Toward a Theology of Hospitality

A few weeks ago, Concordia Seminary hosted the annual Multiethnic Symposium, this year with the theme of “Reformation Across Borders.” Under the leadership of Kou Seying, John Loum, Leo Sanchez, Marcos Kempf (and others), this symposium drew nearly 150 pastors, church leaders, and laity from a variety of ethnic communities (Hmong, Hispanic, African, and others). It provided a rare opportunity to learn about (and rejoice in) their love for and commitment to the Lutheran confession as well as to hear about the questions and challenges that they face within our congregations and churches.

As a dyed-in-the-wool, cradle-to-grave (well, not grave just yet . . . I hope), lifelong Lutheran, the presentations and discussions were eye opening in ways that prompted me to think more theologically (in addition to sociologically) about the questions that we need to address. The theme for this year’s symposium centered on the question, “How do we move from being a church that does multiethnic ministry to a multiethnic church?” There’s more to this question than meets the eye. It is not only a question about becoming a more ethnically diverse church, but a more culturally diverse church as well; many ethnic communities have cultural backgrounds that are different from the dominant culture and that are integral to their creaturely identity within the world.

To answer these questions we might theologically consider the metaphor of hospitality as a way of talking about God’s overarching and all-embracing love for us. And to do that, we need to develop it within the context of what 17th-century theologian Johann Gerhard called the “two chief works of God,” namely, creation and redemption. These are not separate stories but two parts of one story. These two works, creation and redemption, could arguably be the most seminal, surprising, and unexpected acts that God has done . . . ever.

First, in the act of creation, God comes from his hidden throne and makes himself known (Gerhard). Think about it. From eternity, the Father, Son, and Spirit live in mutual love with one another. And then at some point in our distant past, God chose to make room in his life for that which was not God. And not only does God welcome into his life that which is not God, but that which is quite unlike God. God is spirit (John 4:24) and yet God creates not simply a spiritual creation, but a physical and material universe. In doing so, God made room in his life for a world that is characterized by a dizzying diversity of landscapes and creatures.

And by making room in his life, and welcoming us into his life, he shares his life with us. God not only welcomes us into his life as guests, but as participants. It is as if God says, “Make yourself at home.” And so he not only looks after us, but he makes us his co-workers or junior partners by giving us the responsibility of looking after his creation. In a sense, he relinquishes a certain control over it and gives his human creatures freedom to learn about it, to figure out how it works, and make choices about how best to look after his creation so that both human culture and the nonhuman creation can flourish together.

Second, in the act of redemption, God does something just as surprising as and even more surprising than his act of creation. Here God is not just confronting “nothingness” out of which he brings forth his creation, but he is now confronted by human creatures (the very ones that he welcomed into his life by making a home for them and making them his junior partners) who have turned their backs upon him and have trashed his beloved creation. So what does he do? He doesn’t annihilate his creation in order to start from scratch. He again makes room in his life . . . this time for his sinful human creatures.

This time, the Son of God comes down from his throne and enters his creation by becoming a human creature in order to reclaim and restore his creation, beginning with us. With his death and resurrection, God again makes room in his life for us and welcomes us back into his life. This time he not only makes us his junior partners to look after creation but adopts us as his very children, heirs of the new creation, and co-rulers with Christ over the new heavens and earth. And he enlists us as junior partners in the work of redemption . . . not the work of accomplishing redemption, but the work of delivering that redemption to others by speaking the promises of God. Talk about not only welcoming us into his life but making us integral parts of his life!

It seems to me that this theme of hospitality can help us think through questions of how we move from doing ethnic ministry to becoming a multiethnic church. Or it at least helps to focus the types of questions that we need to ask. For example, are we willing to make room in our lives for those that are unlike us when it comes to ethnicity and cultural background? And if we are, how do we welcome them into our lives not only as guests but as fellow members of the family/household of God? Theologically, we do affirm our fellow brothers and sisters of Christ who together share one baptism and the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper. But what does it look like within a congregation or church to, “make yourself at home”? Or what would it take to treat people not just as guests, but as fellow participants in managing the household of God?

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