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Hospitality and Friendship: Wesleyan Perspectives in an Ecumenical Setting


Hospitality and Friendship: Wesleyan Perspectives in an Ecumenical Setting

Dr Victor Shepherd
Meetings of Wesleyan Theological Society
Kansas City , Missouri
4th March 2006


We 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.

At 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.

While 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: [1] Today is all we have; i.e., life is short, death is sure, and we should be about something else.   [2] 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.  [3] 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 finally.

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.