Despite near-limitless opportunities for connectivity, millennials are finding themselves in a world of increasingly dire social isolation.
Popular television shows like Friends, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, and New Girl depict modern urban life as an endless parade of zany misadventures, unannounced visitors, and group hangouts.
No one is ever bored.
No one is ever lonely.
And yet we find ourselves more likely to spend a Friday evening watching the very television shows that promise us a lifestyle of tribal community in the big city than we are to actually experience it.
And, paradoxically, we are not alone.
Whether we’re introverts or extroverts, people are hardwired to form a social connection and seek intimacy with other people.
According to the most recent General Social Survey, the number of Americans who say they have no close friends has tripled over the past three decades, and the average number of people a person feels like they can talk about “important matters” has dropped from three to two.
In her book Daring Greatly, author Brene Brown says:
“When we’re anxious, disconnected, vulnerable, alone, and feeling helpless, the booze and food and work and endless hours online feel like comfort, but in reality they’re only casting their long shadows over our lives.”
One of the core tenants of Christianity is communion and fellowship.
And in a culture sorely lacking in both, an invitation to Biblical hospitality might be one of the most compelling and irresistible aspects of Christian tradition.
A Hospitable God, A Hospitable People
While the word “hospitality” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible, it is a theme woven throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament.
In opening chapters of 2nd Samuel, David has just successfully completed a bitter campaign against King Saul.
Taking his place as the new King of Israel, David made an unusual request.
He asked a servant if there is anyone from Saul’s family still alive of whom he “can show God’s kindness.”
This is an unusual request because it was customary for a conquering king to wipe out the entire bloodline of his predecessor in true Game of Thrones fashion.
The servant informs David there is one descendent left – Mephibosheth, one of Saul’s grandsons. King David asks the servant to find Mephibosheth and bring him to the palace.
Mephibosheth is a cripple. He was injured when his nurse dropped him while attempting to flee the city when the news reached Jerusalem that Saul had been killed.
He knows what happens to the grandsons of defeated kings. When the king’s servant finds him and summons him to the palace, he fully expects to killed.
Laying on the floor before King David’s throne, Mephibosheth says, “What could you want from a dead dog like me?”
But David surprises him. Instead of putting him to the sword, David opens a spot at his royal table for Mephibosheth. He elevates an exiled cripple to a position of honor in his kingdom.
The Bible is littered with stories just like this.
In the Ancient Near East, sharing a meal with someone else was a sign of deep friendship, intimacy, and unity.
Or, as Christine Polh puts it in her book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition:
“A shared meal is the activity most closely tied to the reality of God’s kingdom, just as it is the most basic expression of hospitality.”
So it should come as no surprise that some of our most evocative stories of Jesus are centered around a dinner table.
The Divine Invitation
In the final conversation Jesus had with the disciples before his death (which occurred while “the evening meal was in progress, of course), Jesus gives his disciples a “new commandment.”
“Love one another. As I loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love another.”
A few minutes prior to issuing this new command, Jesus had washed his disciples’ feet. Despite being the guest of honor and their rabbi, Jesus took on a role traditionally reserved for a household servant or slave.
This is because Jesus was illustrating a new way to love another.
And then Jesus and the disciples shared a final meal together.
Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright sets the scene this way:
“When Jesus himself wanted to explain to his disciples what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn’t give them a theory. He gave them a meal.”
Hospitality is an opportunity to open your home to the brokenness of the world and meet people where they’re at – where you’re at.
It’s a chance to make your home a refuge from image management, Instagram filters, and the lie of “Never Enough.”
The Greek word for home is oikos, which means “dwelling place.” The verb form oikeo (literally “to dwell”) is the same word used to describe the God’s presence in the life of a Christ-follower.
The Christian God is not a god that stays cooped up in a heavenly palace and decides to meet us in places deemed safe and sanitary. The Christian God is a God that is constantly working around and through that which he made in his own image – people.
In our church-centric culture, we often expect the people in vocational ministry to do most of the heavy lifting for us.
But maybe God doesn’t want to use a worship leader or pastor.
Maybe He wants to use you.
Maybe God doesn’t want to use a church sanctuary or a convention hall.
Maybe He wants to use your living room and your dinner table.
In Outlive Your Life, author Max Lucado writes,
“Something holy happens around a dinner table that will never happen in a sanctuary. In a church auditorium you see the backs of heads. Around the table you see the expressions on faces. Church services are on the clock. Around the table there is time to talk. When you open your door to someone, you are sending this message: ‘You matter to me and to God.’ You may think you are saying, ‘Come over for a visit.’ But what your guest hears is, ‘I am worth the effort.’”
Welcoming someone into your home is a lot different from taking someone out to dinner at a restaurant.
It’s intimate, vulnerable, and real.
I believe if we open our hearts to the possibility, God can use our lives and homes as a staging ground for a cultural shift away from isolation and into true community-based living.
And if you feel ill-equipped or unworthy of such a calling, then God has you exactly where he wants you.
When we begin to orientate our lives around the spiritual discipline of hospitality, we need to be prepared for life to get a little messy.
And I’m not talking about having to do a little extra dishwashing.
In her book Bread and Wine, Shauna Niequist says,
“The heart of hospitality is about creating space for someone to feel seen and heard and loved. It’s about declaring your table a safe zone, a place of warmth and nourishment.”
A few days after Jesus was crucified, he appears on the shores of the Sea of Galilee while his disciples are out fishing on the water.
Peter sees him first. In his excitement, he leaps from the boat and swims to the shoreline. When he manages his way onto the beach, he finds Jesus cooking fish and bread over “a fire of burning coals.”
The night Jesus is arrested, Peter warmed himself over an anthrakia. As anyone who has ever attended a backyard barbecue knows, a charcoal fire gives off a distinct scent.
It is with the warmth of the anthrakia on his hands and the smell of it in his nostrils that Peter tells three onlookers he has never met Jesus.
A few hours prior to Jesus’s arrest, Peter told Jesus he would “lay down his life for him.”
So what smell greets Peter as he emerges from the Galilean Sea soaking wet and eager to be reunited with his rabbi?
The wafting scent of an anthrakia.
Because of the way our brain process information, our sense of smell is one of our most powerful memory triggers. How often does a hint of a particular perfume or the aroma of freshly cut grass suddenly whisk you away to a previous season of life?
Peter is greeted on the shores of Galilee with the scent of his most shameful memory.
How must he have felt at that moment? The rabbi he had followed for more than three years and the one whom he had denied ever knowing in his time of greatest need, stoking an anthrakia flame on a cold beach.
Does Jesus rebuke Peter? Scold him? Give him a lecture on faith and loyalty?
No. Jesus asks Peter a question.
“Peter,” he says, a warm smile playing across his lips. “Do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord,” Peter croaks out, tears glinting in the corners of his eyes. “You know all things. You know that I love you.”
And then they eat breakfast on the beach.
If we wish to become a hospitable people, we have to understand that we all come to the table broken.
Sometimes we are Mephibosheth – crippled, bitter, and forgotten.
Or we are Zacchaeus, the tax collector – despised, dishonest, and ostracized.
Or we are the unnamed prostitute – abused, objectified, and unwelcome.
Or we are Peter – vulnerable, frightened, and shameful.
We all come to the table broken.
But that is kind of the point.
And because of that, we all have a place at the Lord’s table.
Addendum: Where We Go From Here
This all sounds great, you might be thinking. But how do I put this into practice?
The good news is that hospitality doesn’t have to be complicated or stressful.
But like any lost art, hospitality has a bit of a learning curve.
So make it easy for yourself and start by inviting some of your friends over for dinner. Learn to cook a couple of dishes well and buy some bottles of wine (or sparkling grape juice, if you don’t wish to drink alcohol).
After you’ve grown comfortable with that, expand your reach. Invite over a co-worker or a neighbor. As you become accustomed to the rhythms of conversations and table fellowship, begin to challenge yourself. Host someone who is from a different religious background or grew up in a different country.
And if you’re worried about your living situation or life stage, don’t fret.
Whether you’re single, engaged, or married and no matter if you live in a studio apartment, duplex, or dorm room, God can still use you and your living space.
Don’t offer excuses. Explore possibilities.
I think a lot of Christians experience anxiety when the notion of hospitality gets brought up because they believe they have to give a full-on Gospel presentation when the conversation lags.
But the goal of hospitality isn’t conversion.
If an opportunity presents itself to talk about Jesus, then, by all means, take it. But don’t manufacture moments and treat people like notches in your spiritual belt.
Sometimes one of the most life-enriching gifts you can give someone is simply being present in the moment and listening to them speak.
In The Orthodox Heretic, philosopher Peter Rollins writes,
“For the language of faith is not primarily interested in communicating information (Jesus did not come as a scientist or a theologian), but in forming healthy, healing, transformative relationships.”
Understand that the very act of breaking bread and sharing a meal is a profoundly spiritual act that has bound people together across generations, cultures, and religious beliefs.
Or, as John Piper puts it:
“When we practice hospitality, we experience the thrill of feeling God’s power conquer our fears and our stinginess and all the psychological gravity of our self-centeredness. And there are few joys, if any, greater than the joy of experiencing the liberating power of God’s hospitality making us a new and radically different kind of people, who love to reflect the glory of his grace as we extend it to others in all kinds of hospitality.”