Love one another: The Feast of Absalom Jones

February 13, The Feast of Absalom Jones: Isaiah 42:5-9; Psalm 126; John 15:12-15

Though generally this would be the sixth Sunday of Epiphany, we have observed the Feast of Absalom Jones. For those who have not encountered him before, Rev. Absalom Jones (1746-1818) was born enslaved in Delaware. His family was separated by a sale, and at 16 he moved to Philadelphia. He first purchased his wife’s freedom, then then his own in 1784. After he was free, became a lay leader in the Methodist church in Philadelphia. When that church decided to segregate its seating, requiring Black people to sit in the balcony, so the Black members left. Jones, along with Richard Allen led the group which established first the Free African Society, a mutual aid group, and then in 1791, the African Church. The African Church became St. Thomas African Church in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania in 1794. Jones was ordained Deacon in 1795 and priest in 1804, becoming the first Black priest in the Episcopal Church.

Absalom-Jones Peale.jpg
Absalom Jones, by Raphaelle  Peale, Delaware Museum of Art (public domain)

There are many issues, social, political, and theological, that Jones’ life, and the readings for today raise. For instance, the Methodist church only separated Black and white members when the number of Black members had rapidly increased. Modern research that shows that a dominant group, whether white people, or men, or any other dominant group, tends to feel that they are outnumbered once a non-dominant group makes up about 30% of the group. In other words, long before a group is a minority, they are concerned about losing status. Do we do that? How do we respond to demographic change?

If the fear of the Methodists which led them to isolate Black people in the balcony reminds those of us who are white to watch our own responses to demographic change, the community around Absalom Jones which formed the African Church provides other lessons. They experienced discrimination together, and they stayed together. Today’s reading from John exhorts the disciples to “love one another as I have loved you”. And this is what Jones and his friends did. As the Free African Society, they functioned as a mutual aid group: they played an important role in helping their fellow Philadelphians through the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. But they also sought to worship together, and they sought to worship as part of a larger group. They built and sought community.

For Absalom Jones, one of the most important elements of loving his community was his advocacy for freedom. In 1797 and 1800 he petitioned Congress for the abolition of the slave trade and the emancipation of slaves, a petition that Congress would not even accept. He regularly preached against slavery. His Thanksgiving Sermon, preached on January 1, 1808, celebrated the end of the legal importation of enslaved people to the US. He preached on a text from Exodus, emphasizing the connection of enslaved people in the US to the experience of the Israelites in the Bible.

And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by  reason of their task-masters; for I know their sorrows; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians.

In his sermon, Jones insisted that God was on the side of the oppressed: “The history of the world shows us, that the deliverance of the children of Israel from their bondage, is not the only instance, in which it has pleased God to appear in behalf of oppressed and distressed nations, as the deliverer of the innocent, and of those who call upon his name.”

How do we ensure that we join God on the side of the oppressed and innocent? I generally hope that, in spite of Jesus’ commandment, we don’t have to die for each other. We do have to love one another. When we live in community, we make decisions in relation to each other and each other’s needs. As Jones and the other members of the Free African Society showed in Philadelphia in 1793, that is the whole community, not just your friends. We are called to pay attention, listen, and then act.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *