The Bible talks a lot about hospitality. In Old Testament times one of the marks of Godís people was that they opened their homes to others. Job said, 'the sojourner has not lodged in my street; I have opened my doors to the traveller...' (Job 31: 32). Abraham 'lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, "O my lord, if I have found favour in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on..."' (Genesis 18: 2ff). Elisha 'went on to Shunem, where a wealthy woman lived who urged him to eat some food. So whenever he passed that way, he would turn in there to eat. And she said to her husband, "Behold now, I know that this is a holy man of God who is continually passing our way. Let us make a small room on the roof with walls and put there for him a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp, so that whenever he comes to us, he can go there..."' (2 Kings 4: 8ff).
In the New Testament, the importance of hospitality becomes even clearer. Jesus was hosted in his travels by many folk. He spent the last days of his life here on earth staying in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. And he said that on the Day of Judgement we will be judged by our willingness to show hospitality. 'Then he will say to those on his right, "Come you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me... in as much as you did it to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me"' (Matthew 25: 34-40). The believers in the early church were in and out of one anotherís homes constantly, eating together. 'And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts.' (Acts 2: 46). The moment Lydia was converted, she wanted to open her home to visitors, 'She urged us, saying "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay"'. Paul wrote, 'Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.' (Romans 12: 13). He himself enjoyed the hospitality of friends like Philemon. 'I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you...prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you...' (Philemon 7, 22). In fact he made it clear that no-one who was not hospitable should be appointed as a leader in the church (1 Timothy 3: 3, Titus 1: 8). The writer to the Hebrews wrote, 'Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.'
Skim through those passages again (and theyíre only a very small selection of the Bible passages which talk about hospitality) and youíll see how widely they range. Some passages talk about hospitality to fellow-believers. Others talk about hospitality to passing strangers. Some talk about offering a one-off meal; others talk about inviting someone to stay for a prolonged period. Some are addressed particularly to church leaders; others are for every Christian.
I would like to think that we are a hospitable church. For some of you, a Sunday without guests is a rare thing. Some of you have opened your home for weeks or months on end to folk who needed somewhere to stay. Itís not always been easy for you. But you have found your life enriched by the experience. You have built friendships that will last for a life-time; you have learned lessons that couldnít be learned in any other way; you have found that Jesus was right when he said that it is more blessed to give than to receive. And maybe you have entertained angels. You invited folk into your home because you wanted to do them good; you found that the blessings they brought to you far outweighed any kindness you offered them.
But it may be that others have shrunk away from the privileges and duties of hospitality. There are lots of reasons why Christians are reluctant to open their homes. They may feel that their homes are nothing special to look at. By comparison with other peopleís mansions, their homes seem small and shabby. Well, donít be ashamed of what the Lordís given you. I have visited folk all over the world and stayed in their homes. Some were luxurious. Some were very basic. But what mattered was the warmth of the welcome. I have stepped into homes made of corrugated iron and cardboard and been treated like a prince - and I have stepped into the most palatial dwellings and felt myself an intruder. Share what you have without embarrassment and no-one will complain that the furniture is old or that the teapot is chipped.
Some Christians may worry that their families are too big - visitors wouldnít want lots of children crawling over them. Others may feel that theyíre disqualified because theyíre unmarried. Some may be aware that they lack conversational skills. Others can talk till the cows come home but are conscious that their cookery leaves something to be desired. Well, children can be taught not to crawl over the visitors (at least unless the visitors seem to like it). Single people can be the very best of hosts - they can sit chatting with visitors late into the evening, when married people have to get home. Conversational skills grow with practice. And anyone can learn half a dozen recipes which are guaranteed never to go wrong.
In the end, itís a simple matter of obedience. If youíre a Christian and you have a home, then God has told you to use that home for the good of others. Itís been given to you not just for your own good but for the good of others.
Who are the others to whom you should show hospitality? Well of course other Christians, and especially other members of the church. But not just them. Students need hospitality. We have tried for many years as a church to make sure that students away from home, trapped in the godless world of the university campus six days a week, have the opportunity to spend every Lordís Day in Christian homes. Homeless people need hospitality. In the last few years we have invited homeless lads to join us over a family meal. For some of them itís the first meal theyíve ever eaten at a table with a family. Bereaved and divorced folk need hospitality. Many of them have to cope with many lonely hours. Just to be invited into someoneís home for a coffee can be a lifeline. Family folk need hospitality. A couple with small children may rarely get the chance to sit down for a quiet meal. To sit down in someone elseís home while the babysitter looks after the kids may be just what they need. Passers-through need hospitality. If youíve ever spent time alone in a strange city far from home, youíll know how much it means to be invited into a Christian home. Unbelievers of all sorts need hospitality. Make your home a place where people see the difference Christ can make - and where they find Christ.
The list is endless. But donít forget one more group of folk who need hospitality. Hospitable people need hospitality. There are people who are constantly showing hospitality to others - but who never get an invitation back. They donít complain. But occasionally they breathe a sigh and think, 'It would be nice if just once in a while it was the other way round.'
Stephen Rees is Pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport.