I was in downtown Harrisburg for a meeting yesterday and walked past the Capitol Building for the first time. From a distance I snapped a picture acknowledging how beautiful and picturesque it was. As I got closer it became clear that some sort of rally was going on. I recognized quickly it wasn’t my kind of rally. I stopped for a moment and listened to a man at a podium in a stern tone denigrating refugees, the way a leader at an anti-refugee rally might do, then I kept walking. I got back to my car and couldn’t help but reflect more on this topic.
America has a lot to work through around the politics of immigrants and refugees. That journey will be complicated, and hopefully maintain some level of maturity guided toward real resolution. Politicians have a lot to say about immigrants, strangers, and refugees; interestingly enough the Bible has a lot to say about these three groups of people as well. There is one verse in particular that has been stuck in my head and heart recently, it goes like this, “Keep on loving each other as brothers and sisters. Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!” (Hebrews 13:1-2, NLT).
We are called to love as brothers and sisters love. It is a deep kind of love. A love that is united in flesh and blood. It is no coincidence the author pivots right from this kind of love to the theme of strangers. We often see the stranger as different or foreign, most certainly not the same. Yet, we are being called to love the stranger in a brotherly or sisterly way. In a sense we are being called to welcome them as “same.”
In this Hebrews passage the Greek word used for “strangers” is philoxenia.
Philoxenia comes from two root words, philos and xenos.
Philos means, “to be friendly toward one” or “to wish someone well.”
Xenos means “a foreigner” or “stranger.”
This word, philoxenia, only appears twice in the entire New Testament, here in the Hebrews passage and once in Romans 12:13, “Always be eager to practice hospitality.”
In one instance the word is translated “hospitality” and in another instance the same word is translated “stranger.” It is this deep and powerful word that means to be friendly toward the foreigner.
The Hebrews and Romans passages are reminding the reader that God calls us to orient our hearts toward love for the stranger. In the book of Exodus there is this powerful passage that gives a command and then the reasoning for the command, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21, NASB)
God is calling for empathy. To understand the feelings and emotions of what it must be like to be a foreigner, stranger, or refugee. To consider what it might be like to gather your belongs and family and leave everything you’ve worked for behind. To acknowledge the anxiety and terror that accompanies one who is exiting a war torn region. The refugee crisis breaks the heart of God, and it should break ours too.
And so we act. We desire to be light in a world filled with darkness.
The text says, “some who have done this (philoxenia) have entertained angels without realizing it!”
Entertained angels. What an interesting thing to say.
The passage seems to indicate that when we reach out to the stranger and welcome them with hospitality we might very well be communicating with an other worldly creature without even being aware of it. Yes, there could be terrorists among the refugees, but there could be angels. You don’t hear a whole lot of talk about the angels that might be embedding themselves in the Syrian refugee crisis. Entertaining angels is this unique blessing we are invited to experience; an encounter we can engage in whether we are aware of it or not.
Yet today at the Capitol steps, and nearly everyday on social media, there is this different desire that exists. Even in a season where we read passages about angels and place angels at the top of trees, it doesn’t seem like we are interested in the potential of maybe entertaining angels. Instead, we entertain demons. The demons that desire to take root within all of us and convince us that hospitality toward a stranger is not possible because of safety. The demons that seek to place fear in us.
Fear is such powerful emotion. It can cause us to do all kinds of things. The ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles said, “To him who is in fear everything rustles.” The ability for fear to have a certain control over us is not a new thing in the scope of human history. The moment we are gripped by fear is the moment love is paralyzed within us.
This is why John reminds us, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” (1 John 4:18, NIV)
I know the logic, I know what we are afraid of. But why would we chose to entertain demons when there is the possibility of joining with God in the work that is happening in the here and now among us, and without knowing it we may have the amazing privilege of entertaining angels.
May we seek the Kingdom of God first, and root out any and all fear that gets in the way of Kingdom living.
May the perpetual beat of our heart be toward love and compassion always.
May we seek to restore what is broken. What better place to start restoring than the largest refugee crisis of our time.
May we bring hospitality, welcoming communities, and open doors to those in crisis; And maybe one day we will find that we were partnering with God in a unique way, entertaining angels.