Hospitality and Friendship: Wesleyan Perspectives in an
Meetings of Wesleyan Theological Society
4th March 2006
can exercise hospitality, and the sort of friendship that pertains to
hospitality, only to the extent that we have been freed from
self-preoccupation, only to the extent that we have been freed from
living in ourselves, from ourselves, for ourselves.
The ecumenical figure who has probed this truth most profoundly
is Martin Luther. Luther
stated that Christians have been released from the anxieties of living
in themselves, the anxieties of trying to justify themselves before God
and establish themselves before their neighbours, insofar as they live
in “another”; specifically, live in two others: Jesus Christ and the
neighbour. Christians, said
Luther, live in Christ by faith and in the neighbour by love.
While there is only one level or dimension
to living in Christ by faith, there are three levels to living in the
neighbour by love. At level
one, we share in the neighbour’s need.
Specifically, we address the neighbour’s need by meeting her
scarcity with our abundance. Luther
points out that this is very important, likely isn’t done as often as
it should be, but at the same time isn’t difficult and requires little
of us. After all, our
abundance means we can address the neighbour’s scarcity and still
remain privileged. Even so,
we shall likely be commended for our generosity.
At level two (i.e, the matter has been
“notched up”) we share the neighbour’s suffering.
Doing this is considerably more difficult, since proximity to
someone else’s suffering entails our own suffering.
In other words, the difference between level one and level two is
evident: sharing the neighbour’s suffering entails a suffering on our
part that sharing her need does not.
At the same time, society recognizes the kind of
self-renunciation required of intentional proximity to suffering,
recognizes the freely-adopted suffering of the helper herself, and
rewards it. Society
congratulates those who share in the neighbour’s suffering.
level three (now “notched up” yet again) we live in the neighbour by
sharing the neighbour’s disgrace.
The difference between levels one and two is quantitative; that
between two and three, qualitative it would seem, for at this level the
self-renunciation couldn’t be greater, while at the same time societal
recognition has disappeared. To
share the neighbour’s disgrace is to be identified with her disgrace,
and therefore, in the eyes of the society, to be in disgrace oneself.
No one is congratulated now.
Instead the helper is “numbered among the transgressors”
herself. In the eyes of the
public she is in disgrace. There
will be no social recognition for her sacrifice, no congratulation, no
public adulation. There will
be, however, contempt and ostracism.
Nonetheless, said Luther, we exercise the most helpful
hospitality and self-forgetful friendship; we live in the neighbour by
love most profoundly when we move from sharing her need to sharing her
suffering to sharing her disgrace.
Wesley doesn’t develop the same theme in the same way, he would
disagree with nothing that Luther has said.
However Wesley would, and did, ask why
Christians are so very reluctant to do all this.
He hints at his own answer in his 1768 Sermon, The
Good Steward. He asks
why we spend so much time, energy and anguish acquiring what is going to
crumble or rot but in any case disappear, only to answer in effect,
“Because we think we have to establish our ‘self’, preserve our
‘self’, forge our own identity.”
He recognizes that this is no more than unbelief, however
religiously cloaked or legitimized.
In the final part of the sermon he makes three points that aim at
having us rethink the notion of having to forge a self, live out it, and
struggle to maintain it. Wesley’s
three points are:  Today is all we have; i.e., life is short, death
is sure, and we should be about something else.
 All of life is spiritually significant; in other words, what
we do by way of sharing everything about us with the suffering neighbour
and absorbing everything about the suffering neighbour into ourselves
– this is what matters ultimately.
 We are servants who owe God everything and therefore can
claim nothing. Plainly, if
we can claim nothing in the
first place, we lose nothing
The question must still be asked: since Wesley’s people were
aware in 1768 of the points just made (aware, that is, after the
Awakening had been at full flood for 30 years), why were they still
reluctant to extend the self-forgetful hospitality that he not only
commended but required for himself in the course of his itinerating?
Why do Christians in any era “ice up” when faced with human
need that hospitality and friendship could relieve?
Wesley appears to answer this question, albeit implicitly, in his
1781 Sermon The Danger of Riches.
There he states that while the love of money is insanity, more
than a few are insane concerning an appetite that, unlike lust and
gluttony, isn’t a God-given appetite run amok but is rather a
preoccupation unnatural and so very bizarre as to defy all
understanding. While the
appetite for riches may defy understanding, he stresses, what this
appetite does is readily understood: the aspiration to affluence begets
and exacerbates other unholy and unhelpful desires.
“Tasting”, for instance, is a “genteel, regular
sensuality” that undoes one’s head and heart.
While such “tasting” is indiscernible to the world, it is
deadly in the Christian. Soon
the Christian apes genteel society and everything about it, including
its respectability (forget sharing the neighbour’s disgrace) and its
spiritual inertia. Desire
for riches, continues Wesley, issues in a desire for ease, and the
latter crowns itself in avoidance of crossbearing.
Amplifying the lattermost point Wesley contends that as we become
more affluent we acquire greater self-importance; in turn we are more
easily affronted (i.e., there’s a super-sensitivity related to
snobbishness); and as we are more easily affronted, we are more prone to
revenge. Affluence, in other
words, kills self-forgetful hospitality.
The cure for all this – which is to say,
the recovery of hospitality and friendship – is to possess Wesley’s
awareness of the scope of human suffering, his zeal to address it, and
his Spirit-wrought deliverance from the love of money, ease, and
self-important social ascendancy.
There’s one thing more.
As a pastor for thirty-six years, I have noted that Christians
are often slow to exercise hospitality simply because they are afraid. Afraid
of what? Afraid simply of
meeting and engaging strangers; afraid of becoming known; afraid of
having privacies rendered public – simply afraid.
In other words, perfect fear casts out love.
Wesley’s beloved 1st Epistle of John, of course,
reminds us that perfect love casts out fear.
Then hospitality and friendship are going to be recovered only as
love is perfected in Christ’s people; which is to say, as our
awareness of the neighbour’s suffering is more vivid than our anxiety
over risking self-exposure to a stranger.