The process of learning to practice hospitality has not always been smooth for me, either. A few years after we returned to the States from Southeast Asia, my husband Jack and I decided to move to Seattle. We didn’t have jobs or a clear plan, but Jack’s sister hosted us for the first few weeks, and then through the church we found a home.
We would live in a big old house in the university district, which was owned by a retired couple who wanted it to be used for ministry. Inspired by the hospitality we’d received as foreigners in another country, we wanted to extend a similar welcome to international students in the USA. As house managers, we would live in one bedroom of the house, and rent out the other seven bedrooms to students from China, Taiwan, Korea, Indonesia, Japan, Nepal, and Cameroon.
With our housemates, we practiced intentional community. We shared cooking and cleaning responsibilities, eating dinner together five nights a week, and meeting once a week for prayer. On Friday nights, we hosted “International Christian Fellowship,” a dinner and Bible study regularly attended by about thirty additional international students from the area.
It was a beautiful life, but sometimes—often, really—we failed to demonstrate the kind of true hospitality we’d hoped to practice. Some of our first housemates were Korean sisters who spoke very little English at all. They didn’t want to be in the States, but had been sent by their parents. After a few weeks, it became evident that one of them was bingeing and purging. She’d eat very little at family dinner, but overnight whole loaves of banana bread would disappear. And we heard the toilet flushing and flushing. We didn’t know how to help. We didn’t try very hard to figure it out. We were relieved when they left. A housemate from Nepal always left her dirty dishes on the stove. We didn’t want to confront her about it. A Chinese housemate and a Korean housemate disagreed about how to cook the rice and about how to clean the bathrooms. A housemate from Japan was so private we hardly got to know him; but did we really try?
The early church experienced conflict when people from different cultures came together to worship God, too. Their disagreements were not just theoretical but, like ours, quite practical. Some of the biggest conflicts recorded in the book of Acts centered on whether or not Christians needed to follow Jewish traditions. Did Christians need to keep kosher—to eat the ways that Jews had eaten for centuries, avoiding pork and shellfish? Should new Christians be circumcised? Was it okay to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols? As the early Christians wrestled with these questions, God used their wrestling to reveal himself. Through their cross-cultural relationships, they came to understand that the gospel of Christ was not just for the Jews, but for the Gentiles, and for anyone anywhere who fears God (acts chs. 10 & 15).
The growth of the fledgling Christian movement depended upon women who were willing to extend hospitality to visiting missionaries and to emerging churches. Women—widows in particular—were the people best equipped to receive visiting missionaries, teachers, and Christian travelers. Emerging churches met in the houses of women: Chloe, Priscilla, Nympha. On one missionary journey, the apostle Paul encountered a woman named Lydia who believed his message and invited him to her home. Her hospitality probably challenged him to confront some deeply-ingrained cultural and socioeconomic biases.
Paul had entered Philippi in Macedonia. He had journeyed there because of a dream in which “a man of Macedonia was standing there” who begged Paul to come and help him (acts 16:9). But after several days in the city, the man from his dream still hadn’t shown up. Who in Philippi was ready to hear Paul’s message?
The text doesn’t tell us where Paul and his companions stayed those first few days. Philippi was an unevangelized city and may not have even had a Jewish synagogue (the place Paul would typically visit first in a city), because on the Sabbath, they did not go to a synagogue to worship. They went “outside the gate to the riverside” where they supposed they would find a place of prayer (acts 16:13). And they did. They found a regular religious community of women, including Lydia, “a worshiper fo God” who was from Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth (v. 14). (The phrase “worshiper of God” was often used to describe God-fearing Gentiles who worshiped God but had not yet heard the gospel of Jesus.) These women welcomed Paul, extending hospitality to him. Lydia and her household listened to Paul preach, and they were baptized, and “prevailed upon” Paul to come stay with them (v. 15 nasb).
Growing up, whenever I heard the story of Lydia, I heard that she was a wealthy businesswoman who extended hospitality to Paul. Research indicates that the story is actually quite different.
According to I Was a Stranger: A Christian Theology of Hospitality by Arthur Sutherland, Lydia’s name is an ethnicon, a name given to a slave that describes origin, nationality, and ethnicity. Lydia was a freed slave from the city of Lydia in the region of Thyatira. She had likely been forced to migrate to Philippi upon receiving her freedom, because freed slaves could only work in the same locale as their past owners if their work would not cause economic injury to the former owner. Dying fabric was not the work of the upper classes: dye houses stank, as the process of dying wool involved large amounts of animal urine, and much of the work was done by hand, leaving the workers with stained hands and forearms, visible marks of a low social status.
Lydia and her household, then, were likely a group of immigrant women in a subsistent occupation. They were poor, they were female, and they smelled like urine. When Paul and his companions agreed to accept her hospitality, it was a case of foreigners welcoming foreigners, and it was a case of a lower-class woman “prevailing” upon Paul to stay with her. The word that’s used—she prevailed—indicates force. It indicates that Paul needed to be convinced. It indicates that Lydia was saying, “If this gospel you preach is real, and you and I really are now brothers and sisters, co-heirs with Christ, then prove it by being willing to come stay at my home.” Her persistent appeals went beyond the accepted tradition that a woman should only be host to those with whom she was familiar. Christ has overthrown that: based on their shared union with Christ, Lydia has authority to greet, receive, and protect the stranger.
The story of Lydia shows us that hospitality is not grounded in the availability of physical possessions, but in being possessed by Christ. Hospitality can be offered from one stranger to another, it can break convention, it can be uncomfortable and blessed, all based on the identity we share in Christ.
I know from firsthand experience that there is nothing simple or straightforward about forming relationships with people who are different from me, about opening a home to strangers, about extending hospitality. But I also know that God reveals himself in these very relationships, using them to break down our prejudices and preconceptions, showing up in surprising ways.