A Sermon for World Communion Sunday

On the first Sunday in October, many Christian churches across the globe join together in celebrating World Communion Sunday.

World Communion Sunday began at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1933. The Rev. Hugh Thompson Kerr and his congregation sought to promote the interconnectedness of Christian churches, regardless of denomination. Quite appropriately, Rev. Kerr chose the sacrament of Holy Communion to symbolize this unity.    

It was then adopted throughout the US Presbyterian Church in 1936 and subsequently spread to other denominations. In 1940, the Federal Council of Churches (now the National Council of Churches) endorsed World Communion Sunday and began to promote it to Christian churches worldwide.

Today, World Communion Sunday is celebrated around the world, demonstrating that the church founded on Jesus Christ peacefully shares God-given goods in a world increasingly destabilized by globalization and global market economies based on greed.

TEXT: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ (1 Cor. 12:12).

That quotation from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians reminds us that the human body was the apostle’s favorite metaphor for the Christian Church. I think it’s my favourite, also.

The human body seems almost infinite in its complexity, made up of billions upon billions of tiny cells. There are more cells in your body than there are people in the world.

Our blood is circulated through 60,000 miles of tubing reaching to every part of the body. If all the veins, arteries, and capillaries were laid end to end, this tubing could be stretched around the earth more than seven times!

Every day the human heart circulates over 5,000 litres of blood. The heart is an amazing pump that never seems to get tired and which never takes a rest.

An adult human body has more than 200 separate bones, and over 600 muscles.

Our nervous system is a highly efficient communication apparatus, carrying messages to and from the brain. Nerve impulses can move at a speed of nearly 350 feet per second. They can zip up from a person’s feet and back again more than 30 times in one second!

And the human brain is more complex—and mysterious—than any computer manufactured by Dell or Apple. In fact, the entire human body is the world’s most incredible piece of machinery. Engineers have built different kinds of robots—but even the most sophisticated of these cannot come close to doing everything the human body can do.

No wonder Paul loved this metaphor! And it’s a very appropriate one for us to contemplate on World Communion Sunday—especially when we consider some other passages written by the apostle.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul states—flatly and emphatically—that Christ “is the head of the body, the church” (Col. 1:18). In Ephesians, chapter one, Paul says that God has made Christ “the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23).

And later on in Ephesians—in chapter four—he urges us to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15-16).

“Now we are the body of Christ—and, individually, members of it.” But Christ is the head of the body!

Some in the church may find this hard to believe, but … it’s kind of important that a body has a head! No. Really. It is.

Without a head, the body has no direction. No coordination. Nothing to tie all the body parts together and make them work together harmoniously.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the saying, “Running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” If you’re not … I can give you a link to a quite horrifying YouTube video [].

It’s really true: after decapitation, poultry sometimes runs around for several minutes in an uncoordinated and frenzied manner. If you do something as a headless chicken would do it, you do it very quickly, and without thinking carefully about what you’re doing.  You act in a haphazard or  aimless way … frantically … without control.

Today—on World Communion Sunday—we have to acknowledge that the Church of Christ has been too often like a headless chicken.

Too often, we’ve looked to something other than Christ to give us direction. And so, we’ve found ourselves … well … lost. Or, at least, confused.

Yeah. Confused … misdirected … caught up in politics or creeds—or controversies about doctrine, procedures, and protocol.

When you look back upon two millennia of church history …

Frankly, it’s kind of sad. It’s appalling, actually, to consider the sorts of things that have divided us—which have put us at odds with one another. The sorts of issues that have separated sister from sister, and brother from brother, have been, at times, bizarre!

For example, one of the earliest controversies within the Christian Church—way back in the fourth century—centered around the ideas identified by two Greek words: homoiousios (ὁμοιούσιος) and homoousios (ὁμοούσιος). This all had to do with the question of just exactly how Christ was related to God—or, what it means to say that Jesus is “the Son of God.”

Homoiousios means “of a similar substance,” and homoousios  means “of the same substance.” These two Greek words differ by a single letter: iota. The 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon—in his History of Christianity—pointed out, with some ridicule, that the church was very nearly split by the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet!

Even the Lord’s Table—which is the focal point of “World Communion Sunday”—has become a source of contention amongst Christians. Do the bread and wine symbolize Christ’s body and blood? Or do they, somehow, miraculously become—literally—his flesh and blood? The Bible does not address this question. When we look at the text of the New Testament, we see that Jesus merely asked us to remember him as we eat and drink.

But, you know, the issues that divide us are not confined to the “big questions” that pit one denomination against another. No. Far, far worse are the kinds of issues that can tear a local congregation apart.

And, truth to tell, these parochial concerns tend to be even more ridiculous—and sad—than the larger controversies that separate one brand of Christianity from another.

Here’s a story … I’ve told it here before, but I think it bears repeating. Those of you who are of my generation—or who were alive during the 1960s—may remember an American Episcopal priest named Malcolm Boyd (1923-2015). He was the author of a number of popular books and articles and scholarly works. He was also active in the Civil Rights Movement as one of the Freedom Riders in 1961 and in the anti-Vietnam War movement. 

In one of his books, he related an incident from his own experience in pastoral ministry. He also mentioned it in an address he gave, and he prefaced it by saying: “This really happened; I’m not making it up.”

In a nutshell, the story goes like this. In a congregation Boyd once pastored, a controversy arose. A fierce one, bitterly contested.

It wasn’t about some great issue like the “nature” of Christ or the reality of the Virgin Birth or the Trinity or anything like that.

No. It was about the colour of the church doors.

Yeah. That’s right. The time had come to repaint the front doors of the church building, and this became an occasion for conflict. Why? Because some of Boyd’s parishioners wanted to paint the doors red … and others thought red was a scandalous colour for the doors of a church!

To make a long story short … in the end, the doors were painted red, and—as Malcolm Boyd told it—“there were some who never passed through them again.”

You may chuckle at that, and shake your head in disbelief. But—if you’ve been around any congregation for a while—you will almost certainly remember incidents akin to that one. Maybe it isn’t about the colour of the church doors. Maybe it’s about the colour of the carpet in the sanctuary. Or what kind of soap dispensers to put in the washrooms. Or who’s in charge of the kitchen. Really. People come to hate one another because of questions like these. And yet, what our Lord requires of us—what Jesus hopes for us—is simply this: that we should love one another as he has loved us.

“I give you a new commandment,” he said, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

The point is this: whenever we stop listening to Jesus—who is the head of our body—we lose touch with the only One who is able to coordinate all of our various parts. Whenever we allow something or someone other than Jesus to guide and direct our actions, we become a body with its head cut off!

And then—forgetting the prime directive of our Lord—we begin to run wildly about, colliding with all manner of distractions and ideologies and agendas, bouncing off one wall after another, until finally … we collapse and die.

Jesus hoped that we would grow together into a family. And not a dysfunctional family, either! N0. He wanted us to—he still wants us to—grow together in love. Praying to his Father in heaven, he expressed his hope for those who—in every time and place—would claim him as Saviour and Lord:

“I ask not only on behalf of these [that is, his original disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23).

Those are words to remember on this day, as we prepare to feast at our Lord’s Table. A place is set there for each one of us. All that Jesus asks of us, as we sit down to enjoy this family meal, is that we look to our right and to our left and behold what is actually there: our sisters and our brothers, whom we are called to love.

Jesus calls us to be kin to one another, regardless of our politics or our pride or our personal preferences.

Can we do that? I know it won’t be easy … But I believe we can. And I believe we must … for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

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