Thirty years ago this week, on October 3, 1982, I stepped into the pulpit for the first time as a student pastor at First Congregational Church UCC in Houlton, Maine. It was World Communion Sunday, and not only was I preaching my first sermon that day, I’d also just been granted licensure by my association to administer the sacraments. So I was thrilled, excited, terrified and utterly humbled, all at the same time.
Many years and some 2,000 worship services later, there’s still rarely a Sunday morning when in some way or another I don’t find myself humbled by the very nature of having been called into this Christian ministry. However, there are certain days when I get this powerful and palpable sense of the incredible company I keep as we join together in “the act and attitude” of worship. World Communion Sunday, which is coming up this week (October 7), is one of those days.
As I stand to lead worship at East Congregational United Church of Christ this Sunday, I will be very aware that Christians all over the world are gathering at the table of our Lord, just like we will be here in Concord: thousands upon thousands of congregations, both large and small, united in a common celebration of an uncommon blessing, that is, the presence of our Lord Jesus in the breaking of bread and the sharing of a cup. That’s a pretty amazing thing; even more amazing when you consider that given the effects of changing time zones, this celebration feast extends not only across the miles, but throughout the hours of the day! So I know I’ll be standing in the East Church pulpit Sunday in the strong awareness of all these many Christians from all these many places, both near and far, who are in fact worshiping with us and who no doubt have already said prayers for unity and blessing said on our behalf!
Every year as we share this sacred meal, I find myself thinking of the congregations of which I’ve been a part over the years, both as a pastor and as a church member, and of all the many saints who have touched my life in countless ways as I’ve walked along in my own journey of faith; I’m remembering friends, colleagues and family members who are in the midst of ministries of their own as the bread is being broken and the wine is poured; I’m being reminded once again of just how much I’m not alone on this journey!
I’ll also be imagining sanctuaries where I’ve never been, and people I’ve never met and probably never will; wondering what “having communion” is going to be like for them; what kinds of songs they’ll sing and whether their worship will be highly formal and liturgical and “high church,” or if the sacrament will come down to a single loaf of bread and a common cup prayerfully passed from one hand to another in a circle of faith. Will they have the elements brought to them by the deacons or elders of the church, or will they rise from their pews to receive communion at the altar of God? Will the bread be white or wheat; raised or unleavened; carefully cubed or hurriedly torn asunder? These are all matters of tradition and worship style that might well be different from how we do things around here, and yet they offer up the very same “joyful feast of the people of God” from which we’ll partake in our own congregation. I’ll also be thinking about how many boundaries are really non-existent on such a day as this – how in this “body” of Christ of which we are a part, nations crumble and denominations are meaningless, and the differences of language and ethnicity and even theology are washed away in the blood of Christ that is shed for us all.
The bottom line is that no matter what direction we came from to get there, as we gather around the Lord’s table, we stand united. It’s true what the apostle Paul has said, that there is “one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6) Whatever differences we face in the church, this is a truth that still remains and stands strong. We are one in the Spirit . . . we are one in the Lord . . . this is what World Communion Sunday celebrates; in the end, this is what being the Church of Jesus Christ is all about.
Because after all, friends, what is that church supposed to look like, anyway? Understand, I’m not speaking here about church design, or organizational structure, or denominational polity – I’m talking about what the church is supposed to be in accordance to the purposes of God! Actually, our own United Church of Christ Statement of Faith addresses this, first and foremost reminding us that it is God’s own Holy Spirit that creates and renews the church for God’s own purposes, “binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues and races.” In other words, if I might borrow a phrase from Rick Warren, “It’s not about you.” Or me. Or the countless cultural, societal and personal agendas that all too often seep into our life together as the church. It’s about God, who gathers the church together “by his purpose and for his purpose.”
So when we gather as believers, we affirm our place in a sacred community forged from an attitude of utter dependence on God. We come here answering a call to discipleship that leads us to offer all that we have and all that we can do for the sake of Christ in the world! And as we come to the table to know Christ in our time of word and sacrament, ultimately we are seeking to renew ourselves in the task of being faithful, prayerful people – understanding, of course, that true prayer is not as we so often and mistakenly understand it – that is, as a means of getting what we want from God – but rather as Peter Baelz describes it in his book Prayer and Providence, as “the conscious surrender of ourselves to God [and his purposes], come what may.” This is the ministry to which you and I are called; it is the ministry we share with Christians here, there and everywhere. And it is how we can actually be one in the Spirit, friends.
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry