Riverside Methodist Church in Occoquan has a black Jesus. Pastor Harley Camden noticed it the first time he walked into the small sanctuary and looked up at the stained-glass window at the front of the church. At first, he thought that the glass was simply dirty, but as he moved closer, he realized that the window had been designed that way, with Jesus looking more like a Palestinian Jew than an English Methodist.
Then he looked closer and saw the date on the lower right corner of the window: 1885. The dark-skinned Jesus had been installed in an era when most stained-glass images were as white and as blond as Norwegians. But this Jesus was definitely a person of color. Not truly black, but certainly not white. And then Harley realized why this was so: the church had been founded by a pastor named Bailey, a former slave, and for over a century it had been an African-American congregation called Emanuel Baptist Church.
Harley visited the church on his first trip to Occoquan, a small river town in Virginia. He knew that it had become Riverside Methodist after the Baptist congregation outgrew its building and moved to a larger structure. As the new pastor of Riverside, Harley walked between the neat rows of oak pews and tried to imagine himself leading worship in the creaky old Sanctuary.
Something was stirring within him - an emotion very different from the anger that had been burning him up since the deaths of his wife and daughter a year earlier. He couldn't quite identify it, but it was calming instead of corrosive. Running his fingers along the backs of the pews, he imagined that the space had been the site of countless milestones: baptisms, weddings, funerals. Anguished prayers had been said there, rousing sermons had been preached, lives had been changed. Generations of African Americans, in particular, had looked up at the Jesus in the stained glass and found strength to live with faith and dignity in a segregated society. A trickle of tenderness was beginning to flow into the dry canyon that was Harley's heart.
But then, when he opened the door to the pastor's office, he was shocked and disappointed. The office was hardly bigger than a broom closet, and the desk had a typewriter on it. Yes, a typewriter - in the year 2017.
Harley Camden is a fictional character in my novel City of Peace. But what he experiences on his first visit to Riverside Methodist Church is something we all know to be true - the fact that places are important. Church buildings, in particular, are where we experience the milestones that run from baptisms to weddings to funerals. They are spaces we enter to find comfort and challenge and inspiration. Church is the place we encounter Jesus ... or not.
The story of Philip and Nathanael in the Gospel of John gives us a clue about the kinds of places that help us to come face to face with Jesus. At the start, Jesus decides to go home to Galilee - an area described elsewhere as "Galilee of the Gentiles" (Matthew 4:15). Not "Galilee of the Jews," even though Jesus and his family are all Jews. No, Galilee of the Gentiles. The region is full of Romans and other non-Jews, people called Gentiles. It is a very multicultural place. Kind of like twenty-first-century America.
So, what happens on the road to Galilee? Jesus invites Philip to follow him as a disciple, and then Philip finds a friend named Nathanael and says, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth" (John 1:45). This is a strong affirmation of faith, one that states clearly and concisely that Jesus is the fulfillment of what had been predicted by Moses and the prophets.
I find it interesting, however, that this statement of faith makes no impression on Nathanael. Instead, he focuses on the word "Nazareth," the hometown of Jesus. Once again, places are important. Nathanael asks, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (v. 46). He doesn't have much respect for the place, knowing it to be a small town in the hill country of Galilee, one with a high number of immigrants and foreigners. Not where he expects to find the Jewish Messiah.
In response, Philip does not mount a robust defense of Nazareth. Instead, he simply says, "Come and see" (v. 46). Come and see for yourself if Jesus is the fulfillment of everything that God has said and done. Come and see the place where Jesus is, and make up your own mind after you encounter him. In saying these words, Philip is offering an attractive invitation, but the words he says are not original to him. He is repeating what Jesus has just said to two of the disciples of John the Baptist, "Come and see." After hearing this invitation, they followed Jesus (vv. 38-29).
We live in a world that is as multicultural as the Galilee of the Gentiles, and our challenge is to create places in which people can come and see Jesus. See him as clearly as Harley Camden saw Jesus in the stained glass of Riverside Methodist Church. See him as clearly as Philip and Nathanael did on the road to Galilee. In our fractured and polarized world, we don't need more arguments about religion and politics. Instead, we need to create places in which people can have a personal encounter with Jesus.
The best way to do this is to practice Christian hospitality - to welcome people with love and grace, just as Jesus did. Jesus was famous for eating with tax collectors and sinners, embracing outcasts, and feeding hungry people without asking whether they really deserve to eat. At the end of the Gospel of John, when the disciples are trying to find their way after the resurrection, Jesus doesn't give them a lecture. Instead, he appears to them on a seashore and says, "Come and have breakfast" (21:12). Hospitality can accomplish what theological discussion and political debate cannot. It can build a diverse community and make peace between antagonistic people. Theology and politics tend to divide people, but a shared meal can unite people at the level of a basic human need - food and drink. Perhaps the clearest path to unity is through the stomach.
Unfortunately, one of the sad facts of life today is that we tend to go to church with the attitude of a guest, rather than a host. We expect our own needs to be met in church. We want to sit in our favorite seats, enjoy our favorite music, see our friends, and have food and drink with people we already know. This happens in my church. And I suspect it happens in yours as well.
But what if we shifted our attitudes and became the hosts that God wants us to be? That would mean greeting our guests at the door, offering them comfortable seats, asking what kind of music they would like, and ensuring that they have something to eat and drink. That's making church a place of real hospitality, engaging in an ancient, but often overlooked, Christian practice. When we welcome people to our tables - in the sanctuary or the social hall - we help them to come and see what Jesus has done and what Jesus is doing today.
When we have personal encounters around tables, we find that church can become a home for all. Hospitality builds relationships, and such relationships can help to unite our fractured society. Harley Camden discovers this in the book City of Peace, when he gathers his people under the black Jesus of Riverside Methodist Church. He takes a chance and practices hospitality - practices hospitality among Christians, Muslims and Jews, finding a way to heal himself and his community.
But Christian hospitality is not limited to fiction. It can be a fact - a fact in any congregation that wants to make the church a place of welcome, a space in which people gather around tables and develop relationships.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Of Occoquan? Or your town? Or mine? Yes, but only if we follow the example of Philip and invite people to come and see what Jesus is doing. When we do, we will find that Jesus is welcoming all people - including us - and offering us grace and love and peace.
Let us pray.
We thank you, Lord, for the gift of your son, Jesus. He gathered at tables with sinners and outcasts, welcoming all people with unconditional love and unlimited grace. May we practice Christian hospitality as he did and create places where people can come and see Jesus today. We pray all this in his holy name. Amen.