Jesus of No Fixed Address
By Neil A. Ellis
A community church that neglects the homeless isn’t serving its community.
The church was busy today. People crowded around, waiting for their turn to enter. The line was orderly and had grown longer of late. It was good that the church could meet the demand, though it spoke of a lack of alternatives. George made his way down to the basement and sat down at a crowded table. A voice called out from the kitchen, “George, are you having soup today?”
With a nod of his head and a smile, George provided his reply.
A similar scene plays out in countless church basements every day. The soup kitchen is a staple of community outreach. Serving the homeless and hungry, those struggling to make ends meet because of precarious employment and a host of other reasons, and those in need of a community to belong to. It is a necessary service that many rely upon because of a lack of appropriate social supports. The disparity between the class and privilege of those serving and those being served is also on display.
Jesus, as we find him in Scripture, is often the one serving. Whether it’s a meal as we find with the story of the loaves and fishes, breaking bread with the disciples, or tending to the needs of the crowds that gathered in his presence. The model of the soup kitchen fits and therefore has a scriptural basis. However, Jesus was also the guest for many meals. From the wedding in Cana to the meal at the Pharisee’s home, and we can’t forget about the various, more-intimate meals, such as those with Jairus, Mary, and Martha.
When we relate with the other—and see God in their presence—barriers are broken down. Gone are the divisions of served and server. Instead, we discover a community that is rooted in God’s love. Concepts of service are important but become secondary to the relationships that are formed. Those who need the meal can offer something back to the community, so strengthening the relationship of everyone involved.
In the book of Acts, Luke tells us the disciples shared a common purse and the early Christian community gathered in one place, sharing everything they had (Acts 2:44; 4:42). Too often our models of service highlight giving or doing something for others, rather than genuine efforts to walk with the other—sharing directly in their story and experience.
The police cruiser pulled up alongside the park bench. A resident had called in someone sleeping on the bench, a nuisance call that had become all too frequent. The officer got out and discovered Shawna sleeping on the bench again. Normally, the officer would ask her to “move along,” hoping that a second call wouldn’t come in. However, a local church had opened a temporary warming room providing a better alternative.
The officer laughed to herself as she helped Shawna into the cruiser. Last night a similar call had come in, only this time it was for the sculpture in the church yard. Someone had mistaken the sculpture of a homeless Jesus for a person and had called it in!
We walk past the homes of the homeless daily: the park bench, the bus shelter, the bank lobby. Each of these serves as a shelter for those who have no other options. Whether through poor choices or unfortunate circumstances, far too many people find themselves without adequate shelter. Scripture provides a sense of where Jesus and the disciples lived, Nazareth and Capernaum. However, for much of his ministry, Jesus was travelling, perhaps staying at inns or as the guest of others. We might view it as the ancient-day equivalent to couch surfing.
Jesus was an itinerant preacher. At no point, while an adult, do we ever have reference to Jesus’ home. Couple this with Matthew’s account of the holy family fleeing to Egypt for fear of political persecution. The resulting description is that Jesus was a homeless refugee. Jesus of Nazareth might as well have been known as “Jesus of no fixed address.”
The concept of home is ingrained in our psyche. We all want that place to return to and put our feet up. We say, “Home is where the heart is,” but for many that’s an empty expression. The ministry of Jesus demonstrates that he was reliant on the generosity of strangers. We like to have a noble image of Jesus and his disciples travelling the countryside, preaching the good news. However, without the help of strangers and benefactors, Jesus would appear closer to a transient, homeless individual.
I have often wondered if we would recognize Jesus if he joined us for worship on a Sunday morning. I wonder if Jesus would recognize the God we professed to worship? Much of his teaching was about the rule of grace versus the rule of law. The story of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-41) reminds us that Jesus was interested in what people did when he wasn’t around.
The adage about integrity goes, integrity is what you do when no one is watching. Jesus reminds us that what we “do for the least of these, you did for me” (Matt 25:40). Churches are good at looking after their members, taking care of the church family. However, as followers of Christ, we are called to care at a deeper level—and for more than those who profess the same as we do.
As followers of Christ, we are less a family and more of a community. A community that extends past the front doors of the building where we worship and into the hearts of those who live in our neighborhoods. Both those who are housed and those who are not.
If God called creation “very good” (Gen 1:31), and if God wants goodness for humanity, then part of the call on the follower of Christ’s life is to bring that goodness into being for all people. An important first step is acts of service. Taking this deeper is to transform acts of service into intentional, deliberate community.
Jesus was relational with everyone that he met. Taking time to learn their stories and, as a result, their hopes and dreams. We are invited to be in relationship with God, enjoying and caring for the whole creation that was called “very good.” That same invitation creates the opportunity to walk in harmony with all God’s people. To see those who live on the margins as God’s children, loved and beloved, worthy of our care, compassion, and inclusion in God’s community.
Jesus encourages us to invite those on the margins inside. Jesus constantly advocated and supported the marginalized within society. He pushed against the status quo, inviting change into people’s hearts. He showed that faith in God based only on following rules and laws but neglecting the human condition wasn’t in line with God’s abiding love.
Question: How would inviting the homeless into your church change the community of faith?
Neil A Ellis is Minister of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Cobourg, Ontario. He earned his M.Div. from Knox College, University of Toronto. Ellis advocates on housing and homelessness issues. He enjoys time in the gym and on the rugby pitch.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.