With Charity for All, Part 6: The Table For Strangers

This entry is part of an on-going series on Christian virtues that should inform and shape Christian public engagement of politics, the media and arts, and our public witness. The rest of the series can be found under the category of “Faith and Culture” series on the right column of my blog home page or here: https://toddbouldin.wordpress.com/category/faith-and-culture-series/.
I covet your feedback and comments. Today, and for the rest of the week, I turn to the Christian virtue of hospitality.

The Table for Strangers

Foreigners living among you will be like your own people. Love them as you love yourself, because you were foreigners living in Egypt. I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:34).

For I was a stranger, and you took me in. (Matt. 25:35)

It was late on a night in 1993, and I was in Washington, D.C. for the day to prepare for an upcoming move. My friend and I got a late start on our trip back to Princeton, so we needed a place to stay. My friends David and Jeannette Williams live in Frederick, Maryland, and I often was a guest in their home. So that night my friend and I decided to stay with them. We made a few calls to try to warn them, but we reached no one. Regardless, we headed there anyway. When we arrived, no one was at home, but we found the back door unlocked. We entered the house, raided Jeannette’s always well stocked refrigerator, and took our respective beds for the night. Jeannette and David came home later, surprised to find two strangers in their home, but gracious nonetheless. It’s been the source of a good laugh for more than a decade now. But I went to Jeannette and David’s home that night because I knew that I was their adopted son. I would be treated like family, and I would not be treated as a guest. They were that way with everyone who came through their door.

If you ever have been a guest in someone’s house for a few days, you know that there are two kinds of hosts. One type of host makes you feel as if you always are the guest. You don’t feel that you can really prop your feet up on the coffee table, make yourself a cup of coffee, take out the garbage or turn the TV remote to a different channel without asking. They are in control, and you stay within the “guest” boundaries. Other hosts, like Jeannette and David, just make you feel that you belong from the beginning. You don’t have to prove yourself. You don’t have to stay within prescribed boundaries. You can make your own cup of coffee, put your feet on the couch, change the channel and get your own towel. There is an ease and warmth that breaks down the barriers between guest and host. In these homes, there are no strangers.

In the second chapter of Ephesians , Paul claims that in this Body of Christ, in the church, all things are coming together – and that means all people, both Jew and Greek. In Christ, the church has become a dwelling place for God, and this God enjoys strangers. As we see in Luke and in Acts, God calls people of every tribe, language and tongue into His new family and gathers them around a Table. One of the most consistent metaphors in the Luke/Acts writings is the welcome table where all strangers and unexpected guests – particularly the homeless, the disabled, the poor, those of the wrong religion, and the sexually confused — are made welcome at the table where Jesus invites them to eat with him. St. Paul continues this tradition of Jesus-like hospitality when he says that the church IS that Table where all are welcome. In this family, there are no dividing walls that separate people and create strangers. Everyone belongs.

This is one of the things that makes the church unique and distinct in the world. The church is not unique merely because its people are moral. Many organizations can claim the same. The witness of the whole New Testament is that one of the key qualities of a distinctive church is that it breaks down the walls that everyone else insists on erecting. The church has no dividing walls.

There are all kinds of walls that we build to separate us: walls that separate the races, political parties, economic classes, liberals and conservatives, old and young, gay and straight, women and men, single and married, those from the right church and those from the wrong church, the righteous and sinners. Jesus didn’t build the church with those walls, and we shouldn’t be the one to erect them. To be in the church is to be in a place without walls — to be in Christ means to enter a church where there are no strangers.

Most churches and religious institutions do not intend to build walls, and they do not intend on creating strangers. But they do it accidentally, sometimes out of just pure comfort, and other times in an effort to preserve or maintain their purity. The Greek temple to Artemis had internal walls that protected its holy altar. So did the great Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, which had a wall that kept out Gentiles. Another wall divided men from women. Another wall separated the outer courts from the inner courts. And a great curtain guarded the Holy of Holies from the profane world outside.

In most cases, it was the intent of these walls to guard holiness, but they mostly just created strangers. That wasn’t what anyone intended, but that is what happened. Greeks were strangers to the worship conducted by the Jews. Jews were strangers to the worship conducted by the Gentiles, and everyone was a stranger to God’s holiness that was protected away in a place no one could enter.

In the death of Jesus Christ, the veil that divided the Holy of Holies from the world was ripped from top to bottom, allowing the holiness of God to rush out into the world God had never abandoned. No more would God be a stranger to the world — no more would His presence be confined to one building, or one holy hill, or even one race of people. That is core to our understanding of the gospel — essential in understanding what Jesus did on the cross for us. He created a new holy family of God, and in that family, there are no more strangers. That means that people of all races, backgrounds, marital status, sexual identities and struggles, and church affiliations should be welcomed there.

That does not mean that we should overlook all lifestyles, sins, or struggles – it means that we should welcome all who desire to be on a spiritual journey with us so that a person comes to believe and comes to holiness while they belong. In other words, no one is a stranger – everyone belongs – then together we come to believe. That is how Jesus called his disciples too (John 1:34ff). So the last thing the church should do is wall itself off to protect the holiness of God. God’s holiness doesn’t need protecting. It needs sharing. Putting up walls just creates more strangers.

How does this look in real life? It means that we quit erecting standards and qualifications for entry. It means that we trust the Spirit and the community to shape a person into the image of Jesus as they work, serve, and worship among us. Aren’t we all hoping for the same patience as grace? Let me share a couple of examples that are prevalent in our culture today and that present complex dilemmas for the church: illegal immigrants and gay people. The church can still support the laws of the United States on immigration while still taking care of an illegal immigrant in its midst. To feel that we have to choose is a false choice and not a Kingdom one. We are not called to agree with their actions or behavior, but only to care for the stranger. As I’ve stated in Part 2 of this series, to give freedom to others or to care for others is not the same as condoning their behavior. We can love and befriend what we do not understand or condone.

One of the real and complex issues facing the church today is how to deal with those who are gay and lesbian or even transgendered individuals. Our opinions about Scripture and our practices on this issue are myriad, and they are not easily resolved. Some of my readers believe that homosexual relationships are immoral, and others view it as normative. I don’t hope to resolve that today. My point here is that this is a box that presents a false choice for us. The Jesus way is a third way of welcome and transformation. It actually is not necessary to resolve whether gay and lesbian individuals should be welcomed. That’s basic Christianity 101. This is even more true since the church is so at fault for alienating these people in the first place, and therefore should bear more of a burden to welcome those it has driven from its midst by its pronouncements, rumors and silent conspiracies.

The increasing awareness of gay and lesbian individuals in our churches presents even more complex dilemmas that now seem closer to home. Some churches will feel that they are compromising something if they do not speak clearly to these individuals about what they feel Scripture demands. I understand, but respectfully disagree because life is more complex than that simplified understanding of Scripture and human nature (see my other postings on this blog). When we stand before mystery or people that we don’t understand entirely, isn’t it possible to invite those individuals to come in, prop up their feet on our coffee table, be in the transforming presence and beauty of God in worship, enjoy the welcome of our community, and trust the Spirit to mold that person in the image of God as we are common seekers of truth and love? Do we not trust the Spirit’s work or the presence of God in our community to do what it needs to do with each of us as we become more and more like the image of Christ over time? Why do we not exclude the greedy person from our midst until they become generous, but we exclude the sexually broken until they denounce their “brokenness?” This only “compromises” something if we don’t trust the Spirit, our community, God’s presence in worship, and the witness of Scripture to mold people. We cannot become who we ought to be until we are welcomed as we are. That should be the starting point for all discussions about how churches treat the poor, the financially irresponsible, the immigrant, and those we perceive as sexually broken. We don’t alienate, then expect transformation. We throw a banquet of welcome, then we all become like the One who invited us to the table in the first place.

Let me state this more bluntly: Jesus is the host. You are not. You’re the guest. So start eating with the people he has invited. You don’t get to decide who is at the table.

Read with me Ephesians 2:21, “In him, the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple.” The holiness of the church is not found in the purity it protects but in the strangers it welcomes in the name of Jesus. Jesus loved to eat with drunkards, the sexually immoral and confused, the Gentiles, tax collectors, and the poor. He didn’t compromise His purity or holiness, but people on the margins sensed in Him a warm embrace that was loving, authentic, and inviting. Jesus loved to include strangers — the people everyone else thought were far from the kingdom of God.

Churches that are in step with Kingdom values are a welcome place for those that don’t share those values. Christian universities, institutions and parachurch organizations don’t get a pass on this either if they are serious about branding themselves as “Christian.” By “welcome,” I do not mean that we invite those people to sit in our pews or visit the campus. It is impossible for an institution to call itself Christian and only welcome those that are like themselves. That’s a contradiction in terms. To be Christ-like in our welcome means that strangers can join us in common service to our community, they can become our true friends and colleagues, and they are invited to share their views with us openly and without fear. We do not protect our ears from their “untruth” because we fear that we will lose something if we give them a hearing, or invite them to our social gathering or be “seen” with them around town. They genuinely are invited into our lives and as part of our community. Christian organizations and churches should be known primarily for who they include, and not for those they exclude. That’s just basic to being Christian.

It is time for the dividing walls to come down. I suspect that the walls we must tear down are not those of self-righteousness or bigotry, though there are some. Most of us have good intentions. The biggest wall that must come down is our own comfort with the friends and family we already have, and with our need to defend God by refusing those God loves. We have little room in our lives for strangers. They stretch our patience. They make us think. If we are to tear down that wall, it begins by letting Jesus break down the dividing walls in your own heart. Until that happens, you will never be able to participate in Christ’s holy business of reconciliation on earth. If you want to be part of God’s community of peace that welcomes the stranger — then it means first of all enlarging your heart so that your default is not to exclude but to welcome everyone that God welcomes. To be Christian is to refuse to build walls and to welcome strangers like Jeannette and David welcomed me on that late night in Maryland. I felt comfortable in their home, even without permission. Not because they take pity on strangers. But because I was an adopted son.

In Christ, we have received adoption into a new family of God where God is at work to break down walls and to create places of hospitality and welcome. We also have received a calling to be a wall breaker. The church should be the last places where walls of division, where walls of racial, gender and economic distinction are erected (Gal. 3:28). To live in Christ means to accept this sacred mission of wall breaking to create communities of peace where all that was broken, lost and alienated before can come home.

4 Responses to “With Charity for All, Part 6: The Table For Strangers”
  1. me says:

    Why do people feel the need to judge? Can’t God be left to do that part??

  2. Scott F says:

    Good post. I started to write a long comment, but then deleted it all. Then I wrote parts of it again! 🙂 Lots to think about here but I like what you say. I don’t struggle with welcoming all to the table. That part I think God has blessed me to do fairly well. But I do struggle with knowing at what point do I also voice the reminders that Jesus has called us to a higher level of holiness and that we all must change? At the table, the tax collector was told to stop stealing from the poor, the woman at the well was told to stop committing adultery, the people were told to not throw stones at her unless they had no sin themselves. I’m not Jesus. Yet we are called to a life of both encouragement and admonition. I do the encouragement and the welcoming, but am often reluctant to do the admonition part. Finding that balance is difficult.

  3. toddbouldin says:

    Scott, you’re absolutely right. You know my personality, and I struggle with the same. But that doesn’t change the first part of the equation. We may be given to welcoming, but the church does not have a very good track record in this area. My “admonition” would be that we get the first part right first, and then let’s worry about the latter — as we all strive for balance. Most of the church has done better at admonishing than welcoming, so my article here is an attempt at urging balance. Thanks for commenting.

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