By now you know that I am a man who holds many small fascinations – and one of them is marbled bread.
I’m sure you know all about marbled bread; it’s white bread and dark bread mixed together in a single loaf, and it’s …amazing! I don’t know exactly how, but somewhere in the baking process, two lumps of bread dough are kneaded together – and so when it’s baked and sliced, it ends up with swirls on it; as though someone had stirred it. It looks more like a dessert than something for a sandwich, but it has a nice rye flavor (and makes a great Rueben!). It’s a small thing, I know; I’ve just always been intrigued by the idea that you can take two completely different kinds of bread and combine them to create one unique and delicious loaf.
But then, that’s what bread is, isn’t it? A loaf of bread does not grow in and of itself – it is the product of many seeds of grain, gathered up and ground into flour, then rolled into dough and baked; and with so many varieties of bread, so many different types of grain and recipes for baking; it’s hard to think of bread in just one way. And yet, for all the diversity of flavor, texture and appearance, there’s still something wonderfully common about a loaf of bread. After all, bread is basic to our nourishment; a starting place for our meals, and often the first way of reaching out to others. It’s no wonder that bread is often referred to as “the staff of life.”
I guess, for me, that’s part of the great power of this “World Communion Sunday” – for even though today churches everywhere will be “breaking the bread” in a multitude of ways in keeping with a wide variety of liturgy and tradition, at the start it’s still just a regular loaf of bread! There’s a blessed commonality about what we’re doing here this morning; it starts with the broken bread, it continues with the cup of blessing, and it culminates in the love that is ours in Jesus Christ.
Actually, much the same can be said about us as we come to this table today. We are much like that strange loaf of marbled bread, a people of vastly differing grains kneaded together into a single, beautiful loaf by the hands of a loving baker. In the words of that beautiful prayer from the 2nd century: “O Lord, as this broken bread was scattered like grain on the hillsides and then, when gathered together, became one loaf, so may your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your eternal realm.”
“Gathered together from the ends of the earth into your eternal realm!” Just consider the scope of that for a moment! The thought that we actually share a unity with Christians from every end of the earth is truly mind-boggling! What that means is that whether we are protestant or catholic, congregational or Pentecostal, theologically conservative or progressive; whether we meet to worship in a tiny chapel or within a great granite cathedral; whatever the size, shape, history or personality of our particular congregation, each one of us is still part of that one common loaf which is the realm of God, one loaf is even now being rolled and shaped and kneaded into something wonderful.
That’s an important affirmation, friends, as well as a reminder to us that in the church we are not meant to live as individual little kingdoms, each with some special claim on truth, but as essential parts of a wider worshiping community – a family of faith – part of the whole realm of God, the Body of Christ.
The trick for usis to truly live that way.
Consider our scripture reading for this morning, in which Paul is speaking to a deeply divided church in the city of Corinth. The irony about this early church conflict is that these weren’t “bad” people; in fact, what you find in Corinthians is that here were these were passionate Christians, greatly gifted for ministry in a multitude of ways, both spiritual and temporal – and yet, the Corinthians still found a way to argue about it: what gifts were the most essential and important, and also which gifts (and which people possessing said gifts) ought to be thought of as “inferior” in nature. It had actually gotten to the point where politics had long overshadowed the importance of their common mission (sound familiar?) and now this vital community of Christians had degenerated into little more than a random series of religious cliques.
Paul addresses this conflict head on, using the image of the human body, pointing out that just as the body’s many different limbs and organs are dependent on each other for the whole body’s strength and health, so the church needs one another for its life and living. But then Paul goes one step further with this analogy: “But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.”
Actually, it should all sound rather familiar: hearkening back to Jesus’ teaching of how the last shall be first in the kingdom of God. Once again, what we have here is the truth that the circle of Christian unity and strength is determined not by the most powerful part, but by its weakest link; and the least of all has “dignity and honor just as it is, without comparisons” to the rest of the body, in which, as The Message translates it, “every part [is] dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.”
This is what is to be the Body of Christ! And isn’t it interesting that the very next thing that Paul talks about in addressing all this with the Corinthians is the importance of …LOVE. That’s right: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Beautiful words we always associate with weddings, but in fact words that Paul aimed squarely at the church with all its diversity, and yes, its occasional lack of unity. And what was an important reminder for the Corinthians back then still holds true for us today.
After 30 years in pastoral ministry, I realize I’m still learning: but one thing I can say for sure about the church of Jesus Christ is that we are a diverse people; and, friends, this diversity can be both a blessing and a challenge! I don’t know if you realize this or not, but let me break the news to you that church people don’t always agree on every point (!); and in fact, on some issues, there are as many opinions as there are people in the congregation! And that’s …good; it keeps the conversation lively, to be sure – but admittedly, it makes it hard sometimes to find consensus about …anything! Never mind what they might be thinking in sanctuaries down the street or half a world away – all too often how we deal with each other ends up causing us trouble!
But in the end what saves us and keeps us community is the knowledge that by the grace of Jesus Christ, there’s room for each and all of us in the realm of God; the indisputable truth that, ultimately, we’re all just pilgrims on a journey of faith, each one of us doing our best to follow God’s call where it leads with confidence, joy, and love expressed in action. This is what makes the “Body” stronger, and this is how the world sees that we are, indeed, one in the Spirit, one in the Lord: a spiritual marbled loaf of bread.
Robert Brown, in his book Spirituality and Liberation, writes of his experience as a Navy Chaplain, serving communion on a U.S. Navy Destroyer during the Second World War. The only place that could be found for this was in one of the gun turret – a cramped space with only enough room for three people at a time to share in the sacrament. And the first three to come to that makeshift communion table were the Lieutenant Commander of the vessel, a fireman’s apprentice, very low in ordinary naval hierarchy, and a steward’s mate, who, because of the times and because he was black, was not even considered part of the regular naval hierarchy, and in fact, waited on tables where the white officers were eating.
So here were three Christians receiving the elements of Holy Communion – an officer, a white enlisted man, and a black enlisted man, who, wrote Brown, “day by day… [ate] in separate mess halls. There [were] no circumstances in which they could eat together at a Navy table. But at the Lord’s Table, not even Navy regulations can dictate who eats with whom.” One in the Spirit, One in the Lord.
It is that kind of unity that we affirm on this World Communion Sunday; praying, as that wonderful hymn says it, that one day unity might be fully restored in our attitudes, practice and institutions – but rejoicing that in God’s view and intent this unity has always been.
You and I come to this table today as diverse individuals who are part of a community which is the body of Christ, the one loaf of God. We’re not at this table because we’re perfect, or better or more important than anyone else, but rather because we share with so many others a weakness and an emptiness that only God in Christ can fill. We’re not here to express an opinion and make some kind of statement, but rather because we yearn to be spoken to; because we need help, and encouragement – and company – on this shared journey of life.
We come here carrying all our joys and sorrows; concerns and challenges that are unique to each one of us, and yet are as universal as our very humanity – but knowing Jesus Christ shares with us that “common lot” in the breaking of one loaf of bread and the sharing of a cup.
It’s an intense and profound blessing that invites us this morning to be more than just a smattering of walking around together alone; more than simply a random gathering of families, friends and neighbors; more than even one congregation amongst thousands.
It’s what gathers us all together – you and me – to be the people of God’s new realm!
And that’s certainly cause for a joyful feast, don’t you think!
Let us come, for all things are now ready! And thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry