(A “Communion Meditation” for today, May 6, 2012 – the 5th Sunday of Easter, based on John 17:20-26)
One of the more memorable experiences I’ve had as a pastor was attending a “National Pastor’s Conference,” a few years ago in San Diego, California – a wonderful week of workshops and speakers, with tons of resources; but best of all, the unique opportunity for Lisa and me to share the company of some 700 other clergy and clergy spouses from all over the country.
What was amazing was that not only was this of the most diverse group of ministers I’d ever been part of, it was maybe the most diverse group of Christians with whom I’ve ever been gathered – the people at that conference cut across the whole denominational spectrum, from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal and all points in-between; with enthusiastic young pastors fresh out of seminary sitting next to grey-haired veterans of the cross savoring retirement. There were those who clearly had a very traditional view of what a “minister” ought to look and sound like, with clerical collars, big crosses around the neck, always with that studied, erudite way about them. And then there were those, well, let’s just say how they looked and sounded was not a priority!
One day I’m at a preaching seminar, and this young guy sits down in front of me – and friends, he is the quintessential California surfer: dressed in shorts, t-shirt and sandals, hair fixed in dreads, with tattoos and earrings in a multitude of places; carrying a well-worn skateboard under one arm, and an equally worn backpack over the other – and I swear to you, he actually greeted me by saying, “Dude!” And I’m thinking, “Who is this guy and what’s he doing here?” Turned out he was the youth pastor of a busy and influential church up near Malibu – he also turned out to be pretty articulate, too; so much for the cliché!
So many different kinds of people, so many different points of view – to be honest, it was all a little overwhelming!
But on the last day of the conference I began to understand, at a closing worship service which was capped by the sharing of communion. Now, for the most part, this was a service not too far removed from what we would do here – there was broken bread and a shared cup, prayers and the traditional words of institution, and lots of singing. But then we were asked to break up into groups of ten or twelve to have communion with each other; which, in and of itself, was very meaningful.
At some point during this experience I looked up to see what was happening around me in this huge convention hall that had become a sanctuary – and realized here were 700 Christians, all worshiping together in one place, each one “doing” communion pretty much their own way: some keeping to a traditional form of worship, others pretty “freestyle” about it all. There were those who held hands with one another as they prepared to receive the sacrament; others quietly singing hymns of praise and thanksgiving; and as I looked around, I saw lots of hugging, and heard laughter and the sound of tears being shed. And a few wandered off by themselves, not because they were anti-social but rather because at that moment, they needed to be alone to pray.
Some were reserved about expressing their love of God, some were incredibly demonstrative and verbal about it (they don’t call them “holy rollers” for nothing!), and let me tell you, this was different than any communion service I’d ever been a part of – but that’s when it hit me. All these people, from staid parish priests to evangelical surfer dudes, each and all worshiping in a myriad of ways, and yet, at the heart of it, we were all the same. You see, underlying all the varied traditions and worship styles, we were all of us worshipping the very same God, each one of us followers of Jesus Christ, each one of us sharing new life in Christ’s name, each one of us seeking out his divine presence in a little piece of bread and a sip of unfermented wine.
I remember thinking that in this one fleeting moment I was witness to a modest yet powerful manifestation of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples, the one we just shared: “That they may all be one.”
Well, like many other congregations on the first Sunday of each month, today we come together in our worship to share the bread and cup. Not all churches do communion this way, of course: some only have communion on special days on the church calendar; then again, others share the bread and cup every Sunday at every service. In some churches, it’s called “the Eucharist,” in others, “The Lord’s Supper,” “The Table of the Lord,” or even “The Love Feast.”
Some will tear bread from one loaf and dip their piece into the wine; some will come forward to receive a small wafer in the palm of their hands and sip from a common cup; while many, like us today, will remain seated and pass plates of pre-sliced bread and individual cups from person to person. Some of these services will take place in grand and ornate cathedrals with high church liturgy, and others will happen in makeshift chapels accompanied only by the sound of a few voices who pray and sing as the Spirit moves.
Oh, yes, as is typical of “church people,” we’ll always have differing opinions as to how it should or shouldn’t be done, and we’ll continue to debate what it all means – but the thing is, however we understand it and whatever traditions are we happen to hold dear, we all seem to fit around one table, the Lord’s table, a table that has been aptly described as “the longest table in the world” – where there is room for anyone who knows Jesus as the Christ and who seeks to follow Christ’s way; where each of us is somehow transformed by the body and blood of Jesus, living in and through us.
These things we share, friends; these things make us who we are.
You know, even a month later, I still stand in this pulpit filled with wonder and amazement at this group of people before me who are, in fact, a church family! And I feel very blessed, because I know you were a family a long time before I came along, and now, by God’s good grace, I get to be a part of it!
But I can also tell you, after a month, I’ve discovered that like any family, this one can be pretty diverse in terms of experience and expectations and point of view – in fact, I suspect that there are probably as many ideas about who we are and what we should be as there are people sitting in these pews, and then some – but then, that’s what keeps things interesting and lively, isn’t it? In fact, if you don’t know this, I’ll tell you now: what we’ve got right here in this sanctuary is not only a microcosm of the United Church of Christ, but the whole church of Jesus Christ, with every bit of its lively diversity intact — and thanks be to God for it!
I’ve often wondered why Jesus spent so much of what he knew to be his final moments praying for those who would follow him, “that they may be one.” Well, ultimately, I think it was because he knew his disciples all too well! Jesus always understood, even on that night of betrayal and desertion, that there was a purpose in what God was doing; that there would come a movement, and as a result of that movement, there would be a church built upon the rock of Peter and the rest of them.
Moreover, Jesus knew that as that church was built they would face trials and tribulations; struggles along the way, not only with the world, but with each other – those disciples, to say the least, were a diverse group in personality, attitude and sometimes even vision! They very things that made them distinctive in God’s sight could also undo them if they weren’t careful! And Jesus knew that if they were going to remain strong in what was to come, the disciples would need the unity of their shared walk of faith – and, friends, so do we.
Notice, by the way, I didn’t say they needed “total agreement,” but unity, because unity exists even in the midst of great diversity and difference when the essential qualities of our faith are there – the love of God, the Lordship of Jesus Christ in life and living, the knowledge that we are gathered together by God’s Spirit and sent forth in love and service; living, as Jesus prayed, so that “the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
This prayer for unity gets worked out in so many ways in and through our life together as the church. But it seems to me that coming to the Lord’s table today offers up a profound and personal reminder that we are truly meant to be, as the song goes, “one in the Spirit, one in the Lord.” For even in our great diversity, and whatever our differences within or without, when the Lord invites us to come to this table, we come as one people who share one faith in believing; we come knowing that in this simple meal, we will experience his presence and power.
These are the things we share, beloved. These are the things that make us who we are.
As we come to the table today, let our thanks be unto God in Jesus Christ who makes us one.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry