We encounter Jesus when we welcome strangers.
Tears flow freely this week. Fatback died a few days ago. Liver failure. Caroline gathers us into a circle around the plastic folding table. Hand in hand—some more filthy than others.
Heads bowed and eyes closed. “Heavenly Father,” she prays, “your people are hurting.” She finishes with the Lord’s Prayer, and we all join in: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread.” Since I’m new to this circle, I follow the lead of the guy whose hand I just held. Sparky piles spaghetti on his plate and grabs a roll. This week a Presbyterian church provides our daily bread. As we sit around the table, I overhear bits and pieces of conversations: a broken rib, a robbery, chiggers, harassment from Chapel Hill police, Bulldog in the hospital, no more food stamps, hitching a ride to Montana. Noise from the speeding cars drowns out the words in between.
Every Wednesday at noon, Communion happens on the service road next to highway 15/501 between Durham and Chapel Hill, N.C. A few people drive up in cars as I did; the rest wander out from the forests, where they live in tents. They call this time of fellowship “the open table.” Sparky, one of the regulars, calls it “God’s little flock.”
Sparky, Caroline and the others let me stop by and eat at their table. Every meal is an education. They’ve taken away my grand solutions for homelessness and instead have given me their names and faces and stories. Now when I sit at church on Sundays, my mind conjures up their faces, and I notice their absence. The people who gather at Wednesday’s Open Table haunt my celebration of Sunday’s Lord’s Table.
As I travel between these two tables, I can’t help but ask, What does our worship of Jesus Christ in all his glory have to do with the humiliated and shamed? This tension runs through the heart of the Epistle to the Hebrews. When I turn to those pages of Scripture, my images of glory and humiliation are confounded and flow into one another. Hebrews offers a description of Jesus that entangles glory and humiliation into a single knot that cannot be undone: Jesus is humiliated glory, glorified humiliation. Chapter 2 sets us on a wandering path to the face of Christ: “We do see Jesus,” the author says in verse 9. When we see him at the end of Hebrews, we find ourselves at the edge of town among the humiliated: “Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured” (13:13).
The text speaks of the crucified Jesus in the present tense: “Let us then go to him.” Are we to believe that Jesus is there right now, as we sit and read these words? Is Christ among those who share his suffering and disgrace and abuse? The lead singer for U2 offered a stunning answer to these questions. In February 2006, Bono preached a sermon to president George W. Bush and his friends. His words reverberate with the thought of Hebrews: “God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.”
When Hebrews tells us to fix our eyes and center our lives on Jesus, we are destabilized. As we follow after Jesus, we give up control of our direction. We begin to lose ourselves in the wastelands, like those places Bono describes. The lure of Christ’s gracious presence invites us onto a wandering path of discipleship that leads into forgotten places—the margins of highways and the wilderness of slums. As the title of Ernst Käsemann’s landmark book on Hebrews puts it, we become The Wandering People of God. We are nomads who set up our tents where others don’t want to live. We wander into relationships where we share burdens and hope to encounter the living presence of Jesus among the disfigured, disordered and disheveled. “Can we see Jesus?” The answer depends on where we go and with whom we await Christ’s presence.
The nomadic vision of Hebrews adds a critical edge to our talk about mission. Certain kinds of missional spirituality turn Jesus into a possession, a thing we can own. We can put him in our pocket or tuck him away in our hearts for safekeeping. We treat Jesus as a deposit in our spiritual bank accounts, a fund we can draw from later, when we need it, and lend to others if we feel generous.
Descriptions of the missional church fall into the same temptation. We talk as if we own Jesus: since we have God’s presence, we must transform our churches into missional communities that share what we already possess. Thus giving only goes in one direction: Jesus is ours to give away. We own the patent on God’s presence; the church owns the exclusive rights of Jesus.
But Phil Kniss, pastor of Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg Va., describes a different missional encounter, one that resonates with Hebrews. In a sermon on Feb. 4, 2007, Kniss said that a missional church wanders into the world and “asks what God is up to around here.” Through wandering, this church “lets go of itself,” surrenders agenda and strategies and cultivates virtues of receptivity. This is a church that “listens and looks” because “the reign of God is trying to be born somewhere.” Therefore “we go [into the world] as willing to receive as to give.”
Kniss envisions a missional church that is “as willing to receive as to give.” Hospitality is the name of this posture. We are nomads with open hands, ready to receive someone else’s lead because with her hand comes Christ’s body. We wander beyond the walls of our community because Jesus is there, calling out to us, awaiting reception. That’s why the author of Hebrews closes by telling the church to welcome the stranger: “Do not neglect caring for strangers, for through this some have cared for messengers without knowing” (13:2).
With this verse the author of Hebrews reminds us of the story of Abraham and Sarah. They show hospitality to three messengers who turn out to be the Lord: “The Lord appeared to Abraham … as he sat at the entrance of his tent … Abraham looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent to meet them and bowed down to the ground” (Genesis 18:1-2). Strangers turn out to be the Lord. Who would expect God to show up as a few homeless travelers?
We are far too comfortable with a fleshless Jesus. We suffer from Gnostic sensibilities that deceive us into thinking we can separate spirits from bodies. But Genesis 18 tells us that our God appeared as three strangers—real people, flesh and blood. Sure, welcoming strangers may be a form of generosity. Yet the author of Hebrews shows how hospitality is also our way of receiving God’s presence—some have welcomed God without knowing it. The messenger of God, the Lord, comes to us through strangers and foreigners. They are God’s missions to save us from ourselves. Will we serve them as Abraham and Sarah shared a meal with the Lord? Can we consider how foreigners may be God in our midst, divine messengers who bring the word from God?
With Hebrews as our wilderness guide, our churches will become missional when we learn to welcome strangers, prisoners and the mistreated as agents of God’s call. Our task is to open ourselves to receive what they can give: their very presence, which may turn out to be our Lord. In his forthcoming book To See History Doxologically, Alex Sider of Bluffton (Ohio) University puts it this way: “For the author of Hebrews, [the gospel] is continually given as an ecstatic mission that takes the shape of mutual love and hospitality.” We wander into the good news of Christ’s presence when our mission of love takes us into unfamiliar places where we can share a stranger’s burdens. Mutual love and hospitality is how we receive Jesus into our lives.
The gospel is an ecstatic mission, writes Sider, where we give and receive the good news as God guides us into relationships where we share burdens and learn to love one another. Discipleship is our unceasing struggle to welcome the good news of God’s love for the world into our lives. Thus discipleship is also hospitality; it is how we make room in our lives for Christ’s redemption. And according to Hebrews, we make room for Jesus when we welcome suffering strangers and wandering foreigners. They are the messengers of God for our redemption. They have much to give if we are willing to receive the gifts of their presence. Will we receive them as God’s mission to save us from ourselves?
If our American churches want a future, we need to wander into the places everyone else abandons. That’s where we belong—on the margins. Our people are the ones who look like Jesus, suffering in cardboard boxes, under the rubble of war, among the debris. Our people are the ones everyone else has cast out, the unclean, the abandoned, the strange.
“Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (13:13-14). Hebrews tells us that home is elsewhere. I join the strangers on Wednesday during my lunch hour because I’m homeless, too, or at least I need to learn what it means to be homeless. They are my teachers; I am a disciple with much to learn, much to receive. Hebrews tells me that Jesus is out there on the side of the road. I can’t say that I recognize him. That’s why I’ll go again. Maybe it takes time to see such mysteries.
For now I’ll let a question guide me as I wander: If I pray “thy kingdom come” with them every week, will I discover that the coming kingdom is already at hand? For the kingdom happens at the table when we break bread and bear each other’s burdens. And if that’s the case, this kingdom is not something I possess. It’s not a kingdom I can build if I work hard enough. Rather, it’s an episodic kingdom that happens whether I’m there or not. I can receive it only if I return to their foldup table next week and take my seat and patiently await another advent of God’s presence.
“But we do see Jesus.” Maybe he will come when I sit and pray and eat on the margins of highway 15/501. Hopefully I’ll recognize him this time. All I can do is hope.
Isaac Villegas is pastor of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship.