World Communion Sunday

October 2nd, 2019

“One in the Spirit and the Gospel”

For nearly 80 years, churches of different faith groups have joined together for World Communion Sunday. Currently, this day is commemorated by 38 different Christian traditions. These various groups each celebrate the day in their own ways and through their own traditions; but even though they’re in different settings, everyone gathers together, at least figuratively, around the Lord’s Table. Christian unity, specifically symbolized by the act of Communion, is the focal point of World Communion Sunday. This provides us with a powerful reminder that we’re one in Christ despite our differences.

According to the Presbyterian Mission Agency, the idea for World Communion Sunday was originally conceived by Dr. Hugh Thompson Kerr, pastor of Shadyside Presbyterian in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Kerr wanted to bring various churches in the area together for a service focused on unity, and he felt that one thing that unites us all in the Christian faith is the celebration of Holy Communion. Kerr wanted the service to be a celebration of Christian unity with Communion as the primary exhibition of this united nature.

The first observance took place in 1933, and three years later it was adopted as a general denominational practice by the Presbyterian Church (USA). In 1940, the Department of Evangelism for the Federal Council of Churches, a predecessor of the National Council of Churches, promoted it to churches in member denominations. Speaking about World Communion Sunday, Kerr’s son, Donald, explained, “The concept spread very slowly at the start. . . . It was during the Second World War that the spirit caught hold, because we were trying to hold the world together. [The day] symbolized the effort to hold things together, in a spiritual sense. It emphasized that we are one in the Spirit and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” 

Diversity within unity

The Reverend Stephen Bauman of Christ Church (UM) in New York City says World Communion Sunday “celebrates the astonishing diversity that exists among the Christian family surrounding the world.” In his own community, he says over 50 different nationalities or ethnicities are represented, embodying the “astonishing diversity” he speaks about. The mere idea of people from so many nations coming to the Lord’s Table together at one time in one place is remarkable. It also brings to mind visions of Pentecost, where people from many nations throughout the Mediterranean gathered in Jerusalem. Together, these people heard the gospel proclaimed in their own language. As we celebrate World Communion Sunday, we are, in some small way, reenacting the power of God’s Spirit on that first Pentecost Sunday.

Bauman goes on to state that World Communion Sunday is “an absolutely wonderful way to articulate a theology of grace for the world.” God’s grace, through the church, is extended “to people of all ages, nations and races,” as stated in our baptismal vows. Though most churches will not have the diversity of nations and races found at Christ Church, the worldwide nature of the celebration reminds us of the fact that God’s work in Jesus Christ extends beyond national boundaries.

In anticipation of writing this article, I surveyed a number of United Methodist clergy about what makes World Communion Sunday special for them and in what ways they celebrate it. Most responded that they appreciate the worldwide nature of the celebration, especially the focus on the diversity of languages, nationalities and traditions of those who worship the same God.

Several others pointed out how much they enjoy the variety of different chalices, different manners of dress, and even different types of bread used around the world. Being a lover of bread myself, I particularly enjoyed a response from Mary Barringer Kay, pastor of Christ UMC in Napoleon, Ohio, who told about how she sets up a bread machine just outside the worship space and times it to finish just before worship so worshippers can smell the baking bread as they enter. The congregation then uses this bread in their Communion that day.

Despairing about unity

In our present day, unity seems elusive not only across national borders but also within those boundaries. The original intention of World Communion Sunday was to cross the divisions separating various Christian faith groups; but even within our own United Methodist Church, that unity is an unrealized dream, let alone when we think about the 37 additional faith groups who celebrate World Communion Sunday and many more who don’t. This ideal, which seems so noble, also feels distressingly distant and unattainable.

If we return to the roots of this special day, however, we can find some measure of comfort. Back in 1933, when the day was first conceived in one lone Presbyterian church, the world was as fractured as it had ever been. That year saw Adolf Hitler’s rise and consolidation of power in Nazi Germany, and a second great war in Europe was becoming more and more inevitable. It was also the worst year of the Great Depression, with Americans and people around the world in financial despair. By 1940, when the day was approved by the Federal Council of Churches, the war had begun in Europe. World Wide Communion Sunday, as it was originally called, attempted to bring churches together in a service of Christian unity during an extremely turbulent time.

Today, celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Table together reminds us of this ideal of unity, despite our differences between denominations and within our own denomination. The richness of the diversity may be evident in some places but harder to spot in others. Nevertheless, it’s present everywhere. Around the table on this day will be folks who disagree with one another about many things, including theological, cultural and personal issues; but on this day, around this table, and collectively with Christians in churches throughout the world, they will be united as one. We may seem so deeply fractured, but this ideal of unity, however elusive, is still present and God is still moving in our world to make us one in Christ. In the words of Ephesians 4:4-6, World Communion Sunday reminds us that “you are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.” This has been true during hard times in the past, is true today, and will be true tomorrow — no matter what.


Why is this day different?

A well-known question in the Jewish tradition that’s regularly asked as part of the Passover meal is, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This question can help us as we consider our mindset entering World Communion Sunday. As we think about this tradition, we ask ourselves, “Why is this day different from all other days?”

In some ways, the answer is apparent. It’s a day set aside where we seek to cross the boundaries of nationality, language and denomination to remember that we’re one in Christ Jesus. The original intention was to focus on bringing together a variety of Christian groups, and the idea has grown and spread to 38 different traditions. Though there are far more denominations beyond this group, it’s a start toward Christian unity.

Yet, other voices remind us that it’s not a day different from other days. In fact, whenever we gather to share in the Lord’s Table, we’re in Christ together. We’re bound together by being in the body of Christ together. In the words of theologian and writer Debra Dean Murphy, “Unity is a gift. Sometimes we receive it badly or not at all but it is nonetheless not our own creation. It is the gift of union with Christ, made known to us in the breaking of bread, and making of us, despite ourselves, a body that lives in and through the power of a healing, reconciling God.” 

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