Sunday, September 25, 2016

Celebrating World Communion Sunday

While some of you have no connection with, and perhaps little interest in, this topic, many Christians around the world will participate in a World Communion Sunday service on October 2. This is a yearly, and meaningful, observance of a great number of churches around the world.
Introducing WCS
World Communion Sunday (WCS) is widely observed each year on the first Sunday of October, largely for the purpose of promoting Christian unity and ecumenical cooperation.
WCS dates back to 1933 when Hugh T. Kerr, a Presbyterian pastor, began the observance. Three years later it was endorsed by Presbyterian churches across the country. Then in 1940, the Federal Council of Churches (now the National Council of Churches), endorsed WCS and began to promote it worldwide.
I can’t remember when I first heard of WCS, but it has been fairly recently. I certainly don’t remember hearing of it before going to Japan 50 years ago. Few Southern Baptist churches then, and I assume few SBC churches even now, were/are inclined to participate in such an observance. 

Romero’s Legacy
Catholics, of course, do not observe WCS either. But all Christians (and others) can learn valuable lessons from the life and legacy of El Salvadorian Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated while serving the Eucharist in 1980, and from people like John P. Hogan, who is the co-editor of a book about Romero’s legacy.
About a year ago I read the thought-provoking book co-edited by Hogan: Romero’s Legacy: The Call to Peace and Justice (2007). It contains the “Romero Lectures” presented in Camden, N.J., from 2001 through 2007.
Since reading “The Eucharist and Social Justice,” the 2002 Romero Lecture given by Hogan, I have planned to write this article. Today, a week before World Communion Sunday, seems to be a good time to post it.
In the lecture he gave, Hogan cited these words from St. Augustine: “We eat the body of Christ to become the body of Christ.” In the Catholic sense, as well as in the catholic sense, the body of Christ is worldwide and includes all who are followers of Jesus—including many who are poor and powerless.
Discerning the Body
Hogan went on to interpret the meaning of Paul’s warning about participating in Communion without discerning the body (see 1 Cor. 11:28-31) as not adequately seeing and understanding the needs of many within the worldwide church.
“We cannot claim to be . . . Christian, the body of Christ, and support structures and systems that keep people poor and powerless,” he said (p. 29). Communion, therefore, is not “an interior retreat,” a “spiritual” thing we do for our own edification. It is, rather, a call to solidarity with all segments of the universal Church—especially with those who are poor, marginalized, and mistreated.
So, for those of us who participate in World Communion Sunday next week—and I am happy now to be a member of a church that does observe WCS each year—let us remember with gratitude that we do so as part of a worldwide fellowship of believers in Jesus Christ.
But let’s remember not just the geographical meaning of this observance. Let’s also, and especially, remember those belonging to the body of Christ who are literally poor and lacking adequate food, those who are persecuted because of their Christian beliefs, those who are discriminated against (because of their skin color, their sexual orientation, or whatever), and all who suffer because of injustice.
May World Communion Sunday help us discern, and respond more adequately to, the needs in the worldwide body of Christ.

9 comments:

  1. The image in the article above is borrowed from a World Communion Sunday sermon by Ken Sehested as posted at http://www.prayerandpolitiks.org/articles-essays-sermons/2016/09/20/remembering-the-future.2223062. For those of you who want to think more about WCS, that is a good place to start.

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  2. I like Hogan's interpretation, and I think it's more faithful to the context of 1 Cor. 11:28-31 than the typical ecclesiolatrous practices of closed communion practiced by numerous denominations including Roman Catholic, Missouri Synod Lutheran, and many Southern Baptists.

    I would add, though, that I've been fairly well convinced by the hermeneutics of liberation theologians that Christ's body includes the poor and the oppressed everywhere, whether or not they are self-identified Christians. Matthew 25 is pertinent here. This is one way in which the missionaries of many Christian denominations have gotten it right.

    Of course, as eluded to above, a most unfortunate reality is the deep Christian division that World Communion Sunday has done little to alleviate, which is ideologically reflected in the theological differences regarding communion. I always think of Voltaire's sassy sarcasm in which he says: “So, while those who were called Papists ate God but not bread, the Lutherans ate both bread and God. Soon after there came the Calvinists who ate bread and did not eat God.” (quoted by A.J. Ayer in his book, Voltaire)

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    1. Thanks for your significant comments, Anton!

      Your point about Matthew 25 is well taken, although even though while I agree that all can be seen as loved by God--and thus all should be loved by us--I don't know what it means to refer to everyone as part of the body of Christ. Many people surely wouldn't self-identify that way and would perhaps resent being identified that way.

      My point, in part, is that if we Christians don't reach out in love and help even those who are a conscious part of Christ's body, how are we going to reach beyond the members of the body, in this narrow sense, to help those outside the body?

      Back in grad. school I read A.J. Ayer some, but I did not know (or remember?) that he had written a biography of Voltaire. While I am amused by his "sassy sarcasm," and while he highlights points of controversy within historical Christianity, I am not sure it has any real relevance to the problem of "discerning the body."

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  3. Voltaire nailed it! BTW, many American Baptists celebrate WCS. (Charles Kiker)

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    1. Charles, thanks for pointing out, correctly, that there are Baptist churches who do celebrate WCS. I should have been more specific and said "Southern Baptists," rather than just "Baptists."

      There are also, no doubt, many CBF churches in the States and Baptist churches in other countries who observe WCS.

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    2. I have just now edited the article to say "Southern Baptist" or SBC rather than just "Baptist."

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  4. Thinking on this one. I was working through concepts this week with my son and my spiritual mentor on communion/Communion, justice/Justice, catholic/Catholic... There are enormous differences in the dyads.

    While unity sounds good around specific issues, issues also cause enormous divergence and non-Communion. I believe in unity and Communion, and commend the dialogue toward that end between groups seriously pursuing reconciliation and Communion - Orthodox/Catholic, Orthodox/Anglican, Catholic/Anglican, Catholic/Lutheran, etc.

    But with some there can never be Communion due to extreme variances in theology, so shared communion does not make sense, although a shared pursuit of an issue might be good. I believe I will sit out this communion, and instead focus on doing good with others with whom there is no Communion.

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  5. As it happens, the CBF (Baptist) church to which I belong is in the middle of reviewing whether to consider adopting open baptism for new members, which is to say accepting infant and non-immersion baptisms for new transfer members. In the process we have looked at parallels to our open communion and open offerings. (Yes, some churches once refused donations from nonmembers, much as the magazine "Consumer Reports" refuses corporate donations lest its product reviews be tainted by manufacturers' dollars.)

    The early Baptist Roger Williams at one time practiced closed prayer, which is to say he would not pray with other people for fear they were not worthy to pray with. Then he decided that was absurd, and decided that anyone who wanted to pray was welcome to pray with him. Personally, I would prefer an open communion policy that worked the same way. Anyone who is enough of a friend of Christianity to want to share is this sign of the faith should be welcome, even if just a visitor or an unbaptized child. This would be a witnessing opportunity for the pastor to briefly explain the meaning of the communion to any visitors who might be present. Those who need to worry about partaking unworthily are not these visitors, but rather the established believers who have come with an unsettled burden. They know who they are. As Brewer and Shipley put it in their song some years ago, "One toke over the line sweet Jesus, one toke over the line. Sitting downtown in a railway station, one toke over the line." For those of us not in on the lingo, that is "One toe got over the line, sweet Jesus." See link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNKL9onYB_8

    Let me end with a joke my father recently told. It seems one day Saint Peter and Saint Paul were discussing the population of heaven, and they worried that too many souls were there. So they agreed Peter would check the books, and Paul would count the souls. Well, it turned out there were indeed too many souls. So Paul volunteered to investigate. Later he reported back to Peter. Jesus was at the back wall, helping sinners in.

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  6. Here are comments, used with permission, from local Thinking Friend Rob Carr, who is pastor of a Disciples of Christ church north of the river in Kansas City:

    "Hi Leroy--------thanks for this affirmation of WCS. As a member of the DOC of course I am an advocate for the weekly celebration of Communion--------and I pray for a growing consensus among Protestants that weekly observance is an important and life-giving practice. Perhaps one day then, we won't need a special day designated for communion across the life of the Body-----every Sunday will see the worldwide Body gathered at the table."

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