Host or guest? Andrew Picard reflects on our true place in Jesus’ Kingdom.
New Zealand is a very multicultural country and is becoming more diverse each year. Our population has one of the highest percentage of people born overseas, and Auckland is now more multicultural than London or Sydney (1). The changing face of New Zealand raises questions about identity and belonging in New Zealand society. This question stands also in the church and requires us to consider what kind of welcome the ‘stranger’ receives in our churches. Where once there were settled assumptions about who is and what it means to be a Kiwi, these assumptions are being challenged and stretched by a growing world of difference.
Like many countries, New Zealand has had a checkered history when it comes to welcoming strangers. Two significant examples of this are the treatment of Chinese migrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries through the Chinese ‘poll tax,’ and the ‘Dawn Raids’ carried out on Polynesian factory workers in the 1970s.
A recent study of the attitudes of New Zealand born young adults towards immigrants showed there is still work to do. Many of the young adults who were interviewed perpetuated the idea that ‘they’ need to fit in by becoming like ‘us.’ When one young interviewee was asked what makes a New Zealander, they replied, “I think it’s someone who embraces our culture and likes the way we live and all our values.” (2)
The assumption here is that immigrants are regarded as ‘guests’ who must conform to the ways of the ‘host.’ These ideals of hosting and guesting have inherent power assumptions embedded within them. The host is ‘at home’ and welcomes the guest on the condition that they change to abide by house rules. These conditional forms of welcome, and their assumed structures of power, fly in the face of the gospel and the calling of the church. The New Testament offers a welcome alternative of belonging together in a community of difference.
Jesus’ New Community
In Luke 7, Jesus visits the house of Simon the Pharisee for a meal. Simon assumes that he is hosting Jesus as a guest, and he becomes upset about the intrusion of a strange woman. As the episode unfolds, we find instead that Jesus becomes the host and invites Simon, and all of us, as guests in his new kingdom community. In the kingdom, we do not allocate the identities of ‘host’ and ‘guest’ – belonging is because of Jesus, not us. Jesus establishes a community of the different who belong in and through him. In this new community, Jesus calls us to learn to love the people who he already loves, and to be transformed together.
This call to loving the stranger and being transformed together became central for the earliest churches. As the earliest churches developed, they began to wrestle with the difficult realities of the gospel’s demands. The church at Corinth had significant issues with division between those who saw themselves as the sovereign hosts of the community (the strong) and those who they deemed to be dependent guests (the weak). The subtle message the hosts conveyed to guests was, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12:21), and the guests were left feeling that they did not belong to the body (1 Cor. 12:14). Paul writes to explain how the gospel subverts these assumptions of power and the dynamics of hosting and guesting. The church is not ordered by human cultural assumptions, but by God. In the body of Christ, there are no sovereign hosts or submissive guests, only disciples who are together being formed into the image of Christ. God has arranged the body as a place of belonging, growing, and learning together. This means that settled expressions and practices of the church are changed, renewed and enriched as we learn to receive God’s gift of different people, cultures, expressions and practices. In Jesus’ new community, the message to the stranger is not, “great you’re here, now change to become like us,” but, “how is God changing us so that we might together become more like Christ?”
The changing face of New Zealand offers the church an opportunity to once again render our lives to God in order that God might shape us to be a community where the gospel is making a world of difference.
1. Vaimoana Tapaleao. 2014. Auckland now more diverse than London. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11213317
2. Avril Bell. Being ‘At Home’ in the Nation: Hospitality and Sovereignty in Talk About Immigration. Ethnicities 10 (2010): 236-56
Andrew Picard teaches applied theology at Carey Baptist College and is a doctoral student in theology at the University of Otago.
Challenging Our Assumptions
Deaf culture is one example where this ‘host’ and ‘guest’ concept has been, and is still occurring. Peter Coxhead and Sheila Gibbons, both from Titirangi Baptist Church, share part of their story:
Growing up Deaf in a hearing world meant missing out on a lot of things. For example, communication was difficult and therefore relating to others was difficult. We went to church to please our parents but we were very isolated. At church, we could understand simple things about Jesus but detail was lost. When we met with other Deaf people, we relaxed because we could communicate and identify with their experiences.
We are part of a church with both hearing and Deaf people. It’s great but it has its challenges. For example, the sermon is interpreted but it is not as easy to understand as when we meet in a Deaf cultural environment. In our Deaf home group, we really value studying the Bible together but accessing the Bible is more complicated than simply reading it. For many of us, English is not our first language, sign language is. New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) is a distinct language with its own grammar and syntax. So someone who is bilingual in NZSL and English needs to translate the passage from English into NZSL. To sign the Bible word for word, following the English, would be really boring and hard to understand, so it needs to be expressed in NZSL. We also use other visual techniques, for example drama and powerpoint with lots of pictures. Where hearing people have voice intonation to help in communication, facial expression and storytelling in sign language is really important. Because, in our home group, we study the Bible and discuss it in sign language, we can keep up and this opens up so much understanding of who God is. We love for everyone to understand as well, so stopping and asking questions and explaining it to each other is encouraged. We don’t have a Bible in NZSL; Australia is translating it at the moment into Auslan (Australian Sign Language), but it takes a huge amount of resources and we just don’t have that in New Zealand, so we study the Bible together, when it can be translated ‘live’ into NZSL.
We also have the question, what is Deaf worship? For hearing church, we translate the songs beforehand so we can sign them the same time hearing people are singing them. A hearing person cues us for the timing, and a Deaf person then signs them for the rest of the Deaf people to copy. But we don’t really relate to the sung worship. It is the hearing way. And we can’t close our eyes because we wouldn’t know what was going on. We would naturally be less structured, move more and use more facial expression. We want to explore more about what Deaf worship is, which is likely not singing, but we don’t have the opportunity in a hearing church.
Peter Coxhead and Sheila Gibbons with Sarah Vaine and Julie Coxhead
1. Reflect on this question from the article: “how is God changing us so that we might together become more like Christ?
2. Can you identify areas in your life where you have taken on the guest or host role inappropriately?
3. What could you do to address this?
Image Credit: Benoit Daoust/shutterstock.com
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.