounter with the stranger often leads to life giving change
Take the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10.
In this story Peter eats at the house of Cornelius, the Roman Centurion. At the time it was against the law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. Through this encounter, and the build up to it, Peter makes the surprising discovery that when it comes to witnessing to Jesus, it is never the start point to brand or define people as unclean (v28). There are no easy definitions of insiders and outsiders. It becomes a profound meeting that has huge implications for both men: as Cornelius and his followers respond to the Holy Spirit via Peter’s message and are subsequently baptised, they are recorded as the first Gentiles to convert to the Christian faith.
Yet it’s risky for Peter – the cultural norms of the day mean he shouldn’t be there, and indeed he is criticised by his fellow believers when he relays the story of the meal at the Roman Centurion’s house. Despite this risk and misgivings, the encounter marks a sea change in how the gospel message is spread, and to whom it is available.
The crucial role of the stranger is a pattern seen throughout the scriptures:
· Abraham and Sarah at Mamre Genesis 18
· Jacob wrestles with a stranger Genesis 32
· Joshua meets a stranger before battle Joshua 5
· Jesus meets a Syrophoenician woman Mark 7
· The disciples on the Emmaus Rd Luke 24
At each of these meetings things begin to change. The stranger is a danger to the settled order, and continually marks the boundary of change. People like Jonah, who had problems with the other, were set up as counter examples of how not to do it.
God meets us in the stranger, and this should shape our thinking about mission. To be engaged in mission is to engage with the other: the stranger, the person you don’t know. In a multicultural society that’s always the case. Mission brings us into contact with people, and how we engage the stranger is crucial.
So how are we when we meet the stranger? What’s our stance? Who is the guest? Who is the host?
Traditionally, maybe we have thought of mission as simply transmission: we’ve got something to share with you. We will get you to a place where we can hand over to you. It may be invitational and attractional. We want to encourage people into our lives, and our buildings. When we think of mission as transmission, we, the church, will shape the stranger.
But in practice, people are less pliable. They don’t just want to be invited; they want to invite. And when we study these stories, we see something vulnerable at work. Jesus is both host and guest, regularly present at someone else’s table. The encounter between Peter and Cornelius only happened because Peter went to Cornelius’s table. There is something very necessary and vulnerable about the starting point being at someone else’s table. Peter’s life up to that day was organised to ensure that he never spent time, less share a table with a Roman soldier like Cornelius. Yet here they are, cultural enemies, who become instruments in each other’s transformation.
As Baptists, we love the gathered community. But community is fragile – it can always be changed from the inside, which means there’s a tension when we encounter the stranger: we would love to welcome them in – but we would love them to be the same. If you look at the paradigm of Peter/Cornelius, that thinking is wrong.
There’s more too, when we consider the importance of the meeting in contrast with the message. When we give priority to the message over the meeting, it is suggested we have a rational rather than relational approach. By contrast the meeting is the human thing, and there is quite an emphasis on it in scripture. The Gospel worked just as much by Peter sitting down with the mother-in-law. Both Peter and Cornelius thought they were there to speak to each other, but first they ate together, which had not been done before. After the meal, Peter started speaking, and it was then that the Holy Spirit fell. God was after the meeting.
These are key points if we consider that hospitality is a key part of mission. What does it mean if it’s not only about the message? How are we thinking about mission if the meeting is the thing? What would change in your church if hospitality became the key mission strategy? What would be gained and what might be lost?
This is God’s world, and God has a way of being present in God’s world. God is a hospitable presence in the world. Our churches need to be out in the wider world, which means welcoming people to our place, and being out receiving hospitality. It means being as brave about our hospitality as our words.
Scripture shows that God meets us in the stranger. When we do, the Holy Spirit is at work.
Mark Ord is Director for Mission Training and Hospitality at BMS World Mission. This is adapted from a presentation he gave in a seminar at the European Baptist Federation Council in September 2019, and appears as a reflection in the Spring 2020 edition of Baptists Together magazine
Images | Corin Lawfull | www.inthemomentphotography.co.uk