I've been thinking about Genesis 18 this week as First Baptist Cornelia opened our doors for the first Cold Weather Shelter of the season. In this passage “the Lord appeared to Abraham by the Oaks of Mamre.” The Lord does not come in the form of a burning bush ablaze on the hill or as a cloud over the tabernacle. The Lord comes as three strangers at the entrance to Abraham’s tent.
Amy Oden, professor of early church history and spirituality at St. Paul School of Theology in Oklahoma City, says this text was quoted by early Christian leaders more frequently than any other text (including the Gospel passages) during the first 500 years of the church. This passage creates a paradigm for us to understand the marks of gospel hospitality. These marks like the white blazes on the Application Trail indicate when we are on the right path to Gospel hospitality.
I've thought of these mark often this week during our experience of Gospel hospitality at the Cold Weather Shelter.
Oden says readiness involves “intentionally and willingness to accept the difficultly of showing hospitality.” As our volunteers scrambled on Wednesday to prepare our facilities for our guests – I realized the importance of readiness. Our Red Cross shelter training came in handy as we prepared cots, registrations, food, and games. The intentionality made the shelter run smoother and with less stress than last year.
There will always be risk in hospitality because we are welcoming strangers. These strangers can “disrupt our lives and make us feel uncomfortable.” This is especially true when we welcome our shelter guests. These guests usually come to us in a frustrated place in their lives. They really don’t want to have to be here. Yet, as we show them grace and hospitality, we trust in God’s spirit to move in their lives. Without exception we have seen this make a difference in their lives.
One of the great transformations that happens when we practice Gospel hospitality is not within our guests, but in our own lives. We are changed as we minister to the stranger who is different from us. I've seen this happen in me each time we open our doors to the strangers among us – cold weather shelter guests, Camp Agape campers, and even new members within our fellowship. As we listen to their stories, God’s grace grows within us.
Finally, as we practice Gospel hospitality, we begin to recognize Jesus among us. I wonder how long it took Abraham and Sarah to realize these three strangers at the door to their tent were more than just traveling salesmen? As we welcome the stranger among us, we slowly begin to see Jesus. Not out there, but here among us. What a tragedy it would have been if we would have turned him away.
There are many opportunities to practice gospel hospitality – from our homes to our church to our Sunday school classes to our fellowship hall. I hope that you will join me as we seek the love the world as God loves us – one stranger at a time.