On the eve of the first Easter, two travel companions are joined by an inquisitive stranger. Amid the short pilgrimage, the outsider asks to hear news from Jerusalem, so they respond: “are you the only stranger who doesn’t know the things that have happened here?”

“What things?” he persists – and the familiar story of the Emmaus encounter unfolds.

“Are you the only stranger?” Somewhat hidden in this very natural response of the companions is a vision of the local church. The Greek word that St. Luke uses for ‘stranger’ is paroikeis, which happens to be the stem for our English word, parish. In Graeco-Roman society, paroikia described the community of people either living physically beyond the city boundaries or as non-citizens within the walls. They were the resident aliens who lived nearby but didn’t belong.  It is therefore of no small significance that the early church appropriated and transformed this term. The Church was to be understood as the fellowship of strangers, the community of resident aliens, who had found their place with Jesus and with one another.

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Rowan LeCompte (American, 1925–2014) and Irene Matz LeCompte (American, 1926–1970), Third Station of the Resurrection: The Walk to Emmaus (detail), 1970. Mosaic, Resurrection Chapel, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

The contemporary significance for our life as the church is hard to miss. Our parish and every parish exists to be the kind of fellowship and community where strangeness is something of a requirement. Now, there is strange and there is “strange”, one defined by our status and location to culturally-maintained signifiers such as power and wealth, and the other simply a way of being weird in the world. The church gathered by and with Jesus does not make much of this distinction. In that our source of unity is the beloved Son in whom we have wholeness and life, we shouldn’t be too surprised that we attract characters of all kinds.

An additional significance to being the paroikia is how it relies on a sense of place. There is, if you will, a theological geography at work when we consider what it means to a Christian community in this place with these buildings and in this time. Christ Church is literally in the center of Alexandria, which means that the gospel imperative to be with those outside both city and citizenship might run up against our particular location. As we know, however, we are made strange through how resident and non-resident are welcomed, nourished, and are made members with us through the myriad of outreach and mission ministries. We have a place and we are committed to providing space, two critical components to living into the hospitality we experience in being one body in Christ.

I like to think that our life as a parish is expressed in the term, common ground. We may be strangers (and simply strange), but we occupy a place – ground - that is common to us because it is defined, maintained, and secured by Jesus, who as both stranger and friend places no exceptions on who can find rest and life with him.

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