ONE OF THE most well-known and revered icons today is Andrei Rublev’s reflection on the Holy Trinity, painted between 1422 and 1425 in Russia. It depicts three angels seated around a table that bears a chalice. The female figures form a circle evoking deep mutuality, interconnectedness, and love between one another. But the circle is open, inviting the world into this profound experience of community. As Christine Challiot, an Eastern Orthodox laywoman, wrote, “Rublev painted the three angels with a circular motion to signify their unity and equality, ‘thus creating a unity to represent the Holy Trinity in its movement of love.’”
This profound reflection is set in the biblical context of giving hospitality to the stranger. The icon depicts the story of the hospitality offered by Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18:1-15 to three strangers. Abraham rushed to offer them hospitality—water and food.
The three migrating strangers are messengers of God. The text says simply that they were the Lord; interpreters see the three as the presence of the Trinity. And they, in turn, bring an announcement that Sarah, in her old age, will bear a son, fulfilling God’s promises. Sarah and Abraham suddenly find the tables reversed, and they are the guests at God’s table, being invited into this community of love. Thus, Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson explains, “This is a depiction of a trinitarian God capable of immense hospitality who calls the world to join the feast.”
This biblical story is a declaration of the unexpected, life-giving presence of God, discovered through providing hospitality to strangers. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that the love of strangers is declared 36 times in the Hebrew scriptures, as opposed to the love of neighbor, mentioned only once. The love of strangers and sojourners is a primary test of one’s love for God; this is linked to the presence of migrating people, with whom we can unexpectedly encounter God in fresh and promising ways that open the future to new possibilities.
This intrinsic connection between the experience of God’s love and the stance toward the “other” also resounds through the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus began his life as part of an exiled, migrant family in Egypt, echoing the experience of the people of Israel. Reaching across borders and boundaries that constricted the understanding of God’s love became a constant pattern in both the parables and the actions of Jesus.
THE INCREASE IN migration to the United States and the presence of 11.2 million people who are not legally authorized to be in the country has raised attention to the biblical, theological, and moral issues at stake for U.S. Christians and congregations. There is a long spiritual and practical distance from the trinitarian love so marvelously depicted in Rublev’s icon, manifesting the hospitality of God both given and received, and the realities facing both documented and unauthorized immigrants. That is the challenge, indeed a test of faithfulness, facing congregations in the U.S. And it is in the concrete life of congregations where these issues must be engaged.
Congregations are faced with a calling to welcome the stranger, first of all, within the society and local community. This means ministering to the stranger’s concrete physical needs, even as Abraham and Sarah did immediately to the three strangers outside their tent. Beneath this is the commitment to support refugees’ dignity and protect their security and safety in a society still filled with fear, racism, and animosity toward the strangers in its midst, often exploited by crass politicians.
Beyond this, however, is a more ecclesiologically and practically perplexing challenge: How does a congregation relate to, welcome, and extend its koinonia to those immigrants who are practicing Christians or who convert to Christianity in the midst of their sojourn? How does our belonging to one body find concrete expression in this most specific and vital part of the church—the local congregation? Recalling that the vast majority of immigrants coming to the U.S. are Christian, and more become Christian, this is an existential challenge directly affecting thousands of the estimated 350,000 congregations in the U.S.
Crucial questions come into play. How do we deal with deep cultural and social differences in the life of a local church? Further, what is the overall goal for those who are new immigrants in our midst? Isn’t the United States the great “melting pot”? Just as with Dutch, Norwegian, German, and Italian immigrants a century ago, isn’t the point to get new residents assimilated to our culture and way of life? Shouldn’t the church play a role in that process?
Of course, these questions have been hotly debated in both theological and sociological circles. They come against the backdrop of the forces of globalization, the growing multiculturalism in society, and the persistent search for identity and community, felt especially keenly by new immigrants. While we will return to these broader questions, first it’s worth asking how the church dealt with these issues when it was being established.
The early church took root within an empire exercising its own version of “global-ization” in the ancient world. Multiple cultures and languages defined the context of where Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected. Even the Jerusalem church exhibited a degree of cultural diversity. But when the gospel made that initial journey from Jerusalem to Antioch, following the vision given to Peter and his journey to Cornelius’ home, the nature of the church as a multicultural body of people became intrinsic to its understanding of God’s grace, power, and reconciling love.
The leadership of the early Pauline churches, as recorded by Luke, exhibited a consistent multicultural nature. Moreover, when the Council of Jerusalem met to resolve the major conflict around the understanding of gospel and culture, at one level its answer was clear. Greeks did not have to become Jewish to be part of the community of faith. But at a deeper level, this response constituted a “nonassimilation” policy of the early church.
As Korean theologian Chun Hoi Heo writes in Multicultural Christology: “The price of peace is not the elimination of differences. Jews and gentiles worship together in Christ while both remain Jews and gentiles. Jesus and his followers do not aim to create a generic community of cultural homogeneity, but rather to reconcile them to God and to one another by respecting both ethnic groups as mutually interdependent. We are entrusted with that ministry of reconciliation.”
THE PICTURE OF the New Testament church as a reconciled and reconciling community is compelling and clear. It is in stark contrast to the reality of most congregations in the U.S. As author Soong-Chan Rah points out, “less than 6 percent of American churches are multiethnic.” This uses a generous definition of at least 20 percent of the congregation being from one racial-ethnic background and 80 percent from another.
The vast majority of U.S. congregations begin from a homogeneous starting point that regards the New Testament vision of a reconciled, multiracial community as a distant, unrealistic dream. But the ongoing patterns of migration to the U.S., with the growing racial and ethnic diversity in our society, threaten to turn the present reality of U.S. congregations into an ethical and theological nightmare. How long can children attend schools where 25 different languages are present, and then go to churches where there is one, or maybe two, without eventually concluding that the words and stories they hear don’t seem true to what they experience?
The trends that will increase the flow of new strangers and aliens to our land mean that our society is being fundamentally transformed. In coming years there will be no racial majority in the U.S. In many locations, that’s already true.
Will congregations be capable of the transformation that is essential for them to be signs of the hospitality, justice, mutuality, and reconciliation that reflect God’s intention and love? Moreover, will congregations become the local laboratories of ecclesiology that demonstrate how the entrenched divisions in world Christianity can find expressions of that unity, which is both a gift and an obligation?
We’re taken back to Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity. The Russian Orthodox Archpriest Vladimir Borozdinov reflected theologically on this icon in an article some years ago. Explaining how the nature and functioning of the Trinity are portrayed in the icon, he said: “Every Person of the Holy Trinity, living by their mutual Holy Love, strives towards their unity and perfect proximity, trying to be as close as possible One to the Other and devote Oneself to the Other as fully as possible, offering the Other complete freedom of action.”
This is a moving description of how the trinitarian love of God flows between each person in full mutuality, responsiveness, interdependence, and equality.
This same love also reaches out in generous hospitality to the world. The circle is open in the icon, even as the circle is to be open when that love fills the body of Christ. The profound mutuality and equality necessary at the foundation of a multiracial congregation are derived from the trinitarian love of God. The qualities describing how the persons of the Trinity are interacting with one another in Rublev’s icon provide the inspiring description of how those brought into the circle of the trinitarian love are to respond to one another in a worshiping community filled with the gifts of God-given diversity.
Welcoming the stranger into the life and love of a congregation, an action so indispensable for discovering anew the unity of the body, is nothing more, or less, than participating in the love of the Trinity.
Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, former general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, is vice-chair of Sojourners’ board. This article is adapted with permission from From Times Square to Timbuktu: A Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church (©2013, Wm. B. Eerdmans, all rights reserved).