Practising hospitality is a basic of Christian life. In Hebrews we are urged to “extend hospitality to strangers”. We get that. But what if there is another way to look at hospitality? Could it be just as blessed to receive as to give? Does effective mission require us to do both? George Wieland suggests it does, and he uses the experience of the apostle Peter to explain why.
To offer hospitality requires some adjustment. We’ve just had a crowd of people visiting our family home for a special birthday. It involved moving furniture to create sleeping spaces; considering a range of food needs and preferences; and giving up the normal weekend patterns of our household to share mornings, afternoons and evenings with up to 20 others. Being the host can be very rewarding, but it does take some work.
On the other hand, being the guest also involves effort. Those who came to stay had to consciously adapt to a different household and its ways. When, and what, do they eat? What sort of behaviour is expected? What’s the protocol for getting your turn in the shower? Where can you go if you just want to chill for a while? Do you have to wait until you’re offered a drink or a snack or is it OK just to raid the fridge?
In many ways it’s actually easier to be the host. There is work, inconvenience and it may involve cost, but you still hold the power. It’s your space and you get to decide who will be welcome and on what conditions. It might feel chaotic for a time but ultimately you have control over what happens during the visit and how the relationship between host and guests is managed.
However, guests are fully aware that they are in someone else’s space. They can’t go where they want and do as they like. They know that their own familiar practices and preferences will have to be suspended in order to fit in with whatever the host plans and offers, and that their presence in that home is dependent on meeting the host’s expectations of them as guests. They are not in control.
Jesus, the guest
It’s interesting that Jesus so often accepted the role of guest. He did host picnics for thousands and a small breakfast barbeque, but they were in public spaces. There was an intimate meal with his friends, but it was in someone else’s house.
On the other occasions in the Gospels in which we find Jesus eating, he is usually a guest. It is the host, not Jesus, who determines who the other guests are, who has access to Jesus while he is in their home, and what protocols will or won’t be followed.
When Jesus sends his disciples out on mission it is not as hosts with the power to meet their own needs and control who they will engage with. They go vulnerably, depending on the hospitality of strangers (Luke 10:4-7). It is as humble and grateful guests rather than powerful and magnanimous hosts that they are able to offer what God enables them to give, and to discern and declare the presence of God’s Kingdom in that place.
Peter’s uncomfortable lesson
When the Bible’s story of mission moves from the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels to the mission of Jesus’ followers in the Book of Acts, this motif of the guest-in-mission continues. The experience of the apostle Peter and his companions in the household of the Gentile army officer, Cornelius, is a prime example.
This incident is so significant for the book’s story and theology that it is related three times (Acts 10:1-48; 11:1‑18; 15:7-11, 14). Peter—and the whole church—had to be reoriented from their monocultural focus and assumptions about the boundaries of the Jesus community, to a recognition of God’s acceptance of people and peoples very different to themselves.
The process involved intense discomfort. Peter received a startling vision. While he waited for dinner on the flat roof of the tanner’s home-workshop where he was staying, the smells of the tannery wafted around him and the sun beat down on a tarpaulin that provided shade. Suddenly the scene morphed into a sheet lowered from heaven bearing all kinds of living creatures, which he was invited to take as food. Of course he objected, on grounds of dietary and religious purity, but the reply was, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (10:15).
Peter realised that this challenge related not only to food but also to people whom he had placed in the category of religiously unclean and unacceptable to God. As his prejudice began to be broken down, three people in that ‘unclean’ category—two slaves and a soldier sent by Cornelius—arrived at the house. It took direct reassurance by the Spirit to persuade Peter to act in accordance with this developing reorientation and welcome them in (10:19‑23).
To be the host extending hospitality to people who were different from him in so many ways was already uncomfortable. But that was nothing compared to the acute discomfort that Peter experienced when he had to change roles and enter the Gentile home as a guest. This comes through in his very awkward self-introduction: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (10:28). However, it’s a principle of life and of mission that discomfort precedes discovery.
As Peter heard Cornelius’s testimony of his experience with God and entered that home crowded with Gentiles eager to hear whatever message God had for them, something happened: “Now I’m really getting it—God’s not prejudiced!” (10:34).
That was soon confirmed. As Peter spoke about Jesus to that eagerly receptive audience he looked on in amazement as the Spirit came upon them. It was as a vulnerable guest invited into a home that to him felt strange and even, at first, ungodly, that Peter was able to grasp more fully the scope and character of the mission of God.
This speaks to how we think about and do mission. There is a deep‑rooted assumption in many of our church mission efforts that we are in the role of hosts. We invite people into our space, we extend hospitality, and we are willing to share our resources with those who come in. But we hold the power, we exercise control, we are the generous givers and they are the needy recipients.
What if we were to act not as missional hosts but as missional guests? The question then is not how to persuade people to accept our invitation to come into our space but who will welcome us into their space, share what they have with us, and in return receive what God gives us to take with us as we go?
There are also implications for how we relate across barriers of difference within the church. As migration, refugee settlement, seasonal work schemes and international education increase the cultural diversity of our cities, towns and rural regions, some churches are asking how they can be good hosts to people who come from elsewhere.
That’s an important question to ask and act on, but in the way God works, mission is mutual. Are we also prepared to surrender the host’s power and become guests, accepting invitations into their spaces, their cultures and their lives? That place of initial discomfort could become the space in which we learn together how to be a genuinely intercultural community that reflects God’s saving and reconciling purpose for the world.
Story: George Wieland
George is the director of Mission Research and Training at Carey Baptist College, where he has taught since he and his family were welcomed to Aotearoa New Zealand as immigrants nearly 20 years ago. Although hosting has always been part of their life, George has found that it has often been as a guest—in homes, marae, churches, and elsewhere—that he has learned more about God, received what he has needed for life and faith, and been able to make his contribution to what God is doing there.
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright ©1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.