Thursday, July 24, 2014

Eucharist: Finding Unity Amid Differences

Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have said: “If Christians had actually done what Jesus taught us to do—namely, love our enemy—the world would long have been transformed.” How true. There is one thing, however, that most Christians do as Jesus taught. “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me’” (Luke 22:19). They celebrate the Eucharist.

In the past three weeks I was able to celebrate the Last Supper in two different countries. I shared the memory of the broken body of Christ in two different languages, two very different worship services, and yet a common experience.

On July 2, I attended a Celtic Evensong service at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. People entered the cathedral-like sanctuary reverently with little exchange of greetings. Many arrived early and sat in silence, waiting for the service to begin. A few minutes before the designated time to begin, a classical flute and piano duet played to continue the meditative mood. The church was packed. Nearly 500 people were in attendance.

July 20, I attended the Charismatic church of my sister-in-law in Übeschi, Switzerland. People entered the lobby and everyone greeted each other and struck up conversations wherever they went. The conversations continued into the sanctuary, with people walking up and down the aisles to find more conversations in which to engage. Suddenly the band began to play and the worship leader started singing. The congregants (sort of) settled into their places in the sanctuary. The church was about 60% full. Because of summer vacations about 175 people of the normal 250 had gathered.

Beginning with the way congregants gathered to each worship experience, the two services couldn’t have been more different from each other. At the Episcopal Church, everything except for the short homily and the hymns was printed out on a program, which was four pages long. The printed word ruled the service. In contrast, the Charismatic Church had nothing printed, no program, no hymn books, few people consulted Bibles for biblical references. Although the songs were projected on to two large screens, few people referred to them, as the four or five songs that were repeated various times were familiar to the gathered community. To use anything printed seemed to suggest that it would inhibit spontaneity.

In the Episcopal service, everyone stood or sat together as indicated in the printed program. All the assembled people did everything together. In the Charismatic service, some people stood during the songs, some people sat. Some raised their hands in worship, some did not. Some spoke in tongues during one of the songs (which seemed to be designated for that purpose), some did not. 

In the Episcopal service, there was a pastoral prayer during which time people could go to the front to place a candle at the altar for their unexpressed special prayer needs. I was surprised at the number of people who went forward to do so. I was also surprised that at the Charismatic service there was no pastoral prayer offered. In fact, in contrast to the many prayers offered in the Episcopal service, all written of course, there were few prayers during the Charismatic service.

In the Episcopal service, the homily couldn’t have lasted more than eight minutes. It was clearly not the central part of the service. Yet the service lasted over an hour and a half. In contrast, the sermon for the Charismatic service was clearly central to the gathering. It was nearly forty-five minutes long, nearly half of the hour-and-a-half service. Most of the rest of the Charismatic service time was taken up in congregational singing. There were only a few congregational songs in the Episcopal service.

One thing that both churches had in common, however, was the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The way the elements were administered was somewhat different, but the same scripture verses were offered. In the Episcopal church we were given a wafer and real wine. At the Charismatic service we were offered real bread and grape juice. In the Episcopal church everyone went forward to receive the elements, while in the Charismatic service the elements were distributed to the congregants in their pew.

In spite of the few differences in the celebration of the Eucharist, the same Jesus was lifted up. The same unity of the body of Christ was felt. The same openness to share the sacred meal was evident. I felt a sense of transcendent awe in both services, especially at the celebration of communion. I also felt the imminence of the incarnate God in both services as I partook of the bread and the cup. Both experiences made me feel united with all the other congregants in what Gandhi called the “love-force,” or the “soul-force.” This is the soul-force that helps us to love our enemy.

These memorials of Christ’s death are celebrated the world over in many more than the two languages, and two different countries in which I experienced them recently. Yet Christians themselves remain divided—divided to the point of hatred in some instances.
If Christians the world over remembered what we have in common instead of how we differ, we would make huge strides toward unity. Celebrating the Eucharist together would be one way to do this.

From celebrating the Lord’s Supper together, we could take the next step to embody what the poster from Mennonite Central Committee implored us to do: “Let The Christians Of The World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other.” Only then will we be true followers of Jesus. Only then will Christians have an answer to Gandhi’s challenge.   

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