I like to sit at a table with people who are like me.
- Show me a tennis player and we can talk forehands and backhands while the meal is served.
- Seat me with a group of would-be-writers and I can ask questions and offer insights until it’s dessert time.
- Invite me to a plate of pasta and the right Pino and I’ll talk Italy all evening.
- Put me at a table of pastors and…well, don’t put me at a table of pastors. Why? Is that where you want to be? (To all my pastor friends: I’m just joking! Kind of.)
It’s easy to be at a table with people who have the same sports interests, hobbies, tastes, and even occupations that we have. It’s familiar. And it’s comfortable.
It is so comfortable, in fact, that the Church Growth Movement of the 20th Century was based on what is called the “homogenous unit principle.” Donald McGavran—the “father of the church growth movement—wrote:
People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers. This principle states an undeniable fact. Human beings do build barriers around their own societies. More exactly we may say that the ways in which each society lives and speaks, dresses and works, of necessity set it off from other societies. The world’s population is a mosaic, and each piece has a separate life of its own that seems strange and often unlovely to men and women in other pieces.
Behavioral psychology and marketing principles found their way into the church. And, if we’re honest, we liked it. Churches can be made up of people who have similar backgrounds, ethnicity, economic status in return for more growth.
It sounds like a good principle. Until we look at Jesus. In contrast to building a table full of “likes” Jesus surrounded himself a bunch of “dis-likes”: (see John Ortberg I’d Like You More if You Were More Like Me for these)
- Simon, whom Jesus nicknamed Cephas. We call him Peter from the Greek word petra which means “rock.” Early on he was hard-headed. Later he stood like a rock for the church.
- James and John, the “sons of thunder.” Peter may have been hard-headed. His cousins were hot-headed.
- Andrew and Philip. They were from Bethsaida as were Peter, James and John. Five of the Twelve were from the same hometown. There might have been a tendency to be a clique within the group. And then Andrew, who was the first to meet Jesus, became labeled as “Peter’s brother.” As John Ortberg says, “If the disciples were the Brady Bunch, he was Jan to Peter’s Marcia.”
- Thomas, who was called Didymus which means “twin.” We celebrate twins today. In the ancient world they were seen as a bad omen. Maybe it was destined he would doubt.
- Simon the Zealot. Zealots hated the fact that Rome was in charge. They really hated tax collectors who were Jewish but worked with the Romans.
- Matthew was a tax collector. Jesus no doubt would have set his table place-card next to Simon the Zealot’s just to watch the sparks fly.
- There was a James that was the brother of Jesus. This is not that James. This one is known as “James the Lesser.” Any takers for that nickname?
- We don’t know much about Thaddaeus. We do know he did not understand that Jesus was going to go to the cross, even though Jesus told the disciples on at least three occasions. Thaddaeus was not a candidate for valedictorian of the class.
- Bartholomew’s name could mean “son of the Furrows.” He was a worker of the fields. When Jesus talked of people leaving fields to follow him, it may have been a nod to Bartholomew who may have needed some encouragement.
- Judas Iscariot. You know his story. And you probably won’t name your son Judas.
This was the table that Jesus initially set. They were all Jewish, but that is about as far as their homogeneity went. Different towns. Competing political views. Varied work backgrounds. The only thing that brought them together was Jesus.
He brought a table of dis-likes together so the gospel could reach everyone. These Twelve were trained by Jesus to get used to diversity, not homogeneity. When we turn to Acts 2 and the birth of the church, guess what we find? Diverse people—dis-likes—who, because of the gospel, become unified.
Parthians, Medes, Elamites; those who live in Mesopotamia, in Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts), Cretans and Arabs. (Acts 2:9-11)
They learned quickly to follow the model of Jesus. “Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple, and broke bread from house to house” (Acts 2:46). Some were Jewish. Some were new converts. From different lands, different languages, different customs. All at the same table scattered throughout Jerusalem. This is how the church began.
From day one the church resisted the idea of the homogenous unit principle. They would be tested, though. As the church moved the gospel outward to the Gentiles, things weren’t always as smooth. Gentiles had an anti-Semitic view of the Jewish people. And the Jewish people referred to Gentiles simply as “sinners.”
Some Jewish believers wanted Gentile converts to take on their Jewish customs. A council decided that the Gentiles need only “abstain from food offered to idols, from blood, from eating anything that has been strangled, and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:20,29). They were working hard at unity that allowed for diversity.
The Roman world did not help. It separated people by status. The wealthy would get the best of everything. Those further down the social ladder would get worse. Pliny the Younger gives this snapshot of a dinner he attended:
It would be a long story—and it is of no importance—to tell you how I came to be dining—for I am no particular friend of his—with a man who thought he combined elegance with economy, but who appeared to me to be both mean and lavish, for he set the best dishes before himself and a few others and treated the rest to cheap and scrappy food.
He had apportioned the wine in small decanters of three different kinds, not in order to give his guests their choice but so that they might not refuse. He had one kind for himself and us, another for his less distinguished friends—for he is a man who classifies his acquaintances—and a third for his own freedmen and those of his guests.
Imagine what it was like as part of the Roman world for someone to enter a church gathering. They would walk into someone’s home and the time would come for a meal. There he would see a slave sitting next to his master. They might see a Jew sitting next to a Gentile. Women at the table with men. A rich person sharing bread with a poor person. A room full of dis-likes at table together.
Sometimes the church would get it wrong. The Apostle Paul gets upset at the church in Corinth for continuing this status separation. Paul writes: “…at the meal, each one eats his own supper. So one person is hungry while another gets drunk! Don’t you have homes in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I praise you? I do not praise you in this matter!” (1 Corinthians 11:21-22).
Paul is teaching about the Lord’s Supper. His point is that they are supposed to be coming together to eat the Lord’s Supper together and remember Jesus. But they aren’t remembering the Jesus who brought diverse people together and treated them all the same. Instead, they are reverting to their Roman ways instead of Jesus’ way.
Jesus’ way is to love the stranger or the person who is different than us. There is a Greek word in the New Testament—philoxenos. It’s a compound word made up of philos, or brotherly or sibling love, and xenos, or stranger. Put together we get “love of stranger.” It’s the Greek word for hospitality.
When Jesus sent out the Twelve he told them to look for a “worthy person” and stay in their house. They were looking for hospitality. Jesus taught hospitality: “I was a stranger [xenos] and you took me in…” (Matthew 25:35).
Paul later instructs the church to “pursue hospitality” (Romans 12:13). In English, we understand hospitality as opening your home to host a meal and entertain others, especially our friends. But when we understand the Greek word that Paul uses, we find a deeper meaning. Our English “on the surface” understanding of Paul’s commandment would tell us to practice hosting our friends for dinner. The Greek “below the surface” understanding would tell us to pursue or practice or go out of the way to love strangers and immigrants as if they were our own siblings.
Instead of xenophobia—a fear of those who are different than us—the church is to adopt philoxenos—a love of those who are different from us. We are to be hospitable.
Historically, this word has also meant “enemy.” When we remember Jesus’ words to “love our enemies” we understand he is calling us to hospitality, or loving our enemy in the same way we would love a sibling of ours.
Following Jesus is not always easy. I’d rather just love those who look and think and act more like me. But the church is called to something different. That’s why one of the major marks of an elder in the church is that of hospitality.
An overseer…must be above reproach…hospitable. 1 Timothy 3:2
As an overseer of God’s household, he must be blameless: not arrogant, not hot-tempered, not an excessive drinker, not a bully, not greedy for money, but hospitable … Titus 1:7-9
Leaders set the example for the table of dis-likes. Then the church follows. The church “pursues hospitality.” To those who would whine, “Do I have to?” Peter would write: “Be hospitable to one another without complaining” (1 Peter 4:9).
Jesus was bent on bending the rules. He was counter-cultural. His culture said to avoid the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. He invited them to his table. The Roman world said different status levels should stay separated. The church invited all to Jesus’ table.
Do you think Jesus might want us to do the same? Who is the stranger he is calling you to love like a sibling? The poor? The hungry? The immigrant? The one of a different faith? A Republican? A Democrat? A former friend you need to mend a fence with?
Make a list. Then put your feet under the same table with them. Listen to their story. Learn something about their life. You don’t have to agree with them. Just seek to understand them. Pursue a love of the one who is dis-like you.
The writer of Hebrews said there might be a big dividend to your people investment. “Let brotherly love [philadelphia] continue. Don’t neglect to show hospitality (or entertain strangers) [philoxenia], for by doing this some have welcomed angels as guests without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:1-2).
It may be easier to table with those who are like you. But it is when you table with a dis-like you might have an angelic evening.
 Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1990), 163.
 John Ortberg, I’d Like You More if You Were More Like Me (Carol Stream Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2017), 38.
 McKnight, 99.