By Terry Maples
Last Sunday, I worshipped at Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) where my wife, Joan, serves as minister of music. All worship elements focused on and celebrated World Communion Sunday. Music included Love in Any Language, He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, We Your People, The Family of God, John 3:16, These I Lay Down and World Round. Each song wonderfully reminded us that people all around the world worship in different languages, with different musical styles, and with a variety of cultural understandings of what it means to be Christ-followers, but all worship the same God of the universe.
The New Testament lesson was Luke 18:9-14. Read from verse 9: He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. What follows is the parable of two men who went to the temple to pray. One was self-righteous; the other a contrite sinner willing to confess and ask for mercy. The passage ends with these words: for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Though a powerful quality of Jesus Christ, humility is not highly esteemed by moderns. We are more concerned about getting our beliefs and rituals correct. We tend to believe if we get our behavior and beliefs right, that places us in right relationship with God. Richard Rohr in Things Hidden says, “The assumption being that if you get the right answers, God will like you. … But the Bible will not make transformation dependent on cleverness at all, but in one of God’s favorite and most effective hiding places — humility.”
Think about many biblical accounts in which God seeks to teach people the importance of being humble and acknowledging they may be wrong: Jonah thought he was right to despise the Ninevites until God showed him the power of grace and forgiveness (and we’re still not sure he ever fully understood); Saul who became Paul was certain of the need to kill followers of The Way who threatened Judaism, until he encountered Jesus on the Damascus Road; Peter certainly thought what he learned about Gentiles was “right” until the sheet came down from heaven to teach him God loves everyone.
What does any of this have to do with World Communion Sunday? We live in a time of incredible incivility. So many things divide and separate us: political ideologies, race, war, immigration, economic disparity, sexual orientation, hot button issues of the day and much more. These differences are incessantly accentuated in the media and lead us to disdain people who see things differently from us. Truth is, we have much more in common than we think, and demonizing people leads to greater incivility and distrust.
As might be expected, incivility has found its way into our churches. Certainly Christ-followers must have conviction about their beliefs. There is a big difference, however, between having conviction and demonizing others or “killing” them with our words. For example, I know committed Christians who post wonderful articles about spiritual faithfulness on Facebook. Those same people think nothing about posting comments that tear down other people because they see issues differently. The saddest part is these folks are so committed to their point of view they cannot see the incongruence, the double standard or the damage done.
I wish I had a magic formula to solve the great divides of our day. No one person does, but hearing the words of Jesus afresh can help. Jesus said, “I pray they may be one.” He did not pray we would see everything from the same perspective, but that we would be unified by the love, grace and mercy found in Jesus Christ. Here are some practical suggestions to help us move toward Jesus’ ideal:
Start by elevating humility to a higher plane when we gather for worship. In worship we come together as the body of Christ to bow a corporate knee and to acknowledge God is God and we are not. We must not come to worship expecting God to affirm we are right and everyone else is wrong. Our certitude about being right must diminish as we submit to what God desperately desires to say to us. We must remain open, and we must leave the negative stuff we’ve been told about “the other” at the door. The ground is always level at the foot of the cross.
Some Christians are highly motivated and inspired by political perspectives. Civic engagement is good. However, attempts to change others (make them in our image) may get in the way of what God is doing in the world. If we really desire to change our country we must start by listening — desiring to hear others first. We must open ourselves to fellow strugglers in deep and meaningful ways. That cannot happen if we insist on using rhetoric to prove we are right and everyone else is wrong. We must, in the words of Jesus, put ourselves last and become least. When people are convinced we are truly interested in their perspective, they respond by listening, too. If we practice active listening long enough we just might move from simply hearing words to showing respect, appreciation and compassion.
Be very careful how you use social media. These tools have empowered instant communication and efficient avenues for staying in touch with friends and family. That’s good! However, these tools can also easily be used to tear down and destroy people and their beliefs with harsh words. Resist the temptation to “like” posts that are mean-spirited and hurtful. Mindlessly affirming that which demonizes others makes Jesus (and ourselves) look bad and hurts our kingdom witness.
Finally, pray! Stay focused on praying for your brothers and sisters around the world. Pray for Christians who struggle because of their faith. Pray for those who must flee their homes because they follow Jesus. Invest time in prayer for yourself and others, especially those who see things differently from you. Prayer forms your faith so you become more like Jesus in word and deed and strengthens your capacity to love others.
World Communion Day inspires me to work for peace and solidarity with all believers around the globe. May we all reflect and learn from the words of the communion hymn we sang on Sunday, These I Lay Down, by John Bell:
Before I take the body of my Lord, before I share his life in bread and wine, I recognize the sorry things within: these I lay down.
The words of hope I often fail to give, the prayers of kindness buried by my pride, the signs of care I argued out of sight: these I lay down.
The narrowness of vision and of mind, the need for other folks to serve my will, and every word and silence meant to hurt: these I lay down.
Of those around in whom I meet my Lord, I ask their pardon and I grant them mine that every contradiction to Christ might be laid down.
The Lord’s Table is central to worship in the Disciples’ tradition. That’s why Disciples commune every Sunday. Two unique aspects of communion last Sunday stand out: 1) a cloth depicting the globe draped the communion table as a visual reminder all of us are God’s children, and 2) a variety of breads from different cultures was served. I chose a piece of a tortilla to show my solidarity with sisters and brothers south of the border.
What wonderful reminders how the body of Christ around the world gathers at the Lord’s Table to celebrate God’s sacrificial love, hear afresh “my body for you” and “my blood for you,” experience the presence of Christ in bread and wine, and renew our vows to become love and grace to others.