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Making Strangers into Neighbors

June 8, 2019
By Lauren Rae Konkol

The Centrality of Hospitality to the Christian Life

The sweet melody of Psalms put to four-part harmonies; table fellowship over simple soup and loaves of communion bread; children’s laughter and muddy feet; and wet shoulders from the tears of grieving neighbors.

This is a glimpse into the intricate yet glorious picture of a Christian home undertaking the call of hospitality—that of welcoming the stranger and seeing the neighbor as family. Biblical hospitality brings to mind one word in particular that encompasses God’s vision and purpose for the human person and all of creation—shalom.

Shalom (םולש), the Hebrew word for peace, casts a vision of wholeness, harmony, and flourishing that marks a people in right relationship to their Creator and to each other. On this side of heaven, hospitality, practiced in all of its forms, helps us more clearly anticipate the coming restoration of all things through Jesus Christ.

The Gospel Comes with a House Key, by Rosaria Butterfield, presents a rich theology of hospitality, calling the Christian to see our homes as gifts to be given as safe havens to the broken, lonely, and spiritually destitute, those in genuine need of authentic fellowship and a sense of belonging.

Butterfield offers the term “Radically Ordinary Hospitality” as a framework for understanding daily service and sacrifice for the good of our neighbor, the glory of God, and the proclamation of his gospel. “Radically ordinary hospitality is this,” Butterfield writes. “[It is] using your Christian home in a daily way that seeks to make strangers neighbors, and neighbors family of God” (31). It is marked by open invitations, the disruption of regular routines, and living below our means in order to use God-given resources to serve others. Hospitality is the call of the Christian life and the Christian home, providing a window into the richness and fullness of life with Christ. It is through open homes, willing hearts, and ready hands that God brings his Kingdom to earth.

Long before the Butterfields began their own hospitality ministry, a pastor and his wife—Ken and Floy Smith—modeled to Rosaria intentional, daily table fellowship, the very means by which God rescued Butterfield from the grip of sin and death and beckoned her to follow him. Butterfield’s first book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, details her conversion from one living a successful, but Christ-devoid, life as a tenured English professor to one unable to resist the claims of the gospel. One of the striking aspects of Butterfield’s story is the stark contrast she and others have observed between the deep, welcoming, and familial lesbian community and the oft times lack of the same within the Christian faith.

In detailing the AIDS epidemic her community faced, Butterfield reflects in somber tone, “Out of desperation and fear and banding together in spite of our differences, a community was born. . . . I do wonder, now, as a Christian, if the church had been there, had helped, had shared in our grief, how the story would have unfolded differently” (94). One ought never to find more belonging, fellowship, and security in a sexual identity than in the church of Jesus Christ. If we are to call people out of their sin and into newness of life with Christ, the Christian home must be a place where people find abundantly more sacrificial love, compassion, and bearing of burdens.

Butterfield writes, “Because Christian conversion always comes in exchange for the life you once loved, not in addition to it, people have much to lose in coming to Christ—and some people have more to lose than others. Some people have one cross, and others have ten to carry” (95).

Jesus’ promises in Mark 10 give both hope to the brother or sister leaving this once-loved life and a weighty responsibility to the Christian community they are entering into:

“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30)

God has chosen to fulfill this glorious, hundredfold blessing through the church, the family of God. Hospitality, and even more fundamentally, true Christian friendship, is at the heart of how we bring life to the world and proclaim the truths of the gospel to people in need of mercy and healing. By opening our homes and lives to our neighbors—many of whom are spiritually poor—we demonstrate that our faith has something powerful to say about every area of our life.

Butterfield continues, “If you want to share the gospel with the LGBTQ community or anyone who will lose family and homes, the gospel must come with a house key” (96). For many of our neighbors, the invitation to our homes may be the first opportunity they have to enter a Christian home and see a cross-shaped life. This is a great privilege to be stewarded with much prayer.

The key to properly understanding Butterfield’s book is correctly distinguishing between its prescriptive and descriptive elements. Some have remarked at the truly radical nature of the Butterfield family’s model of hospitality. The believer who may have yet to consider the call of hospitality on their own life could easily, and understandably, be overwhelmed by the thought of preparing and hosting neighbors and strangers in their living room every single night of the week—in addition to the countless other ways the Butterfields sacrificially serve their community each and every day.

Butterfield would not have the reader leave her book feeling discouraged or inadequate but, rather, equipped and encouraged to do the hard and joyful work of showing Christ in the most practical ways. Butterfield did not set out to fully detail the endless ways one can be hospitable but beautifully tells one story of how her family has chosen to live out this call to welcome and care for strangers. This can be lived out—in full accordance with the Word of God—in many ways that may look different from the picture Butterfield lays out in her book.

“Start anywhere. Start today,” Butterfield urges. “One logical place to start is at the end of your driveway” (62). Radically ordinary hospitality exists as a ray of hope restoring dignity to our neighbors—the prisoner, the immigrant and refugee, the drug addict, and the dying.

In an age marked by loneliness and depression, Butterfield encourages the reader to see hospitality as a way of life, putting ourselves in front of people in need: “Know that someone is spared the fear and darkness of depression because she is needed at your house, always on the Lord’s Day, the day she is never alone but instead safely in community where her place at the table is needed and necessary and relied upon” (111).

As God welcomes us as his sons and daughters, calling us his friend, let us do the same with our neighbors, seeing each as worthy of hospitality because they bear the Imago dei. As we do, we await the day when true flourishing—shalom—is the mark of all of creation.

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