Cloud of Witnesses


Nympha, Lydia and Mary

I wonder how you do with sharing?

Tags: courage leadership generosity

There are certain things I’m happy to share – and others that…well, let’s say I’m more precious about! I had lodgers for a while and sharing my home was a real challenge. That was a shock because I consider myself to be pretty hospitable… I love having people over for dinner or to watch a movie.

The short version, I realised, was that I am happy to be generous when it suits me, when it’s something I want to do – and when it’s with people I enjoy!

Genuine, sacrificial hospitality and generosity is a challenge for me. There are things to learn from these three women… and others like them.

Nympha, Lydia and Mary are all hostesses of the early church.

All of them opened their homes to the random groups of converts that made up the early church.

Lydia we know most about. Acts 16 describes her as an affluent business woman, a trader in luxury purple cloth in the city of Philippi. She was also devout, praying when she met the apostle Paul and responded to his message. A Gentile woman insisting that a group of Jewish men came and stayed in her home.

Mary hosted a church in Jerusalem where Peter fled on his angelic escape from prison in Acts 12. Scholars have speculated about what the house was used for (the last supper? Pentecost?) but it was clearly big enough to have an outer courtyard (with the gate Peter was left outside!) and she was wealthy enough to have at least one slave girl.

Nympha we know no more about that being named as having a church meet in her home in Colossae – but she stands in a tradition of wealthy women who hosted, and it is fair to assume were matriarchs with considerable influence in the first churches.

Others who we know hosted churches include Gaius (Rom 16.23), Stephaus (1 Cor. 16.15), Onesiphorus (2 Tim), Philemon (Philemon!) Aquila & Prisca (1 Cor. 16.19) and Titus Justus (Acts 18.7).

These were brave and generous men and women who broke cultural norms by having disparate groups of Jews and Gentiles, rich and slaves, intellectuals and the formerly demonised meet in their homes.

We assume that they were affluent people to have houses big enough to host such groups but allowing all these random Christians in must have hurt their social standing with the neighbours and potentially put their lives at risk from Roman persecution!

We know that in the early church people were discipled individually for a couple of years on their own, before being baptised and allowed to attend church meetings. This was for fear that they might be a Roman infiltrator who would betray them all to the authorities. So - offering hospitality and risking your home was a brave thing to do!

We also know that offering hospitality got people into trouble.

 Jason was dragged from his home by a mob when they couldn’t find Paul (Acts 17.5). Others such as Philip the evangelist (Acts 21.17), Mnason of Cyprus (Acts 21.16), Simon the tanner (Acts 9) and Cornelius (Acts 10) were brave enough to risk the same.

How do you imagine hospitality used to work?

We often think of the ancient world as so much more hospitable than we are (at least in the West). That without hotels it was normal for random strangers to be shown hospitality rather than left in the street. But it’s clear from the amount of encouragement people needed throughout the Bible to do so, that demonstrating hospitality was costly and a risk. Not only would you need to feed them, provide them with water, feed their animals but it was also customary to give them food for the onwards journey. That’s no mean feat if you are struggling to feed your own family!

Plus who knew if this random person, or people, would rob you? Kill you as you slept? Run away with your possessions? And likewise accepting the hospitality of strangers runs a similar risk. What if they were violent? What if they attacked you in the night or took all your possessions?

In fact it was common practise for Christians to travel with a letter of recommendation from fellow believers to vouch for them.

Paul did this for Phoebe (Rom. 16.1), Tychichus (Eph. 6.21-2) and Mark (Col. 4.10)).

Jesus encouraged his disciples to be willing to accept hospitality, from whomever offered it – not just the rich where they’d get a good meal deal! (Luke 10.4)
Hebrews 13 exhorts

“Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

In a culture with no police force, where people were regularly robbed by bandits while travelling, hospitality was a necessary – but risky thing. And people needed to be encouraged to share what they had with those who could not return the favour.

Nympha, Mary, Lydia and others accepted the challenge.

All we know about many of these hospitable heroes is their name, but their generosity and bravery is still inspiring – and challenging 2000 years later. For those of us in Europe we are being challenged to consider our personal and national hospitality in the face of a wave of thousands of refugees felling persecution and war. I can’t help feeling that the church in particular should be following in the footsteps of these women and showing this sort of sacrificial, brave, costly and even risky generosity.

I wonder how our willingness to show kindness to those in need, mercy to strangers and share what we’ve been blessed with compares with theirs?

Questions for discussion

  • What do you think generous hospitality looks like in our context?
  • When have you experienced sacrificial generosity and how did that affect you?
  • Who might be in need of sacrificial support from God’s people where you are situated?
  • In a world where so many are refugees, homeless and desperate, how do you think Jesus would have his people, the church, respond?
  • How do you think we balance wisdom and generosity when it comes to opening our homes to others? (Which way do you lean – towards caution or openness?)
  • What might you actively do to develop a more generous and hospitable attitude and lifestyle?

© Ruth Perrin 2015. Last revised on 1 October 2015