Life Together: Living Our Faith
Today is World Communion Sunday. World Communion Sunday was celebrated for the first time in 1933 in a Presbyterian church inPittsburgh. While the rose-tinged memory is that the tradition was started because some Christians wanted to celebrate communion on the same day with Christians all over the world, the truth is that the Presbyterians were worried that Christians were falling out of the habit of celebrating communion—some churches were rarely doing it—and they were worried it might become obsolete, so if they started a big World Communion Sunday. I guess they figured that then, at least, everyone would celebrate communion once a year.
Since then, the World Council of Churches has adopted the first Sunday of October as World Communion Sunday—a day in which Christians of all different expressions, from one end of the world to the other, come to the table of Christ to share in the bread and the wine and remember the gifts of grace that draw us together.
This is a good practice, I’m thinking, and not only because it insures that everyone celebrates communion at least once a year. After all, we spend most of the time thinking about what distinguishes us from each other, don’t we? It’s what we’re supposed to do (according to my copy of Marketing for Dummies, anyway). We’re supposed to define how we’re different, advocate for ourselves, some would even say elbow our way to the front to get a sweet spot in the crowd. It’s what we know about how to live in society, especially American society, where we know that there are people who “deserve” to be at the front of the crowd and people are “undeserving”—and we know just which of those two categories we want to be.
But church—this church and the church of Jesus Christ all over the entire world—is a group of people struggling to learn what it means to live life together. It would do us good this World Communion Sunday to think about exactly how we approach this holy task of living life together
As you know, we’ve been reading the story of the Israelites’ escape fromEgyptand travels through the desert toward the Promised Land. From one drama to another, we’ve observed their struggles to learn what it means to live life together, to follow God’s directions for their life as a community, to build something unique and wonderful that stands in contrast to the world around them and rises to the high hopes God has for all of human community.
Today our text diverges from another story of miraculous water or manna from heaven, to an account of the growing pains the Hebrews were feeling all of the sudden, out on their own, without the structure of Egyptian rule to dictate the standards for their life together. There they were, thousands of people, forced suddenly to do the work of living in community all together, with not much structure to fall back on. It must have been chaotic!
The text says that whenever folks had a disagreement they would come to Moses. Now, I am assuming that the disagreements people brought to Moses were a little more complicated than, say, what to have for dinner. These would be disagreements that come about in the regular course of living life together: disputes over possessions, contractual agreements, legal transfers. You can’t have that many people living together in one place without disagreements arising.
So what did the people do? Without any structure in place for their life together, they went to the most powerful, most visible, most vocal point they shared in common: Moses. After all, it was Moses who raised his staff and parted theRed Sea. He had been their identified leader this whole time. He was clearly very powerful; he was in prime political position to weigh in on the peoples’ disagreements. More than that, Moses clearly had a directly line to God.
Remember, the 10 Commandments hadn’t been given on Mt. Sinai yet; the people were still unsure about exactly who this God was they were following; and they didn’t have any way to know how God would weigh in on the issues over which they disagreed. Moses was the closest thing—the most visible, the most powerful, the most connected.
So, you remember what happened. Moses would set aside certain days on which he would hear complaints—disputes. This was like a court of law, where people who had serious and legitimate disagreements with each other needed someone to intervene, to make a judgment and decide the issue. So the people came. In droves. They lined up and waited all day long for Moses to hear their side of the story and to resolve the issue so life could move on.
Jethro, Moses’ father in law, saw what was going on and expressed outrage. The truth of the matter was that there was no way Moses could possibly keep up with the volume of disputes he had to hear—he was getting tired and worn out, and he couldn’t handle the weight of all of that responsibility—not to mention just the logistics of giving everybody a chance to tell their side of the story.
Jethro pulled Moses aside—perhaps as only a father in law could do—and told him he needed to make some changes. He needed to appoint others who could hear disputes, a structure that would handle folks’ disagreements and legal issues with some efficiency. Because, Moses couldn’t keep doing all of this by himself—I mean, he parted theRed Seaand everything, but everyone has his limits! More than that, Moses shouldn’t have been the one listening to everyone’s problems—in life together there are leaders, yes, but there is also a collective wisdom that is found in voices from many different parts of a community.
In other words, one person doesn’t know everything; one person can’t do everything.
In terms of our life together, the people of God atCalvaryBaptistChurch, we can thank our Baptist distinctives for teaching us this truth in practice. As a community of faith—in our life together—we not only allow the leadership of a variety of members, we desperately require it. In our polity we believe that we are better together when we share a collective wisdom, when we decide a course of action together, when we each take responsibility for the life and health of our community.
Maybe Jethro was a Baptist?
To Moses’ credit as a leader, he recognized that his father in law’s advice was sound. Not only was he tired, it was time for the responsibility of leading the community be spread out among other leaders besides just him. Not all of us who find ourselves in charge can cede responsibility and authority to other capable leaders, but the truth of the matter is that our life together is stronger and richer when many bring their voices and skills to the task of leading the community.
Today on World Communion Sunday, when we think about life together as the whole Christian family around the world, we will easily observe that we encompass a whole variety of different views of faith and practice. And as we think about our overarching, collective goal: to share the love and grace of Jesus Christ with so many who need the hope of that message, we might get a little sidetracked by our differences. We’re so used to vying for top billing, for climbing to the top of the pile, for being the one to whom everyone looks to issue a final verdict.
But wouldn’t it be better to live our life together empower each other as leaders, empowering each other to share the Gospel, giving away authority and responsibility to others so that together we are a stronger, better whole?
Earlier this year I heard a story that stuck with me. I actually think one of you told me this story, but for the life of me I cannot remember who it was. It happened on Ash Wednesday. As you know, on Ash Wednesday many Christian traditions mark the day, the start of the season of Lent, by attending church and having our foreheads marked with the sign of the cross—in ashes. All day long you’ll pass people on the sidewalk whose foreheads are smudged with ash, a reminder that our human lives are fleeting and that we are marked with the sign of the cross, identified as followers of Jesus Christ.
Whoever it was who told me this story told me they were standing in line at Starbuck’s before work on Ash Wednesday. The person in line ahead of them was ordering when the barista behind the counter interrupted and asked the person what that was on their forehead.
As it was Ash Wednesday, the person said he had been to church that morning to mark the day and the mark on his forehead was the smudge of ashes, to mark the day.
The barista behind the counter said, “Oh, yes! Ash Wednesday!” She then went on to say with disappointment that she wouldn’t have time to get to church that day and she would miss having the ashes for Ash Wednesday.
In response to her comment, the customer with the ashes reached up and touched his own forehead, smearing his finger with some of the ashes there. He then reached over the counter and made the sign of the cross on the barista’s forehead, a little smudge of ashes that she now wore. Perhaps she wouldn’t make it to church, but she was marked and empowered by the customer with the ashes, an experience shared and passed along on that holy day.
And isn’t that what our practice of Christian faith should always, ever be? Because Christian faith, life in the community of Christ, is never a life lived alone, is never viewed from the position of the very top of the pile. Instead, life together is empowering each other to take authority. It’s the rich tapestry of community rippling out far beyond what we experience or even what we can see. It’s the smudge of ashes on one forehead shared across a counter at Starbuck’s because the life of faith is never, ever a life lived all alone at the top.
Yes, we are people struggling to live in faithful community with each other. And, despite our differences—different perspectives, different languages, different cultural understandings, even different theologies—we are gathered together around the table of Jesus Christ, who stands as the one thing we share in common. Christians all over the world today are gathering at the table of Christ, setting aside their need to be on the top of the pile, ripping off a piece of the bread and passing it along to someone next to them, not consuming themselves with listing and reciting our differences, but tasting the bread and drinking from the cup and letting our collective hearts overflow with gratitude for the one who draws us together around the table.
And the table is the very place we learn best of all what it means to live life together.
So today as we come to the table of Christ together, you are welcome here. In a moment our pastors will come down to the table to say the words of institution that have tied together Christians over the centuries and that link us to each other even today—all around the whole world.
Remember as we celebrate that the table of Christ is a table of welcome, where anyone who longs for the bread and the cup, for the forgiveness and grace offered through Jesus Christ, is welcome. There is room for me, and there is room for you, there is room for us all.
We’ll celebrate today by intinction; you are welcome to come to front and take a piece of bread, dip it into the cup, and eat it. And as we come we will offer our prayers—the prayers of the people, the prayers of a community’s life together. Blue cards are available in the pew racks in front of you. In the next few moments of coming to the table, of prayer and silent confession, you are invited to write your prayer, the burden you carry this day, and bring it to the front when you come to take communion. A pastor will be there to receive your prayer card as you take the bread and the cup.
So, now, let us come to the table of Christ. Join the communion of saints all over the world who will do the same today. Come to the table and find your place in this, our life together. Amen.