I Was A Stranger And You Invited Me In
The other morning there was a news item about a Bed and Breakfast that was to open in Morden. The town council approved the licence, but there was opposition from some of the neighbours to this venture. Their objection was that they didn’t like the idea of strangers being in their neighbourhood.
Xenophobia is the fear of strangers and is much more common than we might think. Many of us have at least some level of fear of people who are different than we are. We don’t know if we can trust them. We are afraid that they may change the way things are, the way we like them. As a result, strangers are often treated with suspicion. When new people move into a community, they may find it difficult to belong. I once heard that it takes 17 years to be fully accepted in a rural community. Until you have grown up in the community, you are often looked at as a newcomer. This fear of strangers is compounded if the person is of a different colour or if their religious beliefs are different than ours.
Last week, Dave Thiessen had a powerful message on loving one another. He also spoke about how we treat Christians of other backgrounds. He told us that if we love one another as Christians, people will know about Jesus. But there is another matter that is also important. How we treat those who are strangers also communicates an important message about the Christian faith. How did Jesus treat strangers? How would He have us treat strangers?
I. The Strangers In Our Life
For a few years there was a doctor who worked in Manitou. His name was Dr. Bim and he was from Mauritius. He was dark skinned because he was of East Indian origin. He was a fine doctor, at least he treated me well the few times I went to him. After he had been there for a few years, some things happened that were of a political nature and he left. Some of his close friends in the community told me that the reason he had to leave was because of his skin colour. They said that as the only “brown skinned” person in the area, he faced racist opposition and was forced to move away. How welcoming are we of people who move into our community who are different. We are pretty good at welcoming people who are of the same religious and social group as we are, but what about poor people, or people who are visible minorities or even people whose religion is different than ours. Would such people be welcome in Rosenort? Would we be glad to see them and let them know that or would we ignore them? Up to this point there have not been a lot of people who do not have some kind of a Mennonite background in our community, but there are some. Do they belong in this community?
I spoke with someone who recently began attending this church and they told me that they had been made to feel very welcome. I was glad to hear that, but it isn’t always like that. I read a story about two men who didn’t know each other, but happened to begin attending a church about the same time. The first week they attended no one from the church spoke to either of them. A week later, they came again and again no one spoke to them. The third week, one of them decided that if no one talked to him, he would leave and never come back but the other one decided that if no one would talk to him, he would talk to someone else. The next Sunday, it just so happened that these two men sat close together. When no one spoke to them, the one was about to leave in disgust and never come back, but the other one, who had decided to speak to someone, spoke to him and they both stayed in the church and became good friends. The story turned out well, but it was not a very good reflection on that church.
Welcoming people on Sunday morning is important and as I said, from several reports I have learned that we do that in this church, but true welcome into a church does not only have to do with being friendly on Sunday morning. Someone once told me that they knew they belonged in a church when they were invited to one of the weddings. Some of the strangers may be people who have been around for a long time, but have never truly become part of the church. So many of us have a lot of close friends and relatives that we really don’t need any more relationships. What does that do to our ability to welcome strangers? Do we have room for new people in our circle of relationships?
Many of you who are young people may eventually move into the city. As you establish lives in the city, it is possible, even there, to build your life around friends from home or Bible school. But in the city, you are surrounded by strangers. Some of the people you work with will start out as strangers. Your next door neighbours will be strangers. Some of these neighbours will be very different. How will you relate to them?
When we were studying in Vancouver for a month one summer, we stayed at the home of some friends who were gone for several weeks. They lived in an area of Vancouver where the dominant language on the signs in the stores and the dominant language spoken on the street was Chinese. One exception was the people who lived in the other half of the duplex in which we lived. They were a woman and a man who were both homosexual, but who had had a child together. You can bet we thought a lot about how we were going to treat our neighbours.
These are some of the strangers we will encounter. How will we treat them?
II. Why We Might Avoid Strangers
In the past, our forefathers were very suspicious of people outside of the community or outside of the faith. They deliberately moved into colonies so that they could live close together and protect the beliefs and lifestyle they had. They had reasons for what they did. As we enter more and more into the world around us, are we flirting with danger? Are we leaving a Biblical principle that calls us to separate ourselves from strangers? The Bible talks about strangers and helps us to understand what God’s will is on this issue.
A. Avoiding Strangers
There are Scriptures which talk about avoiding strangers.
When we look at the Old Testament we find a number of passages of scripture which taught Israel to avoid strangers. For example, in Deuteronomy 7:3,4 we read, “Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.”
Israel failed to obey God in this. Solomon married many foreign women and at the end of his life they turned his heart away from God, just as the prophecy had warned. This continued and the evil in Israel did not stop until God punished them by sending them into exile in Babylon.
After the exile, the land was restored once again, but when Ezra and Nehemiah came to rebuild the temple and the walls of Jerusalem it was discovered that this evil had occurred again. In Ezra 10:2 we read, “Then Shecaniah son of Jehiel, one of the descendants of Elam, said to Ezra, “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us.”
The concern was about much more than marriage. In Ezekiel 44:9 we read, “This is what the Sovereign LORD says: No foreigner uncircumcised in heart and flesh is to enter my sanctuary, not even the foreigners who live among the Israelites.”
This warning about avoiding close contact with strangers continues into the New Testament. One very specific warning is found in II Corinthians 6:14-17 where we read(in part), “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? …For we are the temple of the living God… “Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.”
From these verses, it seems to be pretty clear that we should avoid strangers, especially those who are not believers. But before we come to that conclusion, we need to recognize that there is a whole other set of verses which teach us a completely different lesson.
The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians in I Corinthians 5:9, 10, “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.”
In other words, totally separating ourselves from the world is not possible. In fact, according to Jesus, not only is it not possible, he has actually sent us into the world. Jesus prayed to God about his disciples in John 17:15 & 18, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one…As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.”
Jesus not only taught this principle, but also lived it. One good example is the encounter he had with Zacchaeus as described in Luke 19:1-10. When Zacchaeus climbed the tree, it was obvious that he was ready to meet Jesus. Jesus approached him and offered to meet with him at his home. But the people who heard Jesus invite himself for dinner were rather puzzled. Luke 19:7 records their words, “All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’” What was their concern? They were concerned about the Old Testament laws about connecting with sinners. They thought that if you spent time with sinners, you would soon become one yourself. They were afraid about purity. Jesus, however, replied to them in Luke 19:10, “…the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”
I thought the insight of one writer was excellent he said, “Jesus left his safety zone and entered Zacchaeus’ comfort zone.” He was willing to go to strangers because he wanted to win them.
C. Biblical Separation
As we see these two opposite ideas we may wonder how they fit together. Are we to engage strangers or are we to avoid them?
The verses which we looked at which teach separation have something to teach us and that is that we should avoid all evil and even the appearance of evil. I John 2:15 says, “Do not love the world or anything in the world…” We must be very careful about our lifestyle. Our hearts must be clean and our lives must be holy. This continues to be very important. In fact, we must also continue to live by the words of Ii Corinthians 6 which tell us not to be unequally yoked. Any relationship with unbelievers, like marriage, which could be described as a “yoked” relationship must be avoided. However, it is clear from the other verses that that does not include avoiding strangers. One writer says, “Often out of good intentions to be ‘godly,’ we have confused the biblical injunction to ‘be separate’ with social segregation.”
It seems that although we should avoid evil, that does not mean avoiding strangers. We have been sent into the world in order to reach the lost. We read about this sending in John 17:11-19. One writer says about this passage, “the injunction directs God’s committed people to get involved in significant ways with people in the world who are not Christians, but also to be known for being qualitatively distinctive.”
There are several reasons why we can contact strangers without losing faith. For one, Jesus has prayed for us and continues to pray for us that while we are in this world, we will not be contaminated by the world. The second is that God has given us his Holy Spirit to empower us to walk in holiness even while we live in this world.
Jesus is our example. “…while he was with Zacchaeus, Jesus was neither intimidated nor captured.” Are we willing to leave our safety zone and not be captured, but rather to reach, seek and save the lost?
III. Welcoming Strangers
A. Biblical Command
The question we need to ask is “are we going to criticize strangers, hide from them or engage them to win them?” The Bible calls us to engage them in order to win them.
There is a wonderful prophecy in Isaiah which speaks about our time. Isaiah 56:3, 6,7, “Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” …And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD
to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer.”
We live in the time when that prophecy is being fulfilled. In Matthew 25:35, Jesus indicates that he expects that we will welcome strangers. He says, “…I was a stranger and you invited me in…”
In Luke 14:12-14 the saying is even stronger when he says, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
How can we welcome strangers?
B. Principles For Welcoming Strangers.
We gain some helpful insights from the story of Paul when he was preaching in Athens. The story is found in Acts 17:16-34 and I think it would be valuable to read the whole story.
1. Accept People
The first thing we notice is that although Paul held strongly to the truth of the gospel, he demonstrated acceptance as he walked among the Athenians. He talked to them, he saw what their life was all about, he was respectful in the way he spoke to them. He did not close doors of communication, but spoke in such a way that they were willing to listen to him and after he had preached, they were willing to listen to him again.
When we think about acceptance, we are often afraid. We ask ourselves, “Will my acceptance be misinterpreted as an endorsement? “Will acceptance of non-Christians soften some of my own convictions? “Will my acceptance get confused with approval and agreement? “I know I’m not supposed to judge people, but is simply accepting people as they are going too far toward the other extreme?”
These are good questions, but I believe that it is possible to accept people and still not agree with them. In fact, it is even more possible in our day than ever before. People assume that everyone has their own values. The only value that is not accepted is intolerance and as Christians we should be the first to model tolerance. Of course, that does not mean that we stop teaching that Jesus is the only way, but how we communicate that message is critical. Let us be sure that if people find us offensive that it truly is the offence of the gospel that turns them away and not the way we have communicated it.
On the other side of the issue we need to recognize that if we do not accept them we communicate something else to them which is positively harmful to the gospel. We communicate that we are superior and that we are better than they are. When we communicate that, they will feel judged.
We may also communicate something else that we don’t intend to communicate. We may communicate inferiority. If we do not accept others, we communicate to them that we are not sure of ourselves and if we do that, we will never convince them of the truth and the power of the gospel.
The other reason to accept is that “if you don’t give, you don’t get.” There is a reciprocal law of life. If you accept them, you open up the possibility that they will be open to the message you have for them. If you don’t accept them, you close the door to that possibility.
Acceptance is communicated as people come into the community or the church, or into our circle of acquaintances and we engage them in conversation, demonstrate gladness about contact with them and invite them to be with us and do things with us.
2. Appreciate People.
The second thing Paul did was to appreciate them. He noticed and mentioned their statue to an unknown God and thereby appreciated their deep religious convictions. He appreciated the truth written by one of their poets and was able to quote that poet.
Even though a stranger may not agree with us on some essential things that does not mean that their whole world is wrong. All truth is God’s truth and if it is found in other religions and even in people who don’t know God, that does not take away from the value of that truth. We need to appreciate and notice the truth in strangers. This is what Paul did.
Don Posterski says, “Even though it is impossible to deny the good that is present in non-Christians, it is not always easy for Christians to affirm the good that is there.”
We should be free to appreciate the good in others and the things that they do right. Christians are not the only ones who have truth or who do right things. If we can appreciate the truth and the good in others, we help them to be open to the truth that we have from God.
3. Influence People.
The third principle of welcoming strangers is to influence them.
Sometimes we are afraid that they will not listen and that we can do little to turn them around. Why do we think that we do not have the power to influence rather than to be influenced? The power of the message and the presence of God within us suggest that the power balance lies in our favor.
So if we are in a close relationship with God and if we engage people where they are, will we not influence them?
One of the striking sayings of the late Dr. A. J. Gordon was that the Christian is not to stand in the world and witness to Christ, but to stand in Christ and witness to the world. What a powerful way to put it. We have the opportunity to be an influence. Our certainty about what Christ has done, our living in faith day by day and our open welcome of strangers will result in a powerful influence.
Strangers will come into our life. Perhaps they will appear in church. Perhaps they will move into the house next door. Perhaps we will meet them at work. Perhaps we will move next door to them. How will we treat them? Will we fear them? Will we reject them? Or according to Jesus’ example and teaching, will we welcome them and influence them through the power of the love of Christ.
I have a friend who grew up in a single parent home in inner city Winnipeg. As a young boy, he attended Living Bible Explorers. There was one family who welcomed him into their home. They allowed him to come over whenever he wanted. Some people sent him to camp and after a while, he became a believer. There were other Christians who also welcomed him and he grew in his faith and today he is a Christian leader who has had a tremendous influence on many people, including our own children. That is the legacy when, as Christians, we are willing to welcome the stranger.
Remember Jesus’ words, “…I was a stranger and you invited me in…?” Are we inviting the stranger, who just may be Jesus?