By Bishop Dr Wee Boon Hup
Bishop Wee was elected Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore in 2012. He has been a Methodist pastor for 30 years.
For a few months this year, the world was caught up in following the tragedy of migrants seeking refuge as they fled the war raging in their own countries. It was heartbreaking to see the photo showing a toddler from one of the fleeing families washed up dead on the beach. The issue is still unresolved as many keep fleeing into Europe with governments divided as to how to handle the crisis, and the situation in the source countries descending into further chaos.
Not all refugees from Africa and the Middle East end up in Europe. Thousands of others who could not journey to Europe would make their way to other neighbouring countries only to receive worse treatment at the hands of their supposed hosts.
Christmas is a season that should also turn our hearts and minds towards refugees. While he was just a newborn, Jesus and His family ended up seeking refuge in Egypt. They too were fleeing from an insecure ruler who had no qualms about ordering nation-wide male infanticide to ensure that his throne was not challenged.
The joy at the birth of the Christ-child was soon overshadowed by the pursuit of King Herod to kill all boys of the same age as the Child-King, upon realisation that the Magi did not return to inform him after they had found the Child. This cruelty is replicated in the mass slaughter of tribes, villages, and opponents of the powers that be in some places today.
In the midst of such human depravity, the Saviour entered our world. His purpose was not just to save us from ourselves so that we could enter a sin-free heaven. He endured similar oppressive conditions so that today we can live in the here and now, knowing we have Someone who is able to sympathise with all our weaknesses. “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted (or tested) as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15, NKJV)
Jesus the Child Refugee turned out to be Jesus our Refuge. He is our Shelter, our Eternal Home. In Him, we have security and receive His protection. His life’s mission was to enable the displaced to be restored to their rightful position and relationship. In Him, many find their place in this world regardless of where they may be geographically. In fact, in Him, many find their place of rest in all eternity.
To celebrate what Christ has done for us, Christmas, then, is a time to heed the biblical injunction to practise Christian hospitality.
“Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:1-2, ESV)
In Singapore, we do not experience the influx of refugees from Syria. But our “strangers” are the foreign workers in our midst. They come close to being called ‘economic refugees’, except that they are here legally. However, their primary motive is economic: jobs are hard to find in their own countries, and so they are here to earn enough to support their families back home.
Christian hospitality takes its cue from the ministry of Jesus. “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32, ESV) “Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28, NKJV)
Hospitality, as the root word hospitis (guests) suggests, calls for us to focus on the guests. They come to us seeking a place of rest. We extend a welcome, and attend to their needs, welfare and comfort.
In his letter to the Romans, after exhorting them to take care of one another, Paul urges them to “pursue hospitality” (Romans 12:13, New English Translation). The context of the passage is spiritual gifts. Peter affirmed that it is a gift as well (1 Peter 4:9-10). In other words, hospitality is not just physical work to attend to the needs of guests. It is a manifestation of the Spirit in our lives through what we do for them. Hospitality is attending also to the spiritual needs of our guests.
Over the past few years, many churches have been extending ministry to these guest workers in our society. Some provide regular meals on weekends; others offer educational training like computer skills and English classes. Other organisations have started providing medical services to sick and injured workers, as well as legal assistance. Many churches have special worship services in their home languages. As a result of practising hospitality in this way, many have returned home bringing their faith in Jesus with them.
However, there is more that we can do to grow in this ministry. One area is to recognise that there are still those who see these workers simply as that, i.e. they are here to work. They work exceptionally long hours, and on many occasions without rest days. We still have some way to go to change attitudes in this area. There are simple and direct ways to be hospitable to our guest workers, like simply being kind in our dealings with them.
While Christmas is seasonal, the spirit of Christmas is not limited to a time period. The practice of hospitality therefore knows no limits: we extend it to both fellow believers as well as to strangers at all times.
John Wesley’s comment on entertaining angels (Hebrews 13:2) is interesting: “Some – Abraham and Lot – have entertained angels unawares. So may an unknown guest, even now, be of more worth than he appears, and may have angels attending him, though unseen.” The guests themselves may not actually be angels. But angels, who could have led the guests to us, may be around as we welcome the strangers. So in receiving the human guests, we also entertain their angels.
May the seasons of Advent and Christmas this year present opportunities for you to show hospitality to those seeking refuge in a troubled world. Celebrate with those who are blessed. Show hospitality to all.
A blessed and love-filled Christmas to all.
This article originally appeared in METHODIST MESSAGE (December 2015 issue). It has been reprinted with permission.