Paul’s journey to Rome is full of lots of action. Just picture it all: rough sailing on choppy seas, shipwreck, foreign lands, strange people, snakebite, healings, more stops in foreign ports, new encounters and adventures. I can imagine this as a Hollywood blockbuster full of dramatic moments, a sort of mash-up of Perfect Storm and Cast Away. With all this excitement, it might be easy to miss a less dramatic but common thread through this account, stories of hospitality and welcome that abound at each point along the way.
When we slow down and look closely through these verses, the act of welcoming the stranger is everywhere. Right away we are told that the natives of Malta offered “unusual kindness” in verse 2. “Unusual kindness” is saying a lot, considering that hospitality was a civic duty across most of the empire. The quality of civic hospitality, however, was usually based on status and rank, with wealthy patrons receiving the most elaborate. The reference here is “unusual kindness” suggest something out of the ordinary, perhaps a radical welcome beyond what duty required. Remember, the natives at Malta didn’t know Paul. They knew he was a prisoner, a criminal on his way to punishment, and still they offered welcome!
The record of hospitality continues: Publius hosted them for three days on his own dime, the rest of the people “bestowed many honors on them,” and these are not even fellow Christians, just locals welcoming strangers. Then, at Puteoli, they “were invited to stay” with believers there for seven days. Finally, before they can even get all the way to the city limits of Rome, followers of Jesus, folks they do not even know, came out to meet them along their way and welcome them.
The early Christian world is full of such acts of welcome. Hospitality was considered a central practice of the Christian life. It’s no surprise, given that Christians themselves were outsiders in the Roman Empire that deemed Christianity dangerous at worst and misguided at best. As part of an illegal and widely-considered subversive sub-culture, Christians practiced hospitality to the stranger.
Further, as Christianity spreads across the multi-cultural Roman Empire, it takes root in diverse cultural and ethnic contexts, creating a multi-cultural religion. Christians must learn to deal with “the other” across lines of language, culture and ethnicity. Paul’s experience in Acts provides a pattern that will repeat across the early Christian centuries.
Even after Christians are no longer outsiders but part of the official religion of the Empire, we find sermons devoted to welcoming the stranger as Christ. In preaching on Matthew 25 in which Jesus claims, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” John Chrysostom says:
. . . do this. Surpass us in generosity. Have a room, to which Christ may come. Say, “This is Christ’s space. This building is set apart for him.” Even if it is just a basement and tiny. He won’t refuse it. Christ goes about “naked and a stranger.” It is only a shelter he wants. Abraham received the strangers in the place where he himself lived [Gen 18:1-15]…He didn’t know that he was receiving Christ, didn’t know that he was receiving angels . . . But we, who know that we receive Christ, don’t show even so much enthusiasm as he did who thought that he was receiving humans. “ . . . Let our house be Christ’s general receiving place. Let us demand of them as a reward, not money, but that they make our house the receiving place for Christ. 1
From the fourth to fourteenth centuries, Christians developed institutions of welcome, including hospitals and infirmaries, way stations for travelers, poor houses for the destitute and orphanages.2 They claim that the ground for such welcome is the imago Dei in which each is created. We welcome the image of God in each person.
As Christians in the 21st century struggle with welcoming the stranger, we can learn from our ancient brothers and sisters. Early Christians are clear-eyed in recognizing that a key mark of hospitality is risk. The citizens of Malta who welcomed Paul and “all of us” with “unusual kindness” took considerable risks. These were complete strangers, shipwrecked, potentially dangerous criminals without ability to pay for anything. The hosts risked their physical safety and depleting their own resources, at the very least. These Maltese hosts knew that strangers can bring disease or dishonor, which can devastate a community.
We don’t know how the Maltese hosts understood the risks they were taking, but we do know that Christians across history have understood risk to be a mark of hospitality.3 If we are not taking any risks in our welcome, it’s time to step back and ask whether we are offering the generous welcome that God has offered us.
In addition to risk, Christian tradition teaches that welcoming the stranger will change the hosts. This can be counter-intuitive as hosts often assume that it is the guest who will be helped or changed. This can lead to a kind of one-upmanship that blinds the host to the real ways God is at work transforming the host community through the presence of the stranger. Yet, we all know from personal experience that when we have welcomed someone from another country or culture into our lives, we are changed. As we begin to see the world through that person’s eyes, we can no longer see the world the same way. The dynamic work of God through hospitality expands the human heart as we as shift out of our previous status quo.
Truly welcoming the stranger will change our churches and communities. Strangers bring new ways of doing things and new insights of the Holy Spirit. If we find that in our welcome, we are still the same and expecting others to conform to us, then we are missing out on the transforming work of God through welcome. We must expect the God will disrupt our status quo through the stranger and offer new life.
We see these dynamics at work in Acts 28. The “unusual” hospitality offered to this stranger (Paul) can seem alien and even dangerous to us today. Maybe that’s because, in unexpected ways, it is indeed risky to welcome strangers. They challenge us and change us. They bring their strangeness into our lives, widening our angle of view so that we see things we didn’t see before: in Acts 28, a “murderer” becomes a “god” (v. 4-6). Strangers disrupt our assumptions about ourselves and about the world: in Acts 28, they are surprised that Paul’s hand didn’t swell up from the snakebite (v. 4-6). Strangers often bring their own gifts that meet us in our need: the stranger Paul healed many (v. 8-9). Strangers can, if we let them, call out of us that deep longing we have to reach out to them with the very same welcome that God has already shown us. This is radical stuff, because God’s work in each of us is radical stuff.
Welcome is the work of God. God is the source of all welcome. We cannot summon or contrive genuine welcome. We can only extend the welcome we have already received into the Triune Life, in Whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). We must root ourselves to God’s own welcome for each of us and for all of us if we want to welcome others as God has welcomed us.
1Homily 26 on the Gospel of Matthew, quoted in Oden, And You Welcomed Me: Sourcebook on Hospitality in the Early Christian World (Abingdon Press, 2001).
2Oden, p. 215 ff.
3Amy Oden, God’s Welcome: Hospitality for a Gospel-Hungry World (Pilgrim Press, 2008), p. 15 ff.