One of the best books I have read is Luke Bretherton's book "Hospitality as Holiness: Christian Witness Amid Moral Diversity." Bretherton, who teaches at King's College in London, writes how Christ's life, death, and resurrection constitutes the ground of welcoming strangers. To be recipients of Christian hospitality we do not have to do or be anything. Rather, we are welcomed because welcoming the stranger is to both follow faithfully in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and is a mark of openness to Christ. A distinctive feature of Jesus' ministry was his open commensality and healing; his ministry is fulfilled in his crucifixion: as an act of surpreme hospitality Jesus renders himself vulnerable to the point of death in order that we may be welcomed by and participate in communion with God. Thus, hospitality to the stranger constitutes part of the church's witness to the Christ-event and the hospitality that weak and sinful humans have received from God (p. 149).
Bretherton goes on to note how in an article on hospitality that "within the Christian tradition the stranger to be welcomed is consistently defined as someone who lacks any resources to support themselves. The stranger is someone who lacks a 'place' in society because they are detached or excluded from the basic means of supporting and sustaining life - family, work, polity, land, and so on - and are thus vulernable."*
Christine Pohl, who teaches at Asbury Theological Seminary, makes a similar point. She states how, "through most of church history, the Christian hospitality tradition has expressed a normative concern for strangers who could not provide for or defend themselves."** For example, in 1785, a group of Methodists founded the Stranger's Friends Society in London to aid the new class of urban poor. John Wesley described the Society as 'instituted wholly for the relief not of our society, but for the poor, sick, friendless strangers.'*** In other words, following the parable of the Good Samaritan, the answer given to the question: "who is my neighbor?" has been that the neighbor to be welcomed is the 'friendless stranger.' Hence, what constitutes the abuse of hospitality by hosts is defined in terms of whether their hospitality ignores the vulverable and friendless stranger.
I like what Bretherton and Pohl write about hospitality. They speak to a great concern regarding mission and ministry in a pluralistic culture: with new moral, social, and political questions emerging everyday, the church must find ways to live amongst strangers and yet also maintain its distinctive witness. The temptation of the church is two-fold: to accomodate and waterdown its witness on the one hand and/or to retreat from the public square and so disengage from the world on the other. The tension is always present. What Bretherton and Pohl offer, especially those who are searching for a missional framework within which to serve and lead Christ's church, is a way to follow Christ's example and so learn and relearn the practice of hospitality. What they offer is a kind learning and relearning that goes to the heart of practicing the gospel. They also offer a kind of learning that challenges us to open up our lives to welcoming strangers, for, as the Preacher in Hebrews says, in welcoming strangers, we welcome angels unawares (Hebrews 13:2).
Reflecting on the church's mission I can only commend what Bretherton and Pohl are stating as a first-step in sharing concretely in Christ's ministry.
*Luke Bretherton, "Hospitality and the Negotiation of Life with Strangers" (St. Ethelburga's Center for Reconciliation and Peace).
**Christine Pohl, "Making Room," p. 87.
***John Wesley, "Works of John Wesley," Volume 4: Journals (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), p. 481.