This month sees the week of prayer for Christian Unity, taking place from 18 to 25 January, an annual initiative in which churches throughout the world are asked to pray for one another as a way of growing closer. Each year takes a different theme on which to hang these prayers and this year it is from the Acts of the Apostles (28,2): ‘they showed an unusual kindness.’

It is the story of Paul’s ship, in which he is being held prisoner, being wrecked off the island of Malta. A bedraggled Paul and his companions are washed up on shore, where we hear that the locals show an ‘unusual kindness’ to him and his companions. To this day the Church of Malta celebrates this event as the arrival of the Christian faith on their island. Through this kindness divided people are drawn together, strangers become friends.

I’m taken by the phrase ‘unusual kindness.’ It is not that kindness is unusual: there’s plenty of it about. But more that this sort of kindness is extraordinary - kindness to strangers, and bedraggled ones at that. How contemporary this story is as we hear about refugees today trying to reach safer countries in unsafe little boats across the Mediterranean, as unpredictable a sea today as it was in Paul’s time.

Hospitality is being shown to those who are different. It is relatively easy to love those whom we know and like. It is much harder to love those we either don’t know or actually don’t like, and I guess I’ve got a way to go in that area of my discipleship. But Jesus calls us to this unusual kindness. He tells us to love even our enemies, and Holy Scripture makes a big deal out of loving the stranger.

Where do we learn this extraordinary love? By recalling the occasions when it has happened to us and when people have shown us unusual kindness. We know we grow by being loved into life. Christian unity is an aspiration for all churches, becoming one so that the world may believe. In fact, Christian unity is already a reality, not expressed so much in schemes for unity, but rather in myriad acts of unusual kindness shown by those working in the food banks, patrolling our towns as street pastors, or making space in their homes for refugee families.

Showing hospitality, especially to strangers, preaches the gospel more clearly than our documents or strategies. I rather think it is unusual kindness which makes the difference.

Robert Jones