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When you hear the word hospitality, I wonder what comes to mind. In contemporary Britain, many of us may go straight to images of smart restaurants or cosy pubs serving delicious food and the smiles and laughter of friends meeting up for lunch or dinner. It’s a warm, comforting, convivial image. Jesus himself loved this form of hospitably as both guest and host. Whilst typing this piece an invitation came from friends inviting my wife and me to share Sunday lunch with them. We’re very much looking forward to doing so.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul famously instructs his readers, and by extension those of us who follow Jesus today, to ‘practise hospitality’ (Romans 12:13b, NIV). Immediately before this, we read ‘Share with the Lord’s people who are in need’ (Romans 12:13a). Reading the whole verse, we could be tempted to limit the horizon of our hospitality to those we know and love: family, friends, fellow church members. In an excellent piece in BRF’s Guidelines: God’s heart for refugees, Rosie Button highlights this risk:

‘We can misunderstand this word [hospitality] in British culture, thinking of it as inviting some friends for dinner, or keeping the spare room clean just in case. But the New Testament word is diametrically different: the word is philoxenia, meaning “love of stranger (or foreigner)”, the opposite of xenophobia. Opening our hearts and homes to friends is one thing, but doing so to strangers takes a bolder step of faith, openness, and love.’

Over the last twelve months or so many have practised precisely this form of hospitality in opening their hearts to, and providing homes for, Ukrainian families who have had to leave their own country to be safe. One such person is my friend Sue who has provided a place of welcome and safety within her own home for two Ukrainian young adults. Asked why she has done this, Sue said:

‘It just seemed the right thing to do. I have the space in my home and enjoy the company of young people, so what could go wrong? Diana was my first Ukrainian guest, she came with a Ukrainian degree in English, and after a year with me and training from a local college, went home with a certificate in functional skills and enough confidence to teach English in her local school. Mariia left her apartment and family to come to England, despite my warnings about the difficulties that she might face. In her own words she could not ‘face the constant fear of bombings and the daily need to run to the shelters when rockets came over or warning sirens were sounded.’ She now seems to have settled and is enrolled on an English course for one day a week at college. Mariia is a joy to have in my home. I am lucky to have such a pleasant, clever young person to share my life with, if only for a short time.’

In welcoming a person in need, we welcome not just that person but Jesus who identifies himself with them (Matthew 25:43–45). I read that text on a recent visit to Pembroke College in Cambridge where I encountered Francesco Tuccio’s Cross of the Migrants.

The cross was made from the wreckage of a refugee boat that capsized in the Mediterranean near the Italian island of Lampedusa (you can read about it here). The vessel was carrying 466 people from Somalia and Eritrea when it caught fire, capsized and sank near the island, drowning 311 people, in October 2013. Survivors were taken to a church on Lampedusa attended by Tuccio. The islanders pooled resources to feed and clothe them and bury bodies washed up on the shore. They practised hospitality in the most distressing of circumstances.

The parable of the sheep and the goats is one of the most challenging of all the stories that Jesus told. The contrast between those who care and welcome and those who don’t is stark. Not long after I saw the Cross of the Migrants, our news programmes were full of images of the Bibby Stockholm barge being prepared to house migrants who had survived perilous journeys seeking safety. I found myself asking what that boat represents: philoxenia or xenophobia? Rosie Button in her excellent reflection concludes by saying:

Philoxenia is a perfect picture of welcoming refugees and making them our friends. The instruction in Romans 12:15, to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep is a beautiful picture of the solidarity and openness which God wants us to have with those we are living alongside. In my hometown, there is a wonderful community World Café where local Christians befriend and share meals with refugees and other immigrants in the area; they truly do rejoice and mourn alongside each other, and close friendships are made. It is an inspiring example.’

So, two different perspectives on hospitality. Each is important in its own way. But I wonder if there is also a third way that blends both interpretations. Each year my friends Andrew and Ruth host a coffee morning for Christian Aid. Friends and neighbours arrive to enjoy each other’s company and the delicious cakes baked by Ruth, thoroughly savouring the hospitality of the home. As they do so they also make generous donations to support the work of Christian Aid and by so doing, practise philoxenia, love for the foreigner or stranger.

The practice of hospitality is therefore multifaceted. It is also a holy way of living. May God grant us the grace to truly practice it in all ways possible.

For further reading

  • If you would like to read Rosie Button’s series of reflections on God’s heart for refugees you can order PDF or print copies at here.

  • A number of Holy Habits resources contain reflections and study material on various aspects of hospitality. You might like to begin with Holy Habits: Eating Together.


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