I feel that it’s only fair to offer a few words on last Sunday’s attempt at another round of the “homework” that I mentioned last week. For the second week of “talking about worship to someone,” the response was dramatically and remarkably better, more complete, more thoughtful—from a range of worshippers who spoke to me during fellowship time (and during the week).
Last Sunday was World Communion Sunday. At the beginning of worship, I made a point of reminding people that, while Christians gather every Sunday around the world, we are especially mindful, on World Communion Sunday, of our place in a worldwide fellowship of followers of Jesus Christ. And, more than that, I reminded the congregation, not all Christians enjoy the kind of freedom to worship that we do. Not one of us who came to worship at Old South last Sunday gave any thought to our safety. We were not concerned about bombs or guns. Yet, these are the concerns of some Christians in the world, in places like North Korea, Pakistan, and Nigeria. We should not remain ignorant of the danger that some Christians are in simply by sharing the same faith.
During the sermon last Sunday, I spent time talking about communion—why we do what we do during communion. As Christians gathered on Sunday for World Communion Sunday, the actual practice of the sacrament is remarkably different church to church, denomination to denomination. When I was in high school, I remember the pastor of the church telling my confirmation class that if a stranger came to worship, s/he could learn almost everything they needed to know about our church through our practice of communion—engaging in the ancient story, ministering to one another as we pass the plates while seated in the pews, and the minister being served by the deacons.
Whenever I preached on communion, one of the most important lessons always turns out to be that the elements of the sacrament don’t actually become anything during the ritual. They are symbols that draw us into a story, but they do not become flesh or blood. I am amazed to hear from long-time church members a sense of relief. They are so glad to learn this lesson about the symbolism of the bread and cup. It’s interesting to me that the Roman Catholic approach to the sacrament is so dominant that it invades the thoughts of long-time, committed, Congregationalists.
After worship, and even through the beginning of the week, I heard from people on both of these aspects of worship. A few were almost caught off guard by the notion that there are Christians in the world who face persecution and violence simply by being Christian. The average person in the pew in Hallowell, Maine, doesn’t really think about this. Well, now at least a few are thinking about it.
For communion, at least a few more people have been disabused of the notion that the bread and the juice/wine become something during the ritual of the sacrament. And, there ‘s a renewed sense of how we minister to one another, how we demonstrate in a real way the priesthood of all believers, and how we enter into a sacred time to know and participate in the story of Jesus and his followers, not just in terms of memorializing an important story, but seeing our own selves sitting at a table with Jesus or the Risen Christ (at Old South, we use the story of the Last Supper as well as at least one of the stories of the Risen Christ eating with his followers).
As the church struggles with what it is and where it’s going, it’s important to re-engage the fundamentals of the faith. I am often surprised to learn that many people in the pews—people who come to church on a regular basis— either don’t really know the “basics” or they forget or they somehow adopt the “basics” of other traditions. We must re-visit these essential elements of our practice and our faith, and find new ways of speaking of them, articulating what they mean to us—and why they are so important to who we are. Perhaps, we’ll discover new dimensions of their meaning, and what it means to followers of Christ.