Saddleback Church in California, a mega-church pastored by Rick Warren, is famous for its hospitality; the church welcomes strangers as “guests” instead of as “visitors”. In his book “The Purpose-Driven Church” Warren writes, “The term ‘visitor’ implies they’re not here to stay. The term ‘guest’ implies this is someone for whom you do everything you can to make them feel comfortable. For a guest, we do everything. For a visitor, not so much.”
Saddleback staffer Erik Rees leads a “guest services team” in charge of first impressions, and determined to be good hosts to all who come. Traffic attendants are trained to welcome and point guests toward the worship venues, greeters are positioned along walkways to welcome and answer questions, and ushers are placed in the worship venues to respond to guests and seat them. The goal is that each guest will receive a total of three greetings before even sitting down in worship. These first impressions are critical because as Warren believes, “guests are deciding whether or not to come back long before the pastor speaks.”
Stranger. Guest. Host. All three roles are taken seriously at Saddleback Church—but they should be taken seriously by all churches, no matter how big or small. They should be taken seriously because all three roles are taken on by Jesus himself on the road to Emmaus. He appears to his disciples first as a stranger, then as a guest, and finally as a host, offering a model of hospitality to any of us who want to do better at welcoming and including people in the life of not only the church, but in all walks of life. Hospitality of others was how Jesus loved and ministered.
When two disciples are traveling to the village of Emmaus on Easter afternoon, the risen Jesus comes near and walks with them. But their eyes are kept from recognizing him. Jesus asks about the events they’re discussing, and one of them says, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”
Jesus is initially depicted as a stranger, giving his disciples the opportunity to show hospitality. They practice philoxenia, which literally means “love of the stranger” and “generosity of spirit.” Philoxenia is one of the Greek words used in the New Testament for hospitality, and stands in stark contrast to an attitude prevalent in society today— xenophobia, “fear of the stranger”, fear of those who are different than us—be it in race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, political affiliation, and so on.
And xenophobia is pervasive today—perpetuated by voices of fear that say protect ourselves, keep ourselves safe. Now yes, safety is of the utmost importance, but safety perpetuated from xenophobia doesn’t make us safer. It actually puts us at greater risk because our opposition and even our supporters will begin to see us as intolerant, judgmental, unloving, uncaring toward others, and yes even un-Christ-like.
So what would it mean for us to practice philoxenia and not xenophobia? What would it mean to not live in fear of the other, but instead to love the stranger with a generous spirit? It would mean we would be imitators of Christ. It would mean we would be reflecting the light of Christ in our world. It would mean we would be acting and serving in ways that will make our world better—and ultimately safer.
Now we are doing it already. We do it every time we open our church doors for Loaves and Fishes, or to someone needing assistance from our onsite food pantry. We do it every time we speak to guests after worship, instead of chatting only with our friends. We do it every time we make an effort to get to know a person from a different race, culture, nationality, sexual orientation, or political party—by listening to their story, and broadening our understanding of whom a person is—even if we don’t agree with them. This is philoxenia—love of the stranger, generosity of spirit. When we practice it, we discover that strangers really aren’t so strange—they really aren’t so different than ourselves—simply wanting to be safe, happy, and welcomed.
The two disciples on the road to Emmaus practiced philoxenia—love of the stranger, generosity of spirit. As they come near the village, Jesus walks ahead to go on. But the disciples urge him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” And when he does, Jesus the stranger goes in and is welcomed and included in their lives. He becomes their guest.
Guests were always important to Jesus, which is why he played that role on the road to Emmaus. Jesus calls us to take care of the guests who come to us. He challenges us to feed the hungry and welcome outcasts as he did throughout his ministry. Since we, the members of the church, are the physical body of Christ in the world today, we’re supposed to continue his work by showing the presence of Christ in the world by practicing hospitality, be it feeding the hungry through a food pantry, welcoming a guest to a service of worship, or listening to a person’s story.
Jesus comes to us as a guest, even today, and wants his followers to further the hospitality of Chirst. When we help a person in need, we’re really helping Jesus. When we welcome a stranger into our church, home, or life, we welcome Christ.
It is as Jesus says in Matthew 25 where he speaks to the Disciples about giving food, drink, and warm welcome to strangers, saying, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Is it easy? No. Hospitality is not easy. Making a stranger a guest can be scary. But the more we practice it, the more we will come to know that it’s not as scary as we are made to believe. The more we practice it, the more we come to know that hospitality—that philoxenia is faithful and Christ-like.
On the road to Emmaus Jesus, the stranger, becomes a guest of the disciples when he accepts their invitation to stay. But then he quickly changes roles again. When he’s sitting at the table he takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them—and in doing so, he becomes their host. And when he becomes their hose, their eyes are opened and they recognize him.
The role of Jesus changes from stranger to guest to host when he sits at the table and breaks the bread. This transition continues to happen today, when the risen Christ nourishes us through the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper where we are invited to open our hearts to the presence of Christ who comes to feed us, and fill us with the power of his presence—a presence that is inviting, welcoming, caring, and compassionate.
Often it is easier for us to help others than to receive help. We would rather be the host than let someone else be the host. But, when we permit Jesus to be our host, and open ourselves to what he wants to give us, then like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, our eyes will be opened and we will recognize him in our midst in a new and life changing way. And in doing so, we will be empowered to reveal him, to a hurting world in need of his saving and amazing grace, in new and life changing ways.
The passage ends with the two disciples racing back to Jerusalem to share with the other disciples the news of their experience. They tell them what happened on the road, and how Jesus “had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
Jesus becoming known is a guiding principle of Pope Francis, who has stirred the Roman Catholic Church since his selection, gaining particular attention for working to make the church “the home of all.”
In an interview, Pope Francis talked about Christian hospitality, saying, “Hospitality focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things. This is what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus.”
I believe Pope Francis mentioned Emmaus because this is where Jesus came to his disciples as a stranger, as a guest and as a host. Emmaus is where we come together and strengthen our bonds with Jesus and with each other. Emmaus is where we learn how to welcome one another around the table; have our eyes opened by the hospitality of Christ; and then go out into the world with a model of hospitality—that just as Jesus welcomed all, we the followers of Jesus welcome all as well.
When we practice Christ-like hospitality, we become part of a spiritual movement— one that can overcome divisions in a terribly polarized world. It all begins when Jesus breaks the bread, our eyes are opened and we recognize him. This is the hospitality of Christ, and we are all called to receive it and share it.
Christ-like hospitality does not forgo safety—but it does not include judgment, rejection, or hate. Strangers are strangers because we often see them as different. But differences are part of the diversity of life in the church that is “the home of all.”
So may we strive to make strangers our guest—even if only in small ways at first. May we make room for a guest to become our host. For if we do we will discover, like the Emmaus disciples, that we have offered and shared the hospitality of Christ. Amen.