February 13, 2019 - Absalom Jones
Church splits are hard on everyone. When a large part of the congregation is unhappy with the minister and walks out. When the rector and most of the parish break away because they are angry with the denomination. When an affair or abuse or fraud occurs and a congregation divides between the resentful and the sympathetic. Whatever the reason, when a congregation is split in two, it is painful. Church is supposed to be the place where we can leave our differences behind and be united as followers of Jesus. Following the example of the first Christians, listening to the admonitions of the apostle Paul, striving to accept Jesus' commandment to love one another, we want our congregations to be places of unity, and, when they are not, the pain and disappointment and anger and embarrassment pile up and sometimes spill over in hateful ways.
Jesus said to his disciples, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." He said those words to Thomas the doubter, Peter the denier, John the naive, and Matthew the tax collector. Jesus shows us what love is. He demonstrates a love that does not depend on liking someone, agreeing with someone, being treated nicely by someone. The love that unites us as the followers of Jesus, as the people of God, is a love that must transcend our arguments, our disappointments, our theological disputes, and the differences between us. That's who we are as followers of Jesus. So what happens when we can no longer love each other like that?
In 1784 Absalom Jones and his colleague Richard Allen were the first African-Americans to be licensed as lay ministers and preachers in the Methodist Church. They ministered primarily to the black congregation at St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church, drawing more and more worshippers with their clear, evangelical call for the abolition of slavery. Uncomfortable with Jones and Allen's growing popularity, in 1792 the vestry of St. George's decided to require black members to move to segregated seating, first along the wall and later in the balcony. Fed up with this racism, Jones and Allen led the black members of the congregation in prayer and then a walk-out on a Sunday morning. The disaffected worshippers built their own church and applied for admission in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania under the conditions that they be accepted as a parish, allowed to govern their own affairs, and that Absalom Jones be licensed as a lay minister and, if qualified, ordained as an Episcopal clergyman. In 1795, Jones became the first African-American deacon and priest in the Episcopal Church.
What do you do when you look around the church and realize that it is impossible to obey Jesus' commandment and love one another as he has loved us? What is the faithful response when the thing that makes you Christians--the thing that defines you as a church--no longer exists in your community of faith?
Sometimes preachers like me appeal to John Calvin's definition of the church as the place where the word of God is faithfully preached and heard and where the sacraments are administered according to Christ's institution. But who gets to decide whether the word is faithfully preached in a congregation that endorses segregation or that embraces marriage equality? It seems that Calvin actually had something more basic in mind than doctrinal definitions. Calvin meant wherever the proclaimed word and administered sacraments are provided to and received by the congregation together--as in not separated--then the church is faithful. In other words, as Jesus said, it's our job, our duty, to love one another as he loved us regardless of our disagreements and to let Christ himself be the thing that unites us despite our differences. Usually, it's easier to run away from painful disputes and go somewhere else or start a new church, but are such moves an effort to be faithful to Jesus' love commandment or avoid it?
Sometimes, a faith community becomes so plagued with self-interest, idolatry, and sin that love becomes impossible. When members are pushed to the fringe or asked to sit upstairs because their political aspirations make the majority congregation uncomfortable, the word is no longer able to be preached and received by a congregation, nor are the sacraments being administered according to Christ's ordinance when all the white disciples receive first and the black disciples get what's left over. In cases like that, those who leave aren't leaving because they disagree with the preacher or because they don't like the direction that the denomination is taking. They're leaving because you cannot love someone as Jesus loves them when you treat as less than human, as less than yourself.
Ironically, perhaps, Absalom Jones' witness to us--his boldness and his courage--is not an invitation to split away from those whom we find to be close-minded but to stay connected to one another in love. But that love isn't something you or I get to define. It is the love that Jesus has shown us. It is the love that defines who we are. We must always love one another as we have been loved, even when it costs us dearly. Thus, we cannot fracture the body of Christ because of our disagreements. Instead, we must be willing to give up everything we value for the sake of loving those who are different, those who disagree, those we find repugnant. If someone will not love us like that, they have pulled away, but, as followers of Jesus, as disciples obedient to his commandment, we still love them just the same.