In our travels my family and I have received a number of gift baskets. An early fond memory of a gift basket came from a dear family friend, Nancy Norris. Our four children were already fastened in their seats for the annual pilgrimage to visit family when she the goodie bags for the kids. She knew they would enjoy the trip if they had a few extra snacks, coloring books, and other trinkets to keep the occupied. Of course Nancy’s gift blessed Sherri and me even more than it did the kids! We will never forget the thoughtfulness expressed in that moment. The bags represent a lifetime of love for our children.

On a couple of occasions I told churches hosting Sherri and me that they had given us a MOAB – Mother of All Bags. Those bags could sustain small villages through a seven-year drought! Sometimes church administrators send an info request sheet to see what we like to drink and our favorite snacks. Frequently the bag contains fun things (at least fun for a professor-emeritus person like me) such as paper, pens, and back-up battery for a cell phone. One January a church included leather dress gloves to get me through a few bitter days in northern Ohio; those gloves still have a place in my winter coat pocket. Gift baskets, regardless of the size, contents, or value, make the receiver feel welcome.

Those gift baskets serve a far different purpose than the ones Oscar acting and directing nominees receive before the awards show each year. In 2016, the last year the sponsoring company published the price tag, the bag weighed in at $232,000 worth of swag. The list ranged from $6 chapstick to a couple of trips worth about $55,000 each. Donors hoped the entertainment elite would leverage some endorsement their way for the free stuff.

A walk through Acts 28 highlights missionary living in receiving and giving hospitality. The ancient world placed a higher value on hospitality as a functional part of life than what I am likely to ever experience. Many places in scripture we read of the call to care for strangers as well as examples of doing so. The dangerous nature of travel, limited resources, absence of a ‘hospitality’ industry such as hotels and eating places, migration patterns, and many other factors contributed to the development of hospitality.

Hospitality had its risks then as it does now, but the risk could last a lifetime. Jesus told a prayer illustration of pending shame if the host could not get food for the late night guest. The host would rather have an angry neighbor than the shame of being unhospitable. Ancient hospitality lasted for a lifetime. Hospitality went beyond welcoming a guest into the home, washing weary feet, providing a meal and bed, and sharing life stories to exchanging identifying tokens to offer proof of the relationship to others. 

Perhaps the modern military challenge token comes close to this exchange. The token commemorates a significant event or relationship, serves as a reminder of the relationship, and provides a sign to others who may see it. Some ancient families handed the tokens to the next generation to continue the link for many years to come. This kind of hospitality goes far beyond offering a drink of water and “Ya’ll come back now”.

Paul received hospitality from pagans on Malta after the shipwreck. Luke comments on their “unusual kindness” for the weary, water-logged refugees crawling their way up the rocky beach. As Paul returned the hospitality by assisting in the building the fire a deadly viper latched onto him. Local theology concluded Paul must have been a very wicked man – the god of Justice worked to finish the little man’s destruction. Theologies quickly changed to ascribe Paul divinity status when the snake had no impact on his stick gathering activities. Missionary Paul served as a good house guest by healing sick people for three months. 

Luke does not recount one baptism or Holy Spirit outpouring. I have heard people say Paul failed on Mars Hill because only a few believed; they suggest he should have preached from the Old Testament like he did in synagogues even though the audience had no awareness of the Bible. In this case the healing demonstrated God’s power and desire to restore all things, yet no one accepted the truth. Paul modeled being a witnessing guest even when people continued in their pagan ways.

The journey to Rome included hospitality at several points. They stayed with saints along the way. Another group of disciples made the 40-mile trip from Rome to accompany him the rest of the way to his divinely appointed destination. Luke carefully informed his readers that Paul took courage from these encounters. God’s work frequently happens in these moments of hospitality.

Thanksgiving and courage result. God is glorified. The kingdom comes.

Luke ends the book with hospitality. He started the book with disciples welcoming the Holy Spirit after a 10 day wait; decades later the church lives out this hospitality lifestyle. Paul welcomes his enemies as well as friends to his place of house arrest. Hospitality provided he chance to “proclaim the kingdom of God and teach about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hinderance.” Chains and guards could not stop hospitable witness. Paul probably had to continue to work his tent making craft or spend an inheritance to support himself, his team and his visitors during this time. He did it with joy. The God who welcomed him structured the apostle’s life around welcoming others.

Paul’s commitment to hospitable witness calls me to pray.

Dear Lord,

You always work to restore relationships through hospitality. Your life modeled welcoming those who usually experienced rejection. By letting a woman at a well serve You water, she became an early evangelist in Samaria. You call disciples to practice giving and receiving hospitality as a mark of being like You.

Forgive me of thinking people will know You through words of reconciliation without the accompanying deeds of reconciliation. Please forgive me for thinking welcoming others is a failure if they do not choose to be baptized or receive the Holy Spirit after the conversation, cup of coffee, or act of service. 

I want to be like You and Uncle Paul. I want to give and receive hospitality in a way that witnesses to Your kingdom coming and Your will being done. 

In Jesus’ Name,

Amen