Dateline Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1936. An upscale Presbyterian congregation in the Shadyside neighborhood, seeking a new way to promote world mission, births the notion of a Worldwide Communion Sunday, to be celebrated on the first Sunday of October. A plaque in the chancel floor of Shadyside Presbyterian marks the spot to this day. Within four years of its inception, the Department of Evangelism of the old Federal Council of Churches had heard about the idea. Sixty years later, a casual Google search of “World Communion Sunday” threatens “about 23,700” hits.
By the time I was a young boy growing up Presbyterian somewhere between the Kennedy assassinations, Worldwide Communion Sunday (the “wide” would not be dropped until the early 1970s) was rich fodder for homiletic imagination. Year after year, my young liturgical mind was sermonically inspired to images of Tongan chiefs dropping by the Vatican that very morning (at 11:00 EDT of course) for their annual ecumenical celebration of Eucharist.
Reality check: As Roman, Orthodox, Anglican, and even many Lutheran Christians will quickly remind us, worldwide communion on any Sunday is neither unique to any one date nor new in our generation. Most of the world’s Christians commune every Lord’s Day, as they have since Communion was new. North American Protestants, most of whom now fall into the once-a-month-maybe communion cycle, need to remember that our claim to any “World” Communion Sunday is, in effect, just a teasing taste of global reality; a regional holy day—nothing more.
Don’t Make It Odd
But that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the larger world’s reality once a year. Worship music and liturgical texts from the global Christian community abound in 2006, thanks in part to people like Emily Brink and Michael Hawn who keep finding them and bringing them home. Still, many Christians in the United States and Canada remain ambivalent to the joy and the beauty of our communion within the global church. A survey I distributed during a recent teaching week in the Midwest revealed that only about 5 percent of the congregations represented had any experience at all with any form of “global” worship. This is our great loss.
What’s keeping us from this banquet of multicultural joy? Time, energy, tradition, imagination, and perhaps the haunting notion that if it’s beyond our experience we might get it wrong—all these enter in. But I think there is also the “odd” factor. At first hearing, music and texts from Christians in cultures different from ours sound—well—different. Many well-intentioned worship leaders haphazardly sprinkle global resources through an unsuspecting congregation’s October liturgy. The result can be something akin to approaching a Korean buffet table blindfolded and grabbing a big mouthful of the first thing you find.
Make It Real
Forty years after my childhood daydreams, I find myself serving on the pastoral team of a tri-cultural congregation that intentionally comes to the Table every Sunday. My current reality has forced me to take a closer look at what every believer has the opportunity to proclaim on any Lord’s Day, simply by coming to the Table: grace that is not limited to any one indigenous people group, mercy that is lavished on us on a cosmic scale, and a true foretaste of God’s kingdom with people coming—quite literally—from north and south and east and west. This is about as close to God’s reality as liturgy can get. And you don’t need to be part of a multicultural congregation to experience it.
Just a Taste
There can be no doubt that coming to the Table changes us and our relationships. This intentionally constant reminder of our God-hunger sharpens our desire to be God’s people, deflates the self-importance of the self-impressed, and promises shalom to those who come beaten up or beaten down. When we afford ourselves the opportunity to realize that these loving actions of the merciful God are enacted around the globe every Lord’s Day (and multiple times every day in between), our prayer for the coming of God’s kingdom takes on deeper and more urgent meaning. When we realize that each time we go to Christ’s Table, that kingdom reality is markedly closer than it was the time before, our lives begin to assimilate deeper and more urgent intensities of joy.
By its very nature, communion is a crumb of God’s grace dispensed in a cosmic event. Every trip we make to the Table not only signifies for us the formation of a sacramental community among brothers and sisters at that Table, but reminds us that the same grace-based community extends to every other believer on the planet, marking for each of us the passage of the world’s time and the approach of God’s eternity.