By David Wilkinson
One of my prayers for this season of Lent was to be more intentional about looking for Jesus in unexpected faces and places. Lo and behold, Jesus showed up for dinner.
On Ash Wednesday, our church family did something a little different for most Baptists. We exercised our Baptist theology of the priesthood of all believers by serving the elements of communion and administering the ashes to one another as we sat around the dinner tables following our mid-week meal.
As the pastor introduced the sacred ritual we were about to perform, I glanced at our table: a few remaining iced-tea glasses and coffee cups, a discarded napkin or two, several saucers with smudged bits of icing and leftover crumbs from a birthday cake served in honor of several church members, and a bowl of melted ice cream.
Amid the clutter was a simple arrangement displayed on a square piece of black cloth: a small iron cross, a stone, a dried palm branch, and a lighted votive. At the cloth’s edge were a communion tray and a small bowl with the ashes of palm fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday service. As I surveyed the scene, I thought about the appropriateness of sharing bread and cup amid the messy evidence of a meal we had enjoyed together, reminiscent of the Last Supper.
Sitting directly across from me was James Paxman Boadu. While the other six of us at the table were couples, Paxman was alone. His wife, Theresa, and three of their four children were asleep in the Boadu’s home in Kumasi, Ghana, more than 6,000 miles away. Paxman resigned the Baptist church he served as pastor to come to Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas, to pursue a theology degree so that he can go back to Ghana to be a better pastor.
“Let us break bread together,” we sang in preparation for communion. Then a deacon at each table began the sharing of the bread. My wife, Melanie, handed me a plate with a portion of pita bread, called me by name and said, “This is the body of Christ, broken for you.” As the bread and the words made their way around the table, I glanced at Paxman. He took the plate, pinched off a bite of bread and smiled.
At first, I thought it was a smile of awkwardness from feeling a bit out of place and doing something familiar in an unfamiliar way. But as he turned to the Baylor student seated next to him and spoke the somber words, he smiled again.
I thought about how different we are, Paxman and I. Measured in terms of race, nationality, native language, class and culture, our life experiences are worlds apart. Yet we are brothers who find common ground in one faith, one Lord, one baptism.
It happened again with the cup. “This is the blood of Christ, shed for you,” each of us said as we passed the communion tray to our neighbor. Another smile spread across Paxman’s broad face as he lifted his cup of juice from the tray.
This time, I saw more in his smile — something deep and profound. I think it was the outward manifestation of an inner joy that bears witness to the agony and the glory of the cross, the indescribable gift of God’s Son, and the promise of the resurrected life in Jesus.
Another deacon picked up the small bowl of ashes. Each of us in turn dipped our thumb into the bowl and smeared the mark of the cross across our neighbor’s forehead. “By the wearing of these ashes,” we solemnly declared, “we offer our suffering and brokenness to God.”
When Paxman’s turn came, he closed his eyes to accept the mark of the cross, smiling again. The smile came from a heart that has gladly embraced sacrifice to follow Christ. He — and his family — have sacrificed much for him to come to the United States for theological studies and further training for ministry. But I know there have been other sacrifices for the sake of the gospel.
Paxman is also acquainted with pain and sorrow. Just a few days later he would experience them again, feeling the sting of separation from his family with the news of the deaths of his sister and a nephew.
We stood to sing a closing hymn, each of us now bearing on our foreheads the ashen mark of the cross. Paxman smiled. And it occurred to me that in that smile I had seen the face of Jesus.
I’m confident Paxman would be embarrassed to read those words. His humility is deep and genuine. But I know what I saw. And I am the one who was humbled.