Today is World Communion Sunday. It was established years ago as a reminder that God’s Table is a Table of unity, even though God’s church is fragmented. All across the globe Christians are gathering to share the Supper that Jesus established so that we might remember him and in doing so share his love with the world. Though this observance has Presbyterian origins, it began to spread across the globe after the Federal Council of Churches adopted it in the late 1930s. The person who made this happen was Jesse Bader, a Disciple mission leader and ecumenist. I found a quote from Jesse Bader that helps introduce what we’re doing today.
Worldwide Communion Sunday begins on the other side of the International Date Line, so that the observance starts first on Sunday morning in the churches of the Tonga Islands, Fiji Islands, New Zealand, Australia, and so on towards the West during the twenty-four hours of the day. This significant observance around the world on the first Sunday of each October has become a day of united witnessing . . . In a time when there is so much disunity, here is an opportunity to witness in a broken world to an unbroken Christian fellowship. [quoted in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, C, p. 417].
I wanted to share this quote for two reasons. The first reason is that Jesse Bader was a Disciple. The second reason is that he reminds us in this definition that the church of Jesus Christ extends across the globe. Despite our differences, and even though we may try to limit who comes to the Table, we remain part of one eucharistic community. For Disciples this connection of Table to unity should define our sense of identity.
Over the next few Sundays I’ll be drawing from biblical texts set aside for World Communion Sunday – three texts in all. The first one up is a parable found in Luke 14. It’s the second parable Jesus told during a dinner party at the home of a Pharisee. In the first parable Jesus suggested to a group of people who seemed intent on seizing the best seats in the house, to invite people to dinner who can’t reciprocate. Instead of inviting your best friends to the meal, go and invite the “poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Lk. 14:13-14). Then, when one of the guests responded to this parable by declaring that “blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God,” Jesus told a second parable. This time he focused his attention on those who received an engraved invitation to the Great Banquet but who declined the invitation. It’s important to remember when we hear a parable like this that Jesus is often talking about God’s realm. That is, the kingdom of heaven, though that wording is more likely to be found in Matthew than Luke.
Nora Gallagher writes in her book Sacred Meal, which many of us are reading, something intriguing: “Was Communion, I wondered, what Jesus invented to give us a preview of what the kingdom of heaven would be like?” (p. 52). In this parable and in other biblical stories something like a meal serves as a sign of the heavenly realm of God. When we come to the Table, we’re invited to remember the Last Supper, but also to envision eating with Jesus at the heavenly banquet.
When you hear the words of this parable, what do you make of these excuses for not attending the banquet? One person had just purchased some land and needed to check it out. The second person had just purchased a new set of oxen and wanted to try them out. Then the third person said that he had just gotten married and needed to spend time with his new wife. I don’t know about you, but these all seem like good excuses for not attending a dinner party. Can you think of better excuses? Whatever the reasons given, those who had been invited had better things to do than come to the party. Joey Jeter offered this poignant response to the excuses: “Maybe we need to come to terms with our excuses about how we have maneuvered God out of our lives” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, C, p. 421].
Since there would be lots of empty seats, the host drew up a new guest list. This time he put a different group of people on the list. He asked his servant to gather up the “poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” That’s the same group of people Jesus mentioned in the previous parable. But even with this new guest list, there were empty seats. This bothered the host, because he didn’t want any of the original invitees to get a seat at the Table. And so he sent his servants out one more time to get people to come, even if they had to compel them. This is another tough parable, because we hear a word about judgment and exclusion as well as one about forcing people to come to the Table. I don’t know about you, but I struggle with the idea that anyone should be compelled to come to the Table. But, perhaps focusing on that message will distract us from the broader message and that is that Jesus often dined with and welcomed those who live on the margins.
World Communion Sunday celebrates Christian unity. It reminds us that we are part of a family that extends from one end of the globe to the other. This parable, which has been selected to be read on World Communion Sunday reminds us that Jesus is concerned about the “least of these.”
We say that Central Woodward’s Table is an open Table. We don’t put up any theological barriers to participation. But, how open is our Table? What barriers do we erect, perhaps even without thinking?
In the first parable we find in Luke 14, Jesus tells us to invite the kinds of people to our meal who can’t reciprocate. This is true hospitality. It is also a reminder that this is a Table of Grace. We simply come to receive. Nora Gallagher spends some time in her book speaking about the Open Table. She offers us some important insights into the danger of making too many rules about who gets to come to the Table. She writes:
If you make up a bunch of rules about who gets to take Communion and who doesn’t, then Communion is reduced either to a special club with only certain kinds of people who are allowed in, or magic: “If I have confessed my sins, then something wonderful will happen. If I have not, then it won’t.” [Sacred Meal, p. 90]
It’s not a matter of whether we are worthy to receive grace or not. God has already reconciled us in Christ (2 Cor. 5:19). We simply must open our lives up to receive that grace. That means making our selves vulnerable. It means recognizing that we’re not self-sufficient.
We take communion every Sunday, not just on World Communion Sunday. Every Sunday a token of grace is offered for us to receive. There’s nothing special about the elements, but God has chosen to use them as a sign of welcome and grace. I would add, that God continues to offer that grace, even when we come up with excuses. In fact, I think that in the end, Jesus will make room for those who made the excuses in the first place. But that’s just me! How about you? Are you ready to receive signs that God’s realm is already present and that this realm is one of grace?