A walk down Errol Street near home on any afternoon allows me not only to greet many friends along the way, but to encounter a parade of strangers. So many unknown faces pass by – people with whom I share a precinct, but whose names and lives are alien to me. I realise that a large part of life in the 21st century is lived amongst strangers, as we pass hundreds of faces each day which we have learned to tune out: bodies without identities. We have neither the time nor the energy (nor the inclination) to make connections with every one of these people, who would mostly regard any attempts to do so as an irksome interruption to their plans. Aside from what would be received as an invasion of personal space, a simple five minute chore would require hours to engage with everyone I encountered along the way.
As I read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection I am struck by how often he is first encountered as a stranger: from his appearance as a gardener at the empty tomb, through his encounter on the Emmaus Road with his disciples, and on the beach cooking breakfast for the twelve, Jesus is initially not recognised. Those who had devoted years of their lives to following him were unable to recognise him at first encounter. Two disciples are recorded as considering Jesus to appear somewhat uninformed about events of the time. Though set alight by his conversation, they are unaware of whom they entertain along the journey. Why does the resurrected Jesus take on the appearance of a stranger?
The notion of the stranger is an important idea for understanding God. The Hebrew Bible contains dozens of injunctions to remind the Jews to care for the strangers and aliens amongst them. In Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, he identifies himself as a stranger whom people minister to unknowingly. “When did we see you thirsty and give you a drink?” they ask. Those who profess to know him intimately still confess their failure to recognise his presence. The New Testament writer to the Hebrews instructs readers: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Central to the Christian understanding is that God often appears as the stranger –beyond our frameworks of understanding, always greater than we conceive God to be. To embrace the stranger is to admit that there is always aspects of God’s character which appear foreign to us, and into which we must grow, and to embrace that ‘otherness’.
I have learned to survive in this busy and dense city by closing myself off from the strangers around me. But I am given pause to question whether, in doing so, I am denying something essential to my own humanity (and perhaps that of others) And as a consequence, could I possibly be cutting myself off from God – who often appears as a stranger?
July 17, 2009
NB: this reflection was published in the Sunday Age on July 5, 2009
Rev Gary Heard is pastor of The Eighth Day, a Baptist Community in West Melbourne.