Hospitality before and after Christendom

By Stuart Murray Williams

Matthew 11:16-19

To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.

Jesus at table

Have you ever heard or preached a sermon on Matthew 11:19? Have you ever pondered this accusation levelled against Jesus? There is no record in the Gospels of anyone saying this: we only know about it because Jesus himself reports it. He compares his ministry to that of John the Baptist, whose ascetic lifestyle had prompted some to accuse him of having a demon. We learn that a very different accusation was being levelled at Jesus, who had not embraced this ascetic lifestyle. ‘The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”’

In our songs and prayers we might speak warmly of Jesus as a ‘friend of sinners’, aware that we too are sinners in need of his forgiveness and friendship, but there was no warmth in this accusation by his contemporaries. He was associating with the wrong kind of people. How could he be a respected rabbi, much less a prophet sent by God, if he spent time with those who were fallen, ritually unclean, collaborators, law-breakers? Didn’t he realise the offence caused by accepting hospitality from the hated Zacchaeus, by sharing meals with dangerous zealots, by including in his entourage a tax collector like Matthew, the author of this passage?

We can happily reclaim the phrase ‘friend of sinners’ for Jesus, although this might challenge us to reflect on those we associate with, invite into our homes, and spend time with. Churches in my context are too often found among the affluent and respectable rather than the obvious ‘sinners’. But what about the other accusations: Jesus the glutton, Jesus the drunkard? What do we do with these?

Let me say at once that I don’t believe Jesus was either a glutton or a drunkard. As with many of the accusations thrown at him, this was untrue and vindictive. But why did they think these labels might stick? Jesus gives the answer here and Matthew provides the evidence in the rest of his Gospel – unlike John the Baptist, Jesus ‘came eating and drinking’. In the Gospels he is often found at table, sharing meals or parties with all kinds of people, his closest friends and those disreputable people the righteous ones called ‘sinners’. One of my colleagues, Andrew Francis, in his book Hospitality and Community after Christendom, notes that it has been calculated that there are 28 references in the four Gospels to Jesus eating and drinking; even taking into account parallel passages, there are at least 17 separate occasions. And Jesus often drew on the imagery of meals, wedding feasts and banquets to illustrate the nature of God’s kingdom.

John’s Gospel is framed by meals. John presents as Jesus’ first miracle the transformation of an extraordinary amount of water into wine of the finest quality. John comments: ‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory’ (John 2:11). John also records the feeding of five thousand people through the multiplication of bread and fish, after which those present were impelled to declare: ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world’ (John 6:14). Both miracles of hospitality reveal who Jesus is. In passing, we might note that the feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels and that it involves hospitality and shared food.

Towards the end of all four Gospels is the intimate and poignant account of the Last Supper, which Jesus shares with his closest friends – and his betrayer – before facing the agony of the crucifixion. John, however, does not include any eucharistic dimension but mentions only the meal itself and the washing of the disciples’ feet as Jesus outrageously performs the kind of hospitality a servant would normally have provided (John 13:1-20). John’s Gospel concludes (21:9-14) with a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus inviting his disciples to join him for a beach barbecue breakfast. As in other post-resurrection appearances, such as the encounter at Emmaus recorded by Luke (24:30-31), it is the familiar way in which Jesus shares food that enables his disciples to recognise him. It is not just John’s Gospel: all the Gospels are full of occasions when Jesus was eating and drinking. No wonder some of those who opposed him thought their accusation of gluttony and drunkenness might find its mark!

Back to the Last Supper for a moment. What did Jesus say at as he distributed bread and wine in the context of a meal? ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ (Luke 22:19). As a colleague in the Anabaptist Network often says, Jesus left us no book or theological statement, no institution, building or strategy – the only thing Jesus left us is a meal. Sadly, in most church traditions, this meal has been reduced to a tiny wafer or fragment of bread and a thimble of wine, grape juice or the revolting and unhealthy so-called ‘communion wine’. Is that really what Jesus intended? Is this the best way to remember him – not only the significance of his death, but his life and teaching, to remember him?

One of the greatest gifts of the Anabaptist tradition has been its insistence that the life of Jesus matters, as well as his death and resurrection. And that life was punctuated by eating and drinking, sharing hospitality at many tables. Maybe we remember him best as we enjoy real meals together, sharing hunks of bread and fine wine (or at least excellent fruit juice) in this context.

At the Last Supper Jesus was the host, even though the room was borrowed. He was the host too on the beach, with fish cooking on a charcoal fire and bread to hand as the disciples ran up from the water. But on many occasions in the Gospels he was the guest – sometimes the chief guest, sometimes one guest among others. On occasions, as with Zacchaeus, he invited himself to the table. Sometimes unexpected people were present, as when a woman anointed his feet as he reclined at table. And he was not averse to criticising the inadequate hospitality he received from his host or challenging the competition for the best places at the table. In his teaching he encouraged his disciples to invite to their tables, not only their friends and those who might reciprocate their invitation, but those who could not do this and were not usually invited – ‘the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind’ (Luke 14:13).

A hospitable church

We will return to this dual role of host and guest shortly. But first a brief foray into church history. Luke tells us that the church in Jerusalem ‘broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts’ (Acts2:46). He describes a community in which resources were shared to the extent that ‘there was not a needy person among them’ (Acts 4:34). But this was not a perfect community. The first main controversy that arose involved complaints about the unfair distribution of food along ethnic lines (Acts 6:1). Later, in his first letter to the Corinthians, before writing the famous passage we so often read in communion services, Paul rebuked the church for failing to practise just hospitality (1 Corinthians 11:20-22). He concluded that this failure of hospitality meant they were not really eating the Lord’s Supper. And he urged the church in Rome not to squabble over different eating preferences but rather to ‘welcome one another…just as Christ has welcomed you’ (Romans 15:7).

Despite such failures, there seems little doubt that the early Christians continued to practise hospitality, sharing food and inviting all kinds of people to their homes and tables. It has been suggested that this boundary-breaking practice in which rich and poor, slaves and free, men and women ate together was one of the main factors in the remarkable growth of the church. Christine Pohl, who has written extensively on hospitality, concludes: ‘Christian hospitality was a central witness to the truth of the gospel and to its transforming power. Those who defended the faith before hostile rulers argued that Christian welcome to strangers and across social boundaries marked the gospel as authentic and true. Christians from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds ate together, loved and cared for one another, and shared one another’s lives and homes.’[1]

We have further evidence from a hostile source of the impact of the church’s hospitality and sharing of food with those who were not members of their own community. Despairing of his attempt to restore paganism, the mid-fourth-century emperor Julian the Apostate complained that the Christians were feeding poor pagans as well as the poor in their own communities. What could he do in the face of this hospitality? And there is every reason to conclude that the eucharistic sharing of bread and wine took place in the context of these real meals – and that these were relaxed and joyful community-building occasions.

Just as Jesus was accused of being a glutton and drunkard, so the agape meals or love feasts of the early churches prompted many accusations. The famous North African church leader, Tertullian (c160-c220), defended his community against such defamation, complaining that the pagans ‘abuse our humble feasts, on the ground that they are extravagant as well as infamously wicked.’ He insisted that they were not orgies but ‘modest’ meals shared in an atmosphere of reverence and prayerfulness. ‘As much is eaten as satisfies the cravings of hunger; as much is drunk as befits the chaste’, he reported. And he offered as ‘a proof of the measure of our drinking’ the normal practice within his community: ‘each is asked to stand forth and sing, as he can, a hymn to God, either one from the holy Scriptures or one of his own composing.’ We could not do this, he implied, if we were all drunk![2]

Not even the most determined critic would attempt to persuade others that the way bread and wine is shared in most churches today involves gluttony or drunkenness. When and why did the celebration of communion become detached from a real meal? Perhaps not surprisingly, it was during the fourth century that this practice fell into disrepute. The Christendom shift that resulted from the emperor Constantine’s decision to embrace Christianity exacerbated a move towards clericalism and formalism that was already underway. Communion was celebrated in institutional settings, rather than a communal context, and the distribution of bread and wine was now restricted to the clergy. The unregulated, multi-voiced love feasts in which food was shared, conversations were enjoyed and community was built could no longer be tolerated. In 397 the Council of Carthage finally forbade these.

Throughout the following centuries the church developed other expressions of hospitality. In the monasteries there were rooms set aside for guests and food was provided for visitors. The similar terminology of hospitals, hospices and hospitality is a reminder of the church’s role in developing places of healing and comfort for those in need. But these institutional forms of hospitality, significant as they were, usually lacked the community-building dimensions that were present in domestic and less formal settings. They were also expressions of the wealth, status and power of the institutional church in the Christendom era, often prone to patronise those they helped and to reinforce dependency. Christine Pohl notes that, although hospitality remained a central ecclesial practice, it ‘often served to reinforce power and influence. The connection with poor people, with equality, and with crossing social and cultural boundaries was nearly lost.’[3] She highlights three exceptions: the Benedictines, the Anabaptists and later the African-American churches.

Hospitality after Christendom

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the fading of the Christendom era and the marginalisation of the church in western societies has witnessed a remarkable upsurge in Christian communities eating together, restoring communion to the context of a real meal, opening their homes and recognising the power of hospitality to build authentic community and engage relationally in mission.

A familiar example of this in the UK (and elsewhere) is the popular Alpha course, in which relational evangelism is practised through invitations to a shared meal and conversation, as well as a formal presentation. While Anabaptists may have serious reservations about some aspects of this approach, not least the privatised and truncated understanding of the gospel that is presented, there is no doubt that the meal-based hospitality and the inevitable multi-voiced dynamic that results from sitting around tables, rather than in rows or pews, is critical to its impact.

During the past thirty years in the UK thousands of new churches have been planted. These have different theologies, ecclesial practices and approaches to ministry and mission, but very many of them have rediscovered the impact of hospitality and the power of eating together. A church in East London has a simple mantra – ‘no eating, no meeting’. Some communities are ‘table churches’, whose members gather around the table and share food and a meal liturgy. Others are ‘café churches’, either setting up tables and chairs in church buildings to resemble cafés and encouraging eating and drinking during their services, or meeting in actual cafés. In these contexts, sharing bread and wine and giving thanks together is natural. In traditions that require an ordained minister to celebrate communion, this requirement can be frustrating, but it is often circumvented by designating such occasions as ‘agape meals’, in which bread and wine happen to be involved!

These simple practices of food-based hospitality are, I believe, reshaping the church. They are eroding formal, institutional Christianity and encouraging the emergence of a relational and multi-voiced community, in which real friendship, rather than insipid ‘fellowship’ or formal ‘membership’, binds people together, sustains faith, nurtures discipleship and builds resilience. In the challenging environment of post-Christendom, nothing less will suffice.

Anabaptists and hospitality

What, if anything, has the Anabaptist tradition contributed to this? Some of these emerging churches, like the one in East London with the mantra about eating, have been shaped and inspired by the Anabaptist vision. Others have discovered the Anabaptist vision later and have welcomed its support for practices they had already instinctively adopted. Undoubtedly, many of those who have joined the Anabaptist Network in the past thirty years have been drawn by the hospitality they perceive in Anabaptist and Mennonite circles. In the late 1990s, Alan Kreider and I invited about sixty Christians in Britain and Ireland, who now identified with the Anabaptist tradition, to share their stories. These were published in Coming Home in 2000. We asked them to tell us how they had encountered a tradition that was so marginal in the British and Irish context. For many, it was through conversations, especially over shared meals at the London Mennonite Centre or elsewhere. For others, it was through books – and two were mentioned especially: John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus and The More-with-Less Cookbook. Some people were theologising their way into Anabaptism; others were eating their way in.[4]

To what extent did the early Anabaptists value and practise hospitality? Hospitality may be an attractive aspect of contemporary Anabaptist and Mennonite communities, but is it part of the Anabaptist heritage? One of the temptations for Anabaptists today is to read back into the tradition what we would like to find there and to omit less amenable features. A short answer is that we don’t have as much information as we would like. However, as the Anabaptists met in homes and aspired to be supportive, multi-voiced and mutually accountable communities, rather than attending church services, it is inconceivable that food and hospitality were not integral to this, as they were in the early churches. And, like the early Christians, they were accused of holding meetings characterised by revelry and debauchery.

We do not know whether the community led by Balthasar Hubmaier shared communion in the context of a real meal, but his reworking of the traditional Catholic liturgy invited those who participated to a very deep level of mutual commitment. Those who would share bread and wine together would obey the call of Jesus to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty and welcome the stranger (Matthew 25:35). Indeed, sharing bread and wine together involved a commitment to lay their lives down for each other.

In other Anabaptist groups, notably in central Germany, communion does seem to have been incorporated into real meals. This make sense in light of their understanding of sacraments. John Roth writes: ‘At the heart of the Anabaptist critique of Catholic worship practices was a fundamental disagreement about the nature of the sacraments…God, they argued, is present in all of creation, not just in the water of baptism or the bread and wine of communion.’[5]

And Anabaptist communities, inspired by John’s account of the Last Supper, often practised foot-washing as a further expression of hospitality, community and mutual service. In this conference we are thinking about hospitality in relation to both love and power. Perhaps this distinctive feature of Anabaptist gatherings, which is still practised today in Mennonite and other communities, is yet to realise its full potential. Mutual foot-washing represents not only a profound expression of welcome and hospitality but embodies the laying down of status and power. This is the only place in the Gospels where Jesus explicitly tells his disciples that he is setting them an example. Perhaps, rather than arguing about whether this practice is culturally appropriate in other contexts than first-century Judaea, we might explore its power to build community.

As we think about hospitality, love and power, there is much to celebrate in the transforming impact of eating together in emerging churches and much to learn from Anabaptist tradition. But I would like to conclude by identifying some challenges and concerns.

Challenges and concerns

One of the criticisms of many emerging churches is that they tend to gather people who are alike and do little to cross social or ethnic boundaries. They may excel in hospitality but this is restricted to a fairly homogeneous community. The hospitality that Jesus advocated and embodied, and which the early Christian communities emulated, requires us to invite to our homes and tables those whom we might find less congenial, more challenging, potentially disruptive and unlikely to reciprocate our invitation. One of the main words for hospitality in the New Testament is philoxenia, which means loving the stranger and is the polar opposite of xenophobia, the fear and hatred of those who are different.

Shortly after the 9/11 attack in 2001, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said this: ‘I used to think that the greatest command in the Bible was “you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” I was wrong. Only in one place does the Bible ask us to love our neighbour. In more than thirty places it commands us to love the stranger…That’s the real challenge. It was in ancient times. It still is today.’[6]

Who is the stranger? There may be many answers to this question, so churches will need to respond contextually, identifying and welcoming those in greatest danger of exclusion and marginalisation. But this is at the heart of authentic Christian hospitality. Letty Russell, in her book, Just Hospitality, suggests ‘hospitality can be understood as solidarity with strangers, a mutual relationship of care and trust in which we share in the struggle for empowerment, dignity and fulness of life.’[7]

This more open-handed approach will impact not only whom we invite but what food we serve, the ambience of the occasion and where we choose to eat together. In some places in the UK the home is the ideal place for exercising hospitality; but in others it is culturally inappropriate, restricted to close family – do we challenge and transgress this restriction or accept it and eat together in public places?

Another criticism of some emerging churches is that they lack missional intentionality. This may be, in part, because they are reacting against the manipulative, imperialistic approaches of churches to which they once belonged. But it is highly doubtful theologically whether it is legitimate to identify a community as a church if it lacks missional purpose and commitment. Hospitality is not only to strengthen the existing community but an opportunity to reach out with the love of a welcoming and hospitable God to those who are not part of the community.

We need to be careful here not to regard hospitality as a means to an end – inviting people into our homes and around our tables so that we can evangelise them in a more congenial setting. Hospitality is an end in itself. Nevertheless, there is ample evidence that, in a post-Christendom culture, for many people who are open to the gospel, ‘belonging’ precedes ‘believing’. Belonging does not mean baptised membership but it means much more than just attending church services. Shared meals and other forms of hospitality, conversations and exemplary living, provide the context within which faith can grow.

But we need to return to the issue of power, for even well-intentioned hospitality can be an exercise of power. In the austerity culture that has caused immense suffering for poor people in Britain during the past decade, many churches have responded by setting up food banks. These have provided much-needed relief to tens of thousands of people as well as offering an implicit rebuke to a wealthy society and a government that bails out failing banks, gives tax breaks to the powerful but penalises the poor. But food banks are too often characterised by help without friendship, benefactor-client transactions, hedged around with restrictions on their use, assistance at arms-length and impersonal charity – contemporary expressions of the ‘hand out’ culture of the mission halls of a previous generation.

Encountering exceptions to this are refreshing. A few months ago, I visited Glasgow City Mission – the very first city mission, founded by David Naismith in the mid-19th century. I was invited to stay for dinner, to help serve the food and to eat with those who came in need of a hot meal. The ambience, the quality of the meal, the choice of menu, the intermingling of staff, volunteers and guests all contributed to a sense of community and mutual respect. There was still a power dynamic, of course, but it was muted and consciously subverted. I enjoyed a long conversation with a man recently released from prison and struggling with addiction but revelling in new-found faith in Jesus. Reflecting on this encounter I can echo Letty Russell’s conclusion: ‘hospitality is a two-way street of mutual ministry where we often exchange roles and learn the most from those whom we consider different or other.’[8] Might this be what the author of the letter to the Hebrews means by the enigmatic verse: ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it’ (Hebrews 13:2)?

The power dynamic is further subverted if we follow the example of Jesus and welcome the opportunity to be guests as well as hosts. Not only was he often the recipient of hospitality in the Gospels but, as the risen Lord, he tells the church in Laodicea that he is standing at their door awaiting an invitation to come in and eat with them. The same Latin word, hospes, can mean either host or guest, but during the Christendom era a dominant church simply assumed the role of host. Perhaps in post-Christendom we can rediscover the joy of being guests.[9] Jesus encouraged those he sent out to receive hospitality from others: ‘Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide’ (Luke 10:5-7).

The small Baptist church in Oxford which my wife pastored for some years chose to knock down its building and replace it with a number of apartments for those who had once been homeless in the city, had been through temporary hostel accommodation and were now in need of more permanent new homes. The project included a common room for the residents and it is there that the congregation meets each week – no longer the host but the guest of the residents, some of whom now join them. Renouncing power and control has given this church a new lease of life. Many church buildings are offered generously to the local community and host all kinds of groups and activities; but many emerging churches do not own or aspire to own buildings, content to be the guest in other buildings and welcoming the opportunity to interact with other users in ways that would not be possible if they owned the building.

Let me conclude by pointing you back to the ‘person of peace’ mentioned in Luke 10. This has become a significant motif among pioneers and church planters in recent years. No longer willing to arrive in a neighbourhood uninvited, they subscribe to a missio Dei missiology and recognise that God is already at work in the community before they arrive. Prayerfully and patiently they seek out persons of peace, not necessarily Christians, those who are seeking the welfare of the community, and seek invitations from them. This approach transforms attitudes and relationships, opens up the possibility of truly indigenous forms of church emerging, and enables mutuality, humility and creativity to characterise post-Christendom mission practice.


[1] Christine Pohl: Living into Community: cultivating practices that sustain us (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 162. She refers to Justin’s First Apology and the Apology of Aristides.

[2] Tertullian’s Apology, 39

[3] Pohl, Living, 163.

[4] Alan Kreider & Stuart Murray (Eds.): Coming Home: Stories of Anabaptists in Britain and Ireland (Kitchener: Pandora Press, 2000).

[5] John Roth: Practices: Mennonite Worship and Witness (Scottdale: Herald Press, 2009), 64.

[6] Jewish New Year message: www.chiefrabbi.org/articles/other/rhbbc.html.

[7] Letty Russell: Just Hospitality: God’s welcome in a world of difference (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 20.

[8] Russell, Just, 20.

[9] Interestingly, the ancient Indo-European root of this word, ghosti, means host, guest and stranger.