Misreading Jesus’ Command to Serve
Published by Cory Willson
Jake and Betsy Tuls Professor of Missiology, World Christianity, and Public Theology
Who Doesn’t Love Playing the Host?
I love hosting dinner parties.
I love researching new recipes for dishes like Moroccan lamb, Texas-style smoked brisket, and Bavarian pork shanks.
I love waking up before dawn to get the smoker up and running, marinate the meat, knead the sourdough, and prep for the big cook.
But I mostly love what the meal makes possible – the joining together of people around our table to connect deeply over conversation, laughter, and even tears. After the long winter of pandemic isolation, these little reunions nourish my soul.
My mother is the one to whom I most attribute this love for hosting, but my Armenian aunties and Greek neighbors were also early influences. There are certain smells that unlock memories and emotions from past gatherings around the dinner table. I treasure these gifts of hospitality and community- building that were handed down to me.
As I think back, I’m not sure I’ve had nearly as many examples of how to be a guest. If we learn largely through imitation, I’ve had a plethora of models for how to be a generous host, and a dearth for being a gracious guest. I know what it is to approach the role of host as an act of hospitality, but I am unskilled with the role of guest as an act of humble receptivity.
Recently I read the book Joining Jesus by Moses Chung and Chris Meehan, and have reflected on the breakdown of human connection that occurs when reciprocity of giving and receiving is missing, when we habitually assume the role of host and avoid being the guest.1 To be a host is good, but it is only by first taking the posture of a guest that we follow the way of Jesus (Luke 10:1-9). Faithfulness to his message and mission means that we should assume the role of a guest and exhibit humility and receptivity to those to whom we are sent.2 But the church in the West has struggled to embrace the role of guest in its engagement with others.
Always Assuming the Role of Host is a Problem
A few years ago, I participated in a workshop on pastoral care with Timothy Leadership Training. One person in the group shared his experience as a refugee in America. “Ever since coming to this country,” he said, “people have been very generous and giving to me and my family. We are very grateful. But I’ve noticed that whenever someone comes to visit our home, they refuse any food or drink I offer them.” Then with deep frustration he explained, “Unless you are willing to receive from me, I cannot open my heart to you!”
In the rush to give and to help, no one gave him the dignity of being the host. No one understood how taking the posture of a guest could be an act of honoring him. To do that would require that we face our own discomfort with vulnerability and see ourselves as those in need of learning and receiving from him.
Christine Pohl has written poignantly about the subtle ways our desire to be the host undermines intimacy and reciprocity. She writes, “There is a kind of hospitality that keeps people needy strangers while fostering an illusion of relationship and connection. It both disempowers and domesticates guests while it reinforces the hosts’ power, control, and sense of generosity.”3 Pohl’s words drive home the truth that the well-intentioned hospitality offered to my friend undermines the kind of interdependent relationships that Jesus calls his church to embody. Sadly, my friend’s experience is not a “one-off” example in church history.
Nearly a century ago, theologian and missionary J.H. Bavinck sounded the alarm about this very pattern in the life and mission of Western churches. He noted how when European missionaries went off to Asia, Africa, and Latin America, they took on the role of host even though they were in every sense a guest in those lands. Prior to their arrival, these countries “had been already penetrated by commerce or had already come under the control of Western colonial empires. The work of the missions was thus inevitably involved in exerting cultural influence, and frequently missions voluntarily rendered an important service in the process by which the West mastered the whole world.”4 Although they entered lands where they should have seen themselves as guests, the Western Christians regularly assumed the role of host and owners of spaces they entered. Such “inverted hospitality,” as Willie Jennings calls it, ended up making the recipients into guests in their own home.5
Bavinck argues that although these missionaries had noble aims of proclaiming the gospel message, nevertheless their actions did real harm and betrayed their sense of cultural superiority. Paradoxically, the basic dispositions the Reformed confessions call us to are humility, gratitude, and receptivity. These are central attributes of our identity as outsiders and guests who have been included at Christ’s table by radical grace.
Embracing Our Confessional Identity as Guests
I find Abraham Kuyper’s reflections on the Three Forms of Unity instructive for understanding how our confessions can instill in us the posture of guest. He helps us make the essential move from our confession that “I am depraved and sinful” to “WE are a community of depraved sinners.” Kuyper knew that although many Reformed folks accepted the doctrine of Total Depravity when it was applied to individuals, they resisted applying this doctrine to the community.6 And so he writes with urgency: even though “the church is the salvation of the world,” nevertheless, “the church remains so far below its own standard.”7 In light of our Reformed Confessions we should not be surprised when we find that “the world turns out to be better than expected and the church worse than expected.”8
Professing our confessional identity means that we see ourselves as part of a community of loved creatures of God who have been deeply infected by sin and estranged from God. And yet, by Christ’s redeeming grace and the power of the Spirit, we are no longer outsiders and strangers but are given the role of honored guests at the Father’s table. Living into this confessional identity means that postures of humility, gratitude, and receptivity at the foot of the cross (and reinforced every time we come to the Lord’s table) should guide how we relate to others. Instead of assuming the privileged role of host, our identity as guests of God should open us up to honor others as our hosts and receive what they give to us.9
Living Our Confessional Identity as Guests
Over the past seven years I have been invited to speak to various churches and groups about how to engage in effective ministry outreach to their neighbors. These Christians have caught a vision for the church’s role in joining the Spirit’s redemptive presence in their neighborhood or city outside the walls of the church. This shift from inward to outward focus is a good movement that I try to celebrate and nurture.
I try to help churches do the difficult work of living into our confessional identity by facing their own vulnerability. I want them to see that they need not only what God has to give them but also what those they are seeking to serve have to give them. Yes, they are bearers of a message from God, but that does not preclude their responsibility to first listen, learn, and receive what God wants to give them through the hospitality of others. This is one of the early lessons that Peter and the Apostles had to learn after Jesus ascended to the Father (see Acts 10). To be a faithful messenger of the gospel requires that we follow the Spirit’s guidance as we humbly take the role of a guest.
Teaching at Calvin Seminary means that I have students from those same places in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that Bavinck discussed. A few years ago, our missionary in residence, Ann Kapteyn, gathered a panel of international students to share about their experience of hosting short-term missions teams. Many of these mission teams were sent with good intentions and noble motives—“to be the hands and feet of Jesus” (Matt. 25:31-40), they were often told. The students’ stories highlighted the clear distinction between those teams who came with the posture of guest and those who came as hosts looking only to give.
We need to rethink how we interpret verses like Matthew 25 and Acts 20:35 (“It is better to give than to receive”). Are we reading these passages with the mentality of a host or a guest? If we interpret them from the vantage point of a host, we undermine the intimacy and reciprocity that God desires for his church.
The Act of Being a Guest Validates Our Message of God’s Gracious Hospitality
Richard Mouw once wrote a chapter titled “Abraham Kuyper, Meet Mother Teresa” as a corrective to Christian triumphalism.10
In it he offered a corrective to us Kuyper- quoting Reformed folk who emphasize the Lordship of Jesus over every square inch but who presume to take the position of host rather than a guest in those spaces. While we boldly proclaim Christ’s rule over all creation, we must resist the temptation to inhabit those places as owners and rulers.
Mouw’s wisdom needs to be repeated again and again. Mother Teresa’s mantra was not “I am acting as the hands and feet of Jesus,” but rather “How is Christ’s presence already evident in those I encounter?” Her practice was to assume the posture of guest and receive the presence of Jesus “in the distressing disguise of the poor.”11 It is that posture that we need as we inhabit Christ’s (not OUR) square inches.
Every year at commencement, another class graduates from CTS from a variety of degree programs. As each student hears their name called and crosses the stage to shake the hand of the president, they receive their diploma and a hand towel printed with the motto “Called to Serve” in bright red letters. It is an honor to participate in this sending service of women and men to serve Christ and his church. It is my hope and prayer that they interpret that charge in light of the gospel story of Jesus, who became a guest so that we can be partakers of the Father’s gracious hospitality.
1 Moses Chung and Chris Meehan, Joining Jesus: Ordinary People at the Edges of the Church (Cascade Books, 2022).
2 I could fill this entire essay with nothing but examples from the Gospels of Jesus as guest. Here are just a handful of examples in the gospel of Luke alone: 5:29-39; 7:36-50; 10:38-42; 14:1-24; 19:1-27; 24:13-35. In these stories Jesus shows us how the posture of guest shapes the role of being a host, and it is this reciprocity that we need to imitate. Anthony J. Gittins has written a powerful essay on this subject, “Beyond Hospitality? The Missionary Status and Role Revisited,” International Review of Mission, Vol. LXXXIII, No. 330 (1994).
3 Christine Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Eerdmans, 1999), p. 119 (italics mine).
4 J.H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions (P&R Publishing, 1993), p. 107.
5 Willie Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (Yale University Press, 2011), pp. 8-9; Pohl, Making Room, p. 119.
6 Abraham Kuyper, Common Grace: God’s Gifts for a Fallen World, vol. 2 (Lexham Press, 2019), pp. 12-14.
7 Kuyper, Common Grace, vol. 2, p. 6 (italics mine).
8 Kuyper, Common Grace, vol. 2, p. 10 (italics original). Kuyper interacts with the Canons of Dort and the Belgic Confession in reinforcing the communal dimensions of total depravity and the church’s ongoing sin and weakness (ibid., pp. 12-14).
9 Readers familiar with Kuyper’s writings and his blatant racism will realize that I am “reading Kuyper against Kuyper.” That is, I am selecting parts of Kuyper’s thought to help address deep sins and racism present in his life and thought. To read others who have paved the way for reading Kuyper in this way, see Richard Mouw, Abraham Kuyper: A Short Personal Introduction (Eerdmans, 2011); Vincent Bacote, Reckoning With Race and Performing the Good News: In Search of a Better Evangelical Theology (Brill, 2020); and Jeff Liou and David Robinson, “Our Racist Inheritance: A Conversation Kuyperians Need to Have,” Comment (May 14, 2015) https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/our-racist-inheritance-a-conversation-kuyperians-need-to-have/ (accessed 7.6.21).
10 Richard Mouw, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (IVP Books, 2010), pp. 159-169.
11 Mother Teresa, In the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories and Prayers (New World Library, 2010), p. 33.
CORY WILLSON, PH.D.
Jake and Betsy Tuls Professor of Missiology and Missional Ministry
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