Several articles in this theme issue explore the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper—or Holy Communion, or Eucharist—all names that offer different angles on the mystery of our union with Christ. We can discuss the sacrament and we can experience it, but we will never fully understand the mystery expressed in Jesus’ teaching in John 6: “I am the bread of life” (v. 35). The bewildered disciples respond, “This is a hard teaching” (v. 60). Indeed.
Celebrating this sacrament is surely one of the strangest things Christians do, especially in the eyes of those unfamiliar with it. The language of the sacrament is also strange. Perhaps that accounts in part for why many North American churches either celebrate infrequently and/or strip away the deeply symbolic language that has been so carefully preserved in liturgical forms.
It is also strange to speak of being united not only to Christ, but also to the body of Christ, naming all Christians in the world our brothers, our sisters, our identity as one family. It is strange because so much of our identity is described for us by national boundaries, barriers, walls, and fences, not to speak of wars and conflicts within and between many countries.
The sacrament of Holy Communion was so holy that the early church even kept visitors away from the table; visitors were welcome to hear the preaching of the Word, but coming to the Table was reserved only for those who had made their commitment to Christ in baptism. Last year I experienced that practice in a registered (government-sanctioned) church in Shanghai, China. I was listening to a simultaneous translation of the service, when suddenly words were spoken but not translated, and about fifty people got up and left. The empty seats were immediately filled by those who had been standing along the side aisles. When I asked the person next to me what was going on, she replied that all those not baptized were asked to leave. Can you imagine doing that in a North American church intent on welcoming the stranger? Yet, that Chinese congregation baptized more than 300 people last year; they usually hold two or three baptism services around Christmas and Easter after a ten-week period of study and preparation.
Liturgically, musically, in terms of a biblical message, and especially in their moving celebration of the Lord’s Supper, I felt quite at home in that church, part of the “post-denominational” Protestant church in China that is under more government control than North Americans could comprehend, much less tolerate.
I mention the Chinese experience because it once more whetted my appetite to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34) in ways that connect each local congregation everywhere with the larger body of Christ. When we celebrate our oneness in Christ, we declare that our unity is stronger and deeper than any barriers between nations and cultures and races.
I tasted the sweetness of that unity in Christ again at the Calvin 2008 Symposium on Worship in January, which welcomed people from all over the world. The symposium ended with the Lord’s Supper and a parting blessing in several languages.
Yet our celebration was tinged with sadness, since seventy-three people had been denied visas by United States embassies in several countries. Although churches in the United States and Canada are free of government control, the fear of terrorism has clamped down the openness of our borders, preventing pastors and church leaders from many countries from attending even a worship conference.
So the next time you celebrate the Lord’s Supper, united not only with Christ, but with all your sisters and brothers in Christ, give thanks that in the kingdom of God there is no east or west, no north or south, no national borders, no walls to keep people apart, and no more visas needed! In Holy Communion, we celebrate our differences in language and culture, in time and place, but we identify ourselves first of all by our belonging to one holy catholic church, the communion of saints. That’s what we celebrate every time we engage in the strange practice that invites us to “Eat this bread and drink this cup”—and, in so doing, to enter into the mystery of becoming more deeply united with Christ and with each other.
Note: At the time of this writing, editor Joyce Borger was on leave while awaiting a decision on her application for a visa that would allow her to continue to work in the United States. We're pleased that she has since received her visa and is back at her office!