"They Need Not Go Away" Ephesians 2:12-22 and Matthew 14:13-21
“It was in the time of the old revolutionary war between Great Britain and the United States… I was a Methodist. I was indebted to the Methodists, under God, for what little religion I had; being convinced that they were the people of God, …I could not be any thing else but a Methodist, as I was born and awakened under them.” These are the words of Rev. Richard Allen, born a slave in Philadelphia in 1760.
The Methodists were responsible for his spiritual and literal freedom. When he converted to Christianity at the age of 17, “The prevailing myth of the day was that Christianity made slaves useless….” But Allen began working so hard “that his owner was convinced that Christianity made slaves better, not worse… [And so his owner] converted and joined the Methodist Society…”
The strong anti-slavery stance preached by early Methodists pressured Allen’s owner to make him a deal. So for 2,000 Continental Dollars, Richard Allen bought his freedom, hard won through “hauling salt for the American Army during the [Revolution].”
Once free, Rev. Allen began preaching every day “at 5 o'clock in the morning and [again at 5 pm].” He wrote, “it was not uncommon for me to preach from four to five times a day.” As a result, the African American members of the Methodist society in Philadelphia grew and grew.
The Methodists, black and white, gave generously “towards finishing [their shared] Church, in building the gallery and laying new floors” to fit all of the people moved by the Holy Spirit to live methodically—as Methodist people of faith.
As the new building was finished, this is what happened in the words of Rev. Richard Allen: “A number of us usually attended St. George's Church…; and when the coloured people began to get numerous in attending the church, they moved us from the seats we usually sat on, and placed us around the wall… [One] Sabbath morning we went to church and the sexton stood at the door, and told us to go in the gallery. He told us to go, and we would see where to sit. We expected to take the seats over the ones we formerly occupied below, not knowing any better. We took those seats…. Just as we got to the seats, the elder said, ‘let us pray.’
“We had not been long upon our knees before I heard considerable scuffling and low talking. I raised my head up and saw one of the trustees… having hold of the Rev. Absalom Jones, pulling him up off of his knees, and saying, ‘You must get up--you must not kneel here.’
“[Rev.] Jones replied, "Wait until prayer is over." [The trustee] said, ‘No, you must get up now, or I will call for aid and force you away.’
“[Rev.] Jones said, "Wait until prayer is over, and I will get up and trouble you no more." With that [the first trustee] beckoned to one of the other trustees… to come to his assistance. [Together they pulled] him up.
“By this time prayer was over, and we all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued with us in the church. “
This group was turned out of the church that they had helped to build both financially and spiritually through inviting others to experience God’s love. When they persisted in raising money to build a new gathering place that welcomed all people, the Methodist church officials pursued them time and again. This is how Richard Allen describes it: “He wished us well… He was a friend to us… [He] used many arguments to convince us that we were wrong in building a church. We told him we had no place of worship; …we did not mean to go to St. George's church any more, as we were so scandalously treated in the presence of all the congregation…; "and if you deny us your name, you cannot seal up the scriptures from us, and deny us a name in heaven. We believe heaven is free for all who worship in spirit and truth." …[The Methodist leaders] replied, "we will disown you all from the Methodist connexion."… [And indeed] We bore much persecution from many of the Methodist connexion.”
In Baltimore, an almost identical events occurred. In Wilmington: the same. In New Jersey: the same. Up and down the eastern seaboard, wherever the spirit of God moved, people who experienced the freedom of Christ—the healing, the abundance, the power of Christ—began to expect that same life not just individually but as a community. Salvation cannot be just for individuals but for everyone together.
This led, eventually, to the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.
I was talking about this with our new minister of young adult and cross-cultural outreach, Rev. Dr. William L. Johnson III. Rev. Bill is ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) denomination. Rev. Bill shared with me that the AMEZ has the same stories as in the AME – having to make room for white congregants who were late for worship, being forced to sit in the crow's nest. The people who formed the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church held out longer than Richard Allen’s group did in Philadelphia. They deeply wanted to stay in the Methodist Episcopal Church and wrestled with the entire concept of a church split. But ultimately, the decision was the same. Theologically, the split was justified on the grounds that the Holy Spirit had left the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Today Rev. Bill will preside over our communion table. I’m excited that we will share in the AMEZ liturgy, which closely preserves the Communion rite used by early Methodists.
This is possible because the 2012 General Conferences of the United Methodist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the AME Zion Church, and other historically Black Methodist denominations officially entered into full communion agreements. It only took 225 years for us to recognize each other’s ministers and discipline and ordination and sacraments… 225 years from time when church ushers tossed people out during prayer for us to pray the holy prayer of unity and thanksgiving which is communion, together.
“Full communion” does not mean a reunification of the divided denominations. “Full communion” does not mean an end to racism in the church or in the world.
Full communion does mean that we will act out our communion faith. At the end of every communion prayer—in churches of every race, language, and ethnicity—we pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
In Christ, we know exactly what God’s kingdom is like: “We are no longer strangers and aliens, but members of God (Ephesians 2:19, adapted).” “In Christ’s body, Christ has made both groups into one. Jesus has created in his body—the Body of Christ—one new humanity, thus making peace (Ephesians 2:14-15, adapted).”
And don’t we need peace in our world? No one should die in police custody, whether by suicide or neglect or foul play. Police and military members and their families should not have to mourn their dead in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Strip malls and recruiting stations should be gun free. If Christ is our peace—if we are one body—then we can and must find solutions to the violence so that every life is honored and valued. “In Christ we are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God-- a holy temple in the Lord (Ephesians 2:21-22, adapted).”
Together as the Body of Christ, we have all the resources we need. God has given us five loaves and two fish and promises that these resources will multiply rather than divide as we kneel in prayer and serve side by side in God’s beloved community.
The disciples worried about resources and crowds. They didn’t see that all could feast together. But when they said to Jesus, “Send the crowds away. Send them to buy food for themselves!” Jesus had a clear response: “They need not go away!”
There is food enough for everybody. There is room at Christ’s table for everyone born. Communion unites us with Christ and with each other. Communion gives us the vision for the feast that is coming—the feast for 5000, for 10,000—for all the people of earth, for every nation, tribe, and tongue, for angels, and archangels and all the company of heaven. Thanks be to God! Amen!
This sermon was originally preached on July 19, 2015, by Rev. Diane Kenaston.
Allen, Richard (1760-1831). The Life, Experience, and Gospel Labours of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen. To Which is Annexed the Rise and Progress of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States of America. Containing a Narrative of the Yellow Fever in the Year of Our Lord 1793: With an Address to the People of Colour in the United States. (Philadelphia: Martin & Boden, Printers, 1833). This electronic edition has been transcribed from a photocopy supplied by the Library Company of Philadelphia: http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/allen/allen.html
Anonymous. “Upon this rock... A Brief History of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.” http://www.motherbethel.org/content.php?cid=112
Norwood, Frederick A. The Story of American Methodism. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1974). pp170-171