Communion and God's vision of oneness

October 1st, 2014

World Communion Sunday

October 5 is World Communion Sunday. This observance began in 1936 in the Presbyterian Church, was adopted by the Federal Council of Churches (now the National Council of Churches) in 1940, and is now celebrated internationally across denominations. The international character of the celebration is apparent by the word world appearing in the title of the day. That much is simple. The word communion, however, has several implications.

First, there is the reference to the sacrament of Holy Communion. As we celebrate the Eucharist today, we are conscious of the fact that it is also being celebrated in many different countries, in many different languages, using many different worship styles. We will discuss this further a little later.

Second, as Ian Heston Doescher points out in his article “World Communion Sunday: Why We Do It and How,” “there is a flavor of the Christian celebration of Pentecost as well, when people from around the Mediterranean world came together in mutual understanding and inspiration, by the power of the Holy Spirit.” This day celebrates the great sacrament of Holy Communion, which, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is a symbol of the unity of the universal church, fragmented though we are, and a foretaste of the time when all the fragments will be gathered together and restored, and we will be truly one in Christ Jesus.

Eucharist: Symbol of Hope and Foretaste of Oneness

There are many denominations that celebrate Holy Communion on a weekly basis. Others, however, celebrate quarterly, while still others monthly. On World Communion Sunday, no matter how frequently your church celebrates, you can take Communion knowing that many others around the world are intentionally doing so today as well.

Your congregation may choose to enhance this recognition by adding elements to the worship with an international flair. For example, my congregation in Virginia will often cover the Communion table with a cloth given to us by the missionary we sponsor in the Congo. It is bright and colorful and features words written in the language of the area. Also, we have sometimes asked people in our congregation who are fluent in other languages to pray in those languages on this day, or to serve Communion while saying, “The body of Christ broken for you,” or “The blood of Christ shed for you,” in those languages.

These are great reminders that we are all one body in Christ Jesus no matter where we happen to live or what language we happen to speak. In reality, however, the entire sacrament is geared to reminding us of this reality each and every time we celebrate it.

Paul understood that the Lord’s Supper was all about unity. In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, we read Paul’s famous instructions to the people of Corinth about how they should celebrate it. According to the CEB Study Bible, in this text we find “the only direct quotation by Paul of a tradition from the ministry of Jesus also found in the Gospels,” thus highlighting its importance.

At the time, the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in the context of a communal meal (like a potluck!). Apparently, in Corinth, those who could afford to bring food to the meal would eat it all before the poor, who couldn’t afford to bring anything, could arrive and be fed. The Corinthian church was becoming divided into classes, and Paul reminded them that this kind of division was antithetical to the meaning of the Eucharist. He was not necessarily instructing them on the theology of the sacrament itself, per se, except to say that if the Corinthians claimed to recognize the body of Christ in the bread but failed to recognize the body of Christ in the assembled community, then they were doing it wrong.

The Great Thanksgiving

The Great Thanksgiving, the prayer the pastor prays during Holy Communion, is written in such a way as to highlight the unity of the church implicit in the sacrament, about which Paul reminded the Corinthians. The first indications of this are the pronouns used in the prayer. “You formed us in your image” (italics added for emphasis), the pastor says, speaking to God on behalf of the whole congregation, but really on behalf of the whole universal church.

It ends with a prayer for unity: “By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” The liturgy then moves into a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, another thing all Christians share; and as the pastor then breaks the bread, we are reminded that “because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”

There are different ways in which the congregation then shares in the meal. In some churches, the congregation passes plates with individual wafers and cups. Other places use one big loaf of bread, which the pastor breaks, and the members of the congregation receive pieces of the loaf.

In his book Eucharist: Christ’s Feast With the Church, renowned worship scholar Laurence Hull Stookey argues for a common loaf of bread to “connote the sense of sharing” and to proclaim “our sharing from the one Bread of Life.” The elements of bread in a whole loaf and the juice in a common cup are tangible illustrations of the unity expressed in the sacrament of Holy Communion. 

Churches who use individual wafers or cups of juice in their Communion celebrations might consider how to do so with the symbolism of unity in mind. In "This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion," the authors talk about using one loaf of bread and a common cup but then say about congregations who use individual wafers and cups that “in these situations, unity can be effectively symbolized if each person’s cup is filled from a pouring chalice.”

Fostering Oneness

So far we have been exploring how the sacrament of Holy Communion expresses the unity of the church, symbolically in the words and physical elements used in the celebration, and literally as we acknowledge the unifying presence of Christ present as we worship. It must be recognized, however, that the oneness we celebrate is imperfect. There are divisions in the church. Therefore, even as we celebrate our common faith, we are aware that answering Jesus’ prayer for us to be “perfectly one” (John 17:23) is going to take a bit more work, not only on the part of the Holy Spirit, but also from us. How can we work toward realizing the hope of unity?

Acknowledging those divisions, issues, and conflicts is a first step, and we need to be honest about them. Getting bogged down in our differences will not foster oneness, however. Unity is achieved by focusing on those areas where we stand united.

In Matthew 22:34-40, we read about the greatest commandment (actually the two greatest commandments). When questioned on this issue, Jesus said the greatest commandments were to love God and love your neighbor. This sounds like a great place to start when we begin to talk about unity. Can we acknowledge that these two commandments form the basis of our lives together? If we can, then what might we be able to do together with these as our focus?

Redirecting ourselves in this way will go a long way toward fostering unity. Intentionally encountering others who worship differently than we do or express their Christian faith differently can bear much fruit. In the confirmation program at the church where I serve, the young people are required to attend a worship service in a denomination different from their own. How often do we ever do something like that, even after we have been confirmed members of the church for a long time?

Visiting other denominations is a great idea, but we can go even further. Does your congregation minister in mission with nearby churches? Our Communion liturgy says, “Make us . . . one in ministry to all the world.” As mentioned earlier, this is not simply a prayer for our local church to be united, but also for each church of Christ to come together as one to bring the reign of God closer and closer.

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