After 25 years in one particular church I’ve been walking around a little. Hearing other voices, joining other groups in worship, seeing how God looks through other stained glass. And you probably already know this, but in case you haven’t been out lately, there are a lot of different ways people live out their faith. It seems to me that every parishioner, settled or not, should go walking a few times a year, to humbly remind ourselves the form is not the substance, and our way is not the only way.
The same foundation (e.g. following “Jesus” or “the bible”) can lead to all kinds of outworkings. Seemingly opposite political or social causes are championed on a Sunday. Yet every conservative church, and every liberal church, and every church in between, are doing what they do because of life in Jesus. Is this a contradiction?
I would rather say it’s complex, like the scriptures themselves. As one friend says, we are emphasizing different syllables. But there is a moment of centrality. To better explain, let me recount some of the common threads from my walkabout church services:
⇒ There will be scripture readings. The scriptures don’t change, there’s just more or less of it.
⇒ There will be some singing: musical preferences, blah blah blah.
⇒ There will be a leader giving a homily, and likely some announcements, and with the call to action these will probably blur together. This is where it gets interesting, because the scripture is the source, but the translation varies. One offers an invitation to pro-life pray at a Planned Parenthood center, the other sermon starts with a history of “This is what democracy looks like” rallies. One homily positively re-appropriates the word “queering” while another opens the bible to restrict “homosexuality”. One’s feeding programs explicitly share a gospel message and the other is fine with the food itself being the message. Amazingly it all comes from the same source: the life of Christ. I used my mad powerpoint skill to illustrate this:
I’ve spent enough time on one side of that cross to know how hard it is to look past my view of Jesus and see his children on the other side. It’s good that I’m looking at Jesus, but I can’t seem to see over him to his people on the other side. If only we could all drop to the bottom of the cross and look up together.
Of course, this is normal, we are a tribal people and it makes sense that our God would be on our side. We’re human. We’re trying to understand the infinite. There will be misunderstandings.
Receiving a Deep Love works its way out in different people in different ways, during different seasons of life. What gets tricky is when one acts like the other doesn’t exist; or insists there is only one way to live out this Deep Love. We tell everyone they need to do it our way, except we call it “God’s way.” We could learn from ourselves: we do a much better job of accepting the variety around the world than across party lines with our cross-town siblings.
(Listening to some people talk, you’d think that Jesus’ description of separating the sheep from the goats was actually about Democrats and Republicans. Though… he does refer to putting the sheep on his right and the goats on his left, so….hmmm… 1 point for the red states?).
But go with me back to the service – this is where it gets good:
⇒ Then all these – scripture, singing, sermon – culminate in that deeply deliberate walk to the communion table. Christ’s body and blood await all who would come – “wherever you are on your journey” as they say at the Episcopal church. Making the journey from our solitary seats, where we can actively listen or just be irritated by our neighbor’s cough, joining the streaming flow of humans forward, forward, forward we step, taking our place at the table. The bread of life nourishes us, and we are hungry – our very walk forward declares it. Our humanity meets heaven’s humanity, and the divine body is broken into bite size portions for we who can only understand piece by piece, week by week. Christ’s outstretched hands await and we look into them, seeing nail scars that speak to our own life-is-hard narratives; we let our hands touch his and smear the blood, taking the cup. It’s the soul of the service.
No one mentions politics during communion. No one has a cause to champion or a group of others to correct. The Eucharist becomes very personal in a way that cannot happen when we’re alone. People stream forward and kneel, or join into a circle, or genuflect, or receive a blessing of prayer, and for one moment at least, we are common humanity in need.
Is Eucharist like attending a mini-funeral every week? Death has the power to bring squabbling relatives together, laying aside their sermons to remember the goodness of the loved one. Perhaps the universal shortness of life comes to us as we remember a particular death: “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
⇒ After communion, the services end with a call to action, and we’re back: one is urging me to tell my neighbor about Jesus and the other to prayerfully support the March for our Lives rallies, to feed the poor or come do yoga, to help with the kids or the church garden. And I will, because there’s too much trouble in this world to do nothing, and my soul itches to do something (see Helpless).
But slow down. Let me hold on to that moment of peace. What if we always centered on communion? Where divinity touches humanity. Where death reminds us to live. Where the rights and lefts are forgotten and there’s only the centrality of the common table.
What would it look like if we came together around the common table?
♦ weekendswell ♦
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Footnotes for the overachievers:
Communion and Community both come from the same root word: common. For further reading, look at the three definitions of communion here, making sure to expand the section that says “Translations, word origins and more definitions”.
Featured image: The First Supper by Susan Dorothea White, Acrylic on Panel, 1988 http://www.susandwhite.com.au/
The Last Supper, John August Swanson, 2009. See Artist’s Notes
The Last Supper, Frederick J. Brown, 1983, oil on linen. More on Artist
The Last Supper Oil Paint by Numbers Kit, Amazon. I dare you.