Part 2: Welcoming the Stranger

Part 1 of this eReflections series can be found here. Part 3 can be found here.


“While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’” —Luke 24: 16, 17


Just think! If the disciples on the Emmaus Road had refused to welcome a stranger into their companionable walk and their no-holds-barred conversation, they would have missed the whole mind/spirit-bending encounter with Jesus!

A case could have been made that this was no time for strangers. AND YET, it was while they were discussing all these things that had happened that a stranger approached them and asked a simple question: What are you talking about as you walk along the road?

How rude! one might think. How inappropriate to walk up to two people who are having an intimate conversation and ask them right out what they are talking about. This is definitely the kind of strangeness I don’t like. When in the midst of a private conversation with a close friend sharing things of a personal nature, the last thing I want to do is include someone neither one of us knows. It makes things awkward at best. At worst, it feels downright intrusive.

But there is another possibility. Could it be that the stranger who intrudes upon our lives with their “otherness” has actually been sent by God as a means of grace to us?

Beyond Affinity

One of the dynamics of transforming community is that by its very nature, there is enough “otherness” in the group that we can actually be challenged to stretch and grow beyond the confines of our own limited view of things. We can find ways to open to Christ as he is uniquely present in the other. One of the limits of affinity groups is that there just isn’t enough “otherness” to call forth anything new. If we don’t venture outside our comfort zones, trusting that the stranger God has brought into our lives has something for us we, too, will never even know what we’re missing.

Whatever the two disciples might have felt about being approached by a total stranger, Jesus had no qualms about joining them and including himself in their conversation. His “innocent” inquiry invited them to share their story with him even though he, of all people, knew the story from the inside out!

Like most of us, these two disciples found it hard to tell a stranger about something that had impacted them so deeply; all they could do was stand still, mute with grief, looking sad. And this gracious stranger didn’t try to rush them out of their grief, didn’t force them beyond what they were able, didn’t try to manage the moment. Instead, he stood right there with them in their sadness, leaving the space open for them to experience all that they were feeling, giving them time to try and find the words.

Strange in a Good Way

Finally, Cleopas got a little exasperated. He gave up trying to put what he was experiencing into words and blurted out, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” It is a bit like asking a U.S. citizen, “Are you the only one who doesn’t know what happened here on 9/11? Are you the only one who doesn’t know about the airplanes and the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the loss of life?” It’s unthinkable that someone could be that out of touch with what’s going on in the world!

Jesus’ apparent lack of knowledge about the situation must have made him seem even stranger, but he continued to play dumb for a little while longer. “What things?” he asked, very simply. He seemed to know that they needed to tell their story, to get it all out in the presence of someone who knew how to listen. He knew that if they could just talk about it with him honestly, he could eventually help them find meaning in all they had been through.

So it all came pouring out—the pain, the grief, the disillusionment, the questions, the lost hopes and dreams. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” What a poignant statement about the depth of their loss and its far-reaching effect.

It was only after Jesus had taken time to listen deeply to their need—for comfort, for understanding, for perspective—that he offered any sort of perspective at all. And what he chose to do was to draw them into the Biblical story, interpreting Scripture to them in such a way that all of it started to make sense. Masterfully, he helped them to locate their own story in the context of the larger story of God’s redemptive purposes in the world.

What seemed so hopeless from a human point of view was now imbued with profound spiritual significance. This “stranger” was quickly becoming a friend and more than just a friend—a spiritual companion with an uncanny ability to listen to their hearts’ deepest longings and questions.

They Urged Him Strongly to Stay

What happens next is a little over the top by contemporary standards. It seems these disciples were so stirred by the quality of this stranger’s presence and his uncanny insight that they didn’t want their conversation to end. When Jesus acted like he was going to keep on walking, they urged him to get off at their exit and to stay with them—in their home! Now it’s one thing to have a conversation with a stranger in a public place; it’s quite another to invite them right into your home. Who does that these days?

In Matthew 25:42-46 Jesus points out the when we welcome all types of strangers we are welcoming Christ himself—which is exactly what happened to the two disciples on the Emmaus road. They welcomed the stranger and then discovered it was Christ. Literally.

St. Benedict took Jesus’ teaching so literally that he gave specific instructions for how guests were to be treated with this truth in mind. “Any guest who happens to arrive at the monastery should be received just as we would receive Christ himself, because he promised that on the last day he will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me…Guests should always be treated with respectful reverence. Those attending them both on arrival and departure should show this by a bow of the head or even a full prostration on the ground which will leave no doubt that it is indeed Christ who is received and venerated in them…”

However warmly I have greeted strangers, I have never bowed or prostrated myself! And yet, the more literally one takes Jesus’ statement that when we welcome “the least of these” we welcome him, the more the idea of bowing and genuflecting makes sense!

Strange Friends, Intimate Strangers

The Emmaus story raises an interesting question: who is the stranger, really? More often than not, the stranger is simply someone who is strange to you or different than you for one reason or another—a personality type that is different than yours, different life-experiences that have shaped them, a different ethnicity, a different opinion or perspective on an important topic, or even just a different life stage. It could be someone who seems to come out of nowhere, interrupting our normal relating or thinking patterns. Someone who intrudes upon our established circle of friends. Someone who doesn’t fit in or simply rubs us the wrong way.

The question is, can we welcome the one who is strange in that way? How can we be as receptive to Christ in them as those two despairing disciples were open and receptive to Jesus on the Emmaus road? In order to receive what “the other” has to give, we will need to practice what I call “inner hospitality”—that is, a spirit of openness and receptivity to those unlikely moments when the friendliness of a stranger or the strangeness of a friend causes our hearts to burn within us.

What we are really talking about here is being willing to welcome diversity, in the broadest sense of the word, and receive the gifts that come through such diversity.

Welcoming Christ in You

Recently, in one of our Transforming Community retreats, those of us who were present had an amazing experience of welcoming and being enriched by “the other.” It was a retreat on the subject of honoring the body as a spiritual discipline and at the outset I made the statement that we would discuss gender as a fundamental “in the body” experience but due to limited time, we would not be dealing with the issue of race even though it, too, is an important aspect of life in the body. My decision made perfect sense to me (of course!) but at the break, a black pastor approached me very graciously and shared that he did not resonate with my statement. In fact, he said, he considered race to be more defining than gender and when he enters a room, he is always much more aware of his race than his gender.

Immediately I knew I needed to be more careful about making my experience the measure of all things! After we talked for a few minutes, I asked him if he would be willing to share the difference he had named with the entire group and lead us in a conversation that would move us beyond being strangers to one another in this regard. He agreed, so we adjusted our schedule to include a conversation about this difference in perspective. In a gracious and thoughtful way he described some of his experiences as a black male—experiences that those of us in the room who are white had never had and really needed to hear about.

Eventually another pastor shared her experiences of being black and female—which was, in significant ways, different than being a black male. Then an Asian man spoke quietly of his struggle for self-acceptance in the midst of prevailing cultural stereotypes and a Latino man offered his perspective as well. What was spoken was so impactful that at times the whole group fell silent out of respect for the significance of what was being shared. There we all were—strangers to one another in ways we didn’t fully realize—until we were able to welcome that which was different in the other with honesty, love and respect.

Jesus Himself Came Near

A sense of profound intimacy descended upon the group as a white woman, a black man, a black woman, an Asian man, a Latino and all those looking on welcomed “the other” by entering in and allowing ourselves to be impacted by one another’s experience. Jesus himself came near, deepening our care and commitment to one another along with our concern for a more just society. I had a sense that it was only the beginning of the transforming work God wants to do in us and through us as we continue to welcome each other in all of our strangeness.

For some of us, welcoming the stranger will never come easy. But these days I am never able to encounter a “stranger” without wondering, “Is this the person through whom God is going to speak? Is this the stranger who is going to be Christ to me today?” The practice of welcoming the stranger opens me to the presence of Christ in the most unexpected places and that is something I don’t want to miss.


©Ruth Haley Barton, 2015. This article is adapted from Life Together in Christ: Experiencing Transformation in Community (InterVarsity Press, 2014.)

Ruth Haley Barton

(Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.

12 Comments

  1. Karen Mills on April 25, 2015 at 12:48 am

    I currently live in France and serve as a missionary here. However, our first two terms were spent in Kenya. I have more times than not been a stranger and have met many. My feelings here resonate with those of ADR. Coming from a conservative denomination, I learned to be judgmentally discerning at a young age. My journey, therefore, toward oneness in the body has been a challenge and a great joy as I have been met by Jesus over and over and over in my encounters with African and European believers from many different denominations, most of which I had never heard of in my past life as a happily settled midwestern American Christian!

    Today, we experience life in our church in France: a precious transforming community filled with people from 23 nationalities. After 3 years in our little anglophone church, I am still not quite sure of the denominational background of others and I no longer care. I do not know what their mother tongue is, or even if they are seekers or strong believers, but I so love them all! Today, as I thought of this question, I thought of Jesus in the stained-glass window of our small Anglican chapel in Chantilly, France. Normally, I love looking up at Him; but now I imagine HE looks down on ME. What does He see? Oh Lord, help me to see your beautiful face in those around me who are all so different from me! As we in community reach out to strangers, help me to do my part to look past the outside and see Your hope in their life. Thank you, Ruth, for this opportunity to reflect on my life overflowing with strangers!

    • Ruth Barton on May 24, 2015 at 7:12 pm

      Joining you in that prayer!

  2. Cal Elifson on April 23, 2015 at 9:53 am

    Ruth, Thank you for taking this experience of the disciples on the road with Jesus and speaking into my life about being open to the stranger. How I like the familiar and yet how deadening it can be.
    I look into my heart and see how often there is so little room for the stranger or the strangeness of those I know.
    Cal

    • Ruth Barton on April 24, 2015 at 5:59 pm

      You’re welcome, Cal. And thank you for this honest response–yes, we like the familiar AND how deadening it can be.

  3. loretta lapp on April 23, 2015 at 9:47 am

    thank you ruth for this another look at the story in scripture of the walk to emmaus. loved what you pulled from that, what a challenge. i am teaching in sunday school from 1st john 3, titled “the spirit of hospitality” and i will share the story of Jesus and his disciples on the road to emmaus, challenging us to look at the “stranger” in our midst, actually Jesus. i thought of stranger as someone i had not met before, but when you mentioned the stranger can be someone i know, but has different opinions than mine, or who is irritating to me, that put a new take on this subject. thank you so much for posting this.

  4. BJ on April 22, 2015 at 1:29 pm

    Thank you Ruth for this helpful perspective, it is right where our church is at and have already shared it with them. We are reading The Heart of Racial Justice (that i picked up at TC5) many years ago and God is doing some slow, gentle but firm work in helping us to embrace the stranger and the other by nurturing that inner hospitality that you have described. Miss you all and know that the effects of the TC continues to ripple out her at the Open Door.

    • Ruth Barton on April 22, 2015 at 3:51 pm

      So great to hear from you, BJ! I know you all are doing such careful, intentional work around these issues at Open Door. Keep up the good work…it is so important to the kingdom…to the heart of Jesus.

  5. J. Merlo on April 22, 2015 at 10:37 am

    One evening, at the beginning of the spiritual formation group there are two men in the class. Immediately I knew that I would not associate myself with these strange men. What do we have in common? The covering up is also taking place, (hypocrite that I am) I don’t let on that I’m sizing them up. I pretend that I’m comfortable with them.
    That evening each spoke small stuff sort of introductions and small bios, what a surprise. They’re now strangers who I can’t dismiss, put off or ignore. They’re different, and strange, yet interesting.

  6. Holly Brown on April 22, 2015 at 9:43 am

    What a lovely, timely exhortation! I am so often bustling around with my own purposes of the day in mind. Airplane rides are a great example. Placed in the midst of many different people, usually all unknown to me, I get myself seated, put my earphones on and turn on some encouraging, worshipful music to be in my own little world. I’ve had some incredibly life-giving times of prayer and praise as I’ve jetted across the skies. But how many times have I missed sharing the journey with a new person who might represent Christ to me, or me to them?

  7. ADR on April 22, 2015 at 9:28 am

    And if you go even a little further with the story, Jesus then offers a communion experience with the disciples that brings another aspect of our awareness that is ‘strange’ between Catholics and Protestants, the Eucharist and what it means or doesn’t mean depending on how you see things…I’m a converted Catholic, was raised in another Protestant religion, drifted, then walked with a non-denominational bible church before converting to find unity with my wife and kids. That ‘strangeness’ threatened my marriage. Through all of this, I learned about the very distinct ‘strangeness’ between Christian denominations that can be even tougher to navigate than male-female and race oriented ‘strangeness’, yet we are all one body, one church. Sadly, I was raised to look at Catholics as strange. And I see Catholics look at Protestants that way as well. ** I’m overloaded at work and was going to dismiss your e-reflection but glad that I read it and admire and appreciate the work that you do.

    • Ruth Barton on April 22, 2015 at 9:51 am

      Awww….I just love this because you are so right–the strangeness we experience between Catholics and Protestants and among denomination is another area in which the practice of “welcoming Christ in the other” can be so enriching. One of the things i love about our Transforming Communities is that this kind of “otherness” is also always present and it contributes so powerfully to our transformation in community. When we are committed to walk together, even with our differences, God always uses it to help us become better, more Christlike people. Thank you for sharing your own tender story.

  8. Thelma on April 22, 2015 at 7:58 am

    I need part one this is my life story. ..if only

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