Commemoration of Absalom Jones
February 13, 2014
All Saints Chapel
Church Divinity School of the Pacific
In commemorating Absalom Jones, the first black priest in the Episcopal Church, I want to offer three snapshots from his life.
The first snapshot:
It is the year 1787 in Philadelphia, a few short years after the United States of America has been founded on the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
On a Sunday morning at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, a mixed congregation of whites and free blacks gather for worship.
Tensions have been on the rise at St. George’s.
Two freed blacks serving as lay ministers, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, have been actively drawing other free blacks to the church.
With some many blacks joining services and freely mixing with whites, the all white vestry unilaterally rules that all blacks were to be seated only in the balcony.
The free mixing of blacks and whites was a disruption to the perceived order of things.
Absalom Jones and others refused to abide by this act of segregation.
Instead, they knelt in prayer in their usual places, only to be picked up and physically thrown out of St. George’s.
The white leadership of St. George’s was not willing to accept the new life that the blacks of the church represented.
The second snapshot:
In 1793, an epidemic of yellow fever struck Philadelphia, killing almost 4000 people.
As tens of thousands of people fled the city, Allen and Jones led the free black community in ministering to the many sick people left behind.
The black community, laboring out of the conviction that they had a Christian duty to aid the suffering, set to nursing the sick, attending the dead, and ensuring a proper burial.
240 members of the free black community died in this service.
When the yellow fever epidemic ended and many of the white Philadelphia community returned, the black community that had worked on behalf of the sick under Jones’s leadership were wrongfully accused of exploiting the sick and robbing their houses.
Against these false attacks, Jones tried to defend his community, but it was clear that many of the leading whites in Philadelphia regarded them with enmity.
The third snapshot:
In 1794, free blacks established St. Thomas’s African Church with permission to have control over its own affairs and with Jones as its leader.
In 1795 Jones was ordained a deacon by Bishop William White, but he was not made the first African American priest in the Episcopal Church until nine years later in 1804.
Even though St. Thomas was part of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, Bishop White only permitted this if the parish did not send representatives to diocesan conventions.
Blacks could be part of the church, but they were not permitted full life within it.
These stories of Absalom Jones and the black community of Philadelphia are emblematic of the difficult circumstances of African Americans throughout American history.
Several things strike me about these stories.
First, is the persistent fact of racism,not just in United States history generally, but as part of woof and warp of American Christianity.
Second, Absalom Jones never abandons a vision of a life lived in harmony between the freed blacks and the white citizens of Philadelphia.
And finally, what was most evident in these events was the lack of reconciliation between these groups, a burden that must be born by the white Philadelphians.
Reconciliation is one of the greatest human needs.
To be reconciled is to live in harmony, peace, and justice with others.
It is the opposite of discrimination, oppression, rivalry, and enmity.
Reconciliation is at the core of the message of Jesus — it is what logically follows from a life lived as an expression of God’s love made known in Christ.
We hear this in the Gospel reading:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” [John 15:12]
Given that in overwhelming numbers those living in the early American republic were Christian, it would be safe to assume that the majority of white Philadelphians were also Christian.
All followers of Jesus Christ are commanded to love one another as Christ loves them.
This love is to be total and self-giving — “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” [John 15:13]
That total self-giving love is evident in the work of the free blacks led by Absalom Jones, who died serving others during the yellow fever epidemic.
They showed that they were the friends of Jesus by doing what he commanded them — to love other Christians completely. [John 15:14]
Jesus desires all his followers to be joined together as friends.
We are not servants of Christ, but his friends, because by his words God has been revealed to us. [John 15:14-15]
And so if we are all friends of Christ, we are certainly not to make one another servants to exploit and abuse.
The white Christian of Philadelphia missed out on a moment of great possibility when they chose to treat Absalom Jones, Richard Allen and the other free blacks as less than friends.
Certainly there were signs of God’s grace at work — Absalom Jones was ordained the first black priest in the Episcopal Church, St. Thomas church still flourishes today as a vital parish, and a precedent was set for the eventual full inclusion of all people in the ministry of the church.
But what could have happened if whites had treated blacks as friends?
In pondering this, I would offer that Jesus’ vision of friendship speaks to his larger desire that all of his followers be made one as he and the Father are one [John 17:21].
In order for friendship and unity to be real among groups that are divided there is a need for reconciliation.
In Absalom Jones’s time, what would reconciliation leading to Christian friendship and unity have looked like?
I imagine it would have started with a fully integrated church at St. George’s.
No one would have been thrown out in the streets for sitting in the wrong place.
There would have been no need for a separate St. Thomas church.
Going deeper, white Philadelphians would have recognized their racism and prejudice for what it was.
Bishop White would have given black Episcopalians full privileges in the diocese.
Others would not have accused blacks falsely during the yellow fever epidemic.
Perhaps, there would have been common cause made to deal with the terrible American sin of slavery and racism then and not let the problem fester for decades and centuries.
So, if we can take the words of Jesus about friendship and apply it to Philadelphia during the time of Absalom Jones, what would it mean for us to apply these same words in this time and place?
How could this church today better serve Christ’s vision of love and unity today?
Where are the divisions in it which must cease?
One of the bedrock teachings about the sacrament of the Eucharist is that before Christians take part in Christ’s body and blood, they should be reconciled to one another.
This is what Paul means when he warns the Corinthians about the divisions that exist among themselves (I Cor. 11:18ff).
And Paul cares about arguments regarding the observance of the Law in the passage we heard from Galatians not because he rejects the Law but he rejects the human use of the Law to divide people against each other.
So, as people of Christ, as a church, as those gathered to receive communion, be reconciled.
Look within yourself — what people or groups do you refuse to be reconciled with?
Who is it that you cannot stand that Christ calls you to love?
Who is it that you cannot even stand to call a Christian that you must love and be reconciled to?
Work to overcome the divisions that separate you from other Christians because until you do that, God’s will for us cannot be fulfilled.
Find ways for the love of Christ to transform your relationship with others.
May the one who calls us friends bind us all together in friendship as Absalom Jones sought to be a friend to all in Christ.