In the years since 9-11, we’ve heard a lot of stories; stories of heroes, stories of spouses and children left behind, stories of miraculous rescues, and survivor stories. I came across one survivor’s story this week, and I found it especially pertinent as we celebrate World Communion Sunday today:
“A young man in his twenties lived through the terror of being in the World Trade Center on the day the twin towers came down. He was on the forty-seventh floor and when the people were told to stay, his youth and his instincts told him otherwise. He ran down fort-seven flights to safety.” It would seem natural this man would be struck with a sense of survivor’s guilt—he survived when so many others that day did not. But as it turns out, that was not the struggle the young man faced in the weeks and months that followed 9-11. “So what was his problem?...It was this: he was unable to get out of his mind the scene that he left behind—people of all ages, races, genders, nationalities praying, [some] in languages he could not [even] understand, in postures of prayer with which he was unfamiliar. All were praying to one God.
“He asked his pastor, ‘What am I to make of that?...Suddenly, my God seemed embarrassingly narrow. As I was running down the stairs, I couldn’t help but think of the God who is claimed by all these people,’ he said.
“This young man had just encountered the one [family] that Jesus calls us to. He had a vision of God’s intent for humanity, a distinct expression of faith: one message, one God, one flock, one shepherd, one hope. He understood that God’s intent for humanity is that we will be one people….”
This is the essence of what we celebrate on World Communion Sunday; the fact that though we are many, though we are diverse, though we live in different countries, and speak different languages, and even pray in different ways, we are all one family, one body, one in Christ Jesus. And yet, we have difficulty comprehending this, don’t we? It’s hard to wrap our heads around this God-sized vision of a world where all humanity is one people; peaceful and united. I think, at our core, we suffer from the same problem as that young 9-11 survivor; our God is too narrow. Without even thinking about it, and with no bad intentions, in our lives God is he, God is white, God is Methodist—or at least Protestant, God is American, and the list could go on. And so we forget that God is creator of all, God is God of all—God is God of the Coptic Christians of Ethiopia; the Catholics in Rome; the Baptists down the street; men, women, and children around the world, and even Muslims and Jews. The God we love, God who is the Father of Jesus Christ, is the God of all people—all ages, and nations, and genders. On this day, we celebrate our God and his big vision. We are reminded of our union with Christians around the world, and we anticipate that day when all of humanity is united as one people, even as Christians are united now.
In his first letter to the Church at Corinth, a portion of which we heard earlier, the Apostle Paul explains to the new Christian community that more than anything else, the bread and wine shared in communion is symbolic of our unity as the family of Christ. For Paul, participation in the Lord’s Supper is the fundamental, defining act of the believing community. Like no other activity, this shared meal clearly embodies each believer’s relation to Christ and to one another with pristine clarity. At the crux of Paul’s argument is that those who sit at the Messiah’s table share in his life, the life that is the human embodiment of the one true God. Because there is one loaf, and because all believers share that one loaf, they, though many, are one body. This means that the Lord’s Supper is not, nor can it ever be, just another meal; it is not just another get-together of believers. For Paul, this meal is the definitive action that stands at the heart of the life of faith.
You all know the importance of shared meals, right? I remember evening meals with my parents and sister. The news was almost always on nearby, which I thought was boring, but which was the source of a lot of conversation. The dinner table is where we all shared about our days and listened to one another uninterrupted. It’s where I learned about current events, and politics, and appropriate table etiquette. And ever since I was just a little kid, Thanksgiving has been one of my most favorite holidays because that is when all of my family gets together, around that table, and makes so many wonderful memories; many of which involved laughing so hard we were all crying. Yet, despite the wonderful experiences so many of us have shared around the table, we have lost an appreciation for its importance in so many aspects of our lives. In Paul’s day, sharing table, dining with someone, was the primary social symbol of acceptance, of belonging, and of mutuality; a symbol which, unfortunately, has faded in the ensuing millennia. We barely even pause to eat at the same time anymore, much less share meals with family and friends.
Let me share with you for a moment some statistics that came to my attention when I was working as a Youth Minister a few years ago. For children and teens, having dinner together with parents and family is a strong predictor of academic success, psychological adjustment, and lower rates of alcohol abuse, drug use, early sexual behavior, eating disorders, and risk for suicide. And yet, polls are showing that the time families spend together around the dinner table has declined by as much as one third in recent years. Many of us probably recognize that trend in our own households; whether married or single, with families or without. We spend more time sitting in drive-thrus waiting on food to be prepared than we do in table fellowship with friends and family. College students run from one class to the next choking down a piece of pizza in the ten minute transition. We pause for fifteen minutes between the end of after-school activities and the frantic evening rush to get homework done. If these tattered shreds are all that is left of our meal-times, then what has this done to our view of Holy Communion?
Despite the centrality that Paul (and so many others) have placed on the practice of Holy Communion in the lives of believers, I don’t necessarily think we view it that way in our own lives. And Paul picked up on that as he looked at the church at Corinth. He saw that this Lord’s Supper didn’t hold any greater significance in the lives of the young Christians than the sacrifices they formerly (and in some cases even still) made at the altars of pagan gods. We might not make sacrifices at pagan altars, but I think the significance of the Lord’s Supper is often “lost on us” in other ways.
Month after month we come to the Lord’s Table and we share the bread and the juice, but what does it mean to us? John Wesley taught us that the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace, a special way by which we experience God’s grace in our lives. And yet as we receive the bread of life and the cup of forgiveness, how often do we pause, and reflect, and allow the full meaning of that to sink in, even as the juice-soaked bread fills our stomachs? Do we really experience God’s grace in a special way when we receive this meal, or do we just take it for granted, like we do with so many other things in our life? God’s grace is an amazing, powerful thing. It draws us into God’s presence even when we are not aware of it. When we call upon God with penitent hearts, it is God’s grace that forgives us and begins the process of making us new. Through the Lord’s Supper we are, in essence, taking God’s grace into us in a tangible way. Have you ever experienced Communion in that way? Do you ever walk away from this table feeling refreshed, restored, renewed?
And then about this whole unity thing. Paul teaches us that “[b]ecause there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of one loaf.” Monthly, weekly, and even daily, Christians around the world partake in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Some might use crackers, others might use wine. Some may kneel to receive the bread and juice. Some may drink the juice from the common cup, while others drink from tiny individual cups. The bread may be dipped in the juice, there may be singing, and special prayers. It may be called a sacrament, or a memorial meal, the eucharist, or a love feast. The people coming to the table may be saint or sinner, brown or black, gay or straight (Republican or Democrat), young or old, or male or female, but they are all one in Christ Jesus. We are all one in Christ Jesus; our sharing of the common loaf in this common meal, says Paul, signifies our unity in Christ above all. And that, is what World Communion Sunday is all about.
However, my friends, World Communion Sunday and the Lord’s Supper itself mean nothing if we don’t take God’s grace into the world and promote unity beyond this Table. We all know how easy it is in our modern society to divide. We know how easy it is to hate and bully, to separate ourselves and point out people as “the other.” But our time at the Lord’s Table calls us to a different way of living; a way that rises above all hatred and division, a way of peace and unity, a way of grace and love that reflects the very love of Jesus Christ himself. This shared meal, a very embodiment of Jesus’ own sacrifice, is at the essence of who we are as Christ-followers. So, as you come to receive the Lord’s Supper this morning, as we share in this meal today with Christians around the world, come ready to experience God’s grace; allow that grace to wipe away feelings of “otherness” and division, and then let that grace mold you and shape you and unite you, unite us all, as one in the body of Christ.