A Place at the Table
2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10
Good morning. Today we celebrate World Communion Sunday. This is an ecumenical celebration of the Lord’s Supper that is recognized by a number of different Christian denominations. At its core, World Communion Sunday emphasizes the connections among Christians all around the world, rather than focusing on the things that separate us. So, this isn’t just a Presbyterian thing, though it was originally conceived by a Presbyterian minister. And like so many other great things that make our world a better and brighter place, this tradition comes out of Pittsburgh. Seriously.
World Communion Sunday was first celebrated in 1933 at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. The Rev. Dr. Hugh Thomson Kerr wanted to bring churches together in ecumenical unity. The tradition was adopted by the Presbyterian Church in the United States—that’s the PCUS, not the PCUSA, which is our current denomination, more on that later—in 1936, and then it was endorsed by the National Council of Churches in 1940. So, it’s been around for quite a while.
I think this need for connection and common ground and unity is very clear in our fractured world. I’d like to try a little experiment here:
· If you were born in another country, please stand up.
· If your parents were born in another country, please stand.
· If your grandparents were born in another country, please stand.
That’s a visible reminder of our diverse backgrounds. This table is a visible reminder of our unity in the midst of diversity; it’s a reminder of our shared identity in Christ.
We need to be reminded of this because, well, we don’t always do a very good job following Jesus or finding our identity in Christ. I read an article a couple weeks ago that argued that our political identities are stronger than our religious identities. What’s more, when there’s a conflict between our political beliefs and our religious teachings, we’ll go with our own personal politics.
I found this surprising at first, but as I considered our political and religious history in this country, I thought the article raised some valid points. I should add that I’m not talking about our present political climate. I’m actually talking about World Communion Sunday.
In mid-1900s there were two major bodies of Presbyterian churches, the United Presbyterian Church (UPC) and the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). The two groups emerged from in the mid-1800s. For the most part, the congregations that became the UPC were from the North, and those that were established before the Civil War favored the abolition of slavery in the United States. The other group was originally called the Presbyterian Church in North America and its member congregations supported the status quo, legal slavery in all states below the Mason-Dixon Line.
In 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War, the Presbyterian Church in North America changed its name to the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. Then, in 1866, the denomination adopted the name Presbyterian Church in the United States or PCUS. The PCUS and the UPC finally merged in 1983 to form the Presbyterian Church USA, or PCUSA, which is the denomination to which this congregation belongs. Here endeth the history lecture.
Now, you may think that’s a lot of information, and you may be wondering how it pertains to this morning’s readings, but the truth is, that’s only one of several splits within the Presbyterian Church. The point of this history lesson is to demonstrate how our own differences of opinion and politics can be used to shape our understanding of Scripture and Jesus’ call upon our lives.
This is, I believe, how a group of southern Presbyterians could choose to overlook the words of the Apostle Paul: “In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female;” (Galatians 3:28). Those are words of radical egalitarianism—they say that all of us are united in Christ and all are equal in Christ. I would guess that few, if any, of those slaveholders invited their human property to dinner as honored guests, as Jesus suggests to the disciples in our reading from the Gospel of Luke.
My point is not to beat up on wealthy southerners from over 150 years ago. Nor am I trying to re-litigate the Civil War or open old wounds. My point is that, when we are faced with a choice between following Christ’s call and holding on the things that give us power and status in this world, we tend to hold on to the things of this world.
The world tells us that material things are in short supply, and we have to hoard what little we have. The world tells us that we can’t trust in anyone else; we have to get through this life on our own. The world tells us to be scared of people who don’t look like us, act like us, or speak the same language as us. And the world tells us that we don’t have the power to change things. The world tells us, don’t bother; look out for number one and make your own life as comfortable as possible.
In our reading from Second Timothy, the Apostle Paul cautions Timothy against what the world teaches; he offers “sound teaching.” He instructs Timothy to act with courage, without fear or shame, in spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the gospel for which Paul has suffered—he was sent to jail for preaching the Word. The implication is that Timothy will probably suffer, too, if he follows the call to preach the gospel.
I don’t think that many of us have had to suffer to practice our faith. I mean, I went on the mission trip to Kentucky. That wasn’t easy. It was hot and humid, and my air mattress didn’t stay inflated at night, so I slept very poorly while I was there. And the air conditioning didn’t work very well in one of the vans that we took to Kentucky, so the folks who rode in that van were kind of uncomfortable.
Feel free to laugh at my complaints, if you’re not already laughing. Sleeping poorly on a mission trip hardly counts as suffering. Riding in a warm van in July isn’t exactly suffering, either. We really can’t relate to the early apostles who were beaten, arrested, and executed for practicing their faith.
I think we like our nice, comfortable lives and our predictable routines. I think we like having communion once a month, on the first Sunday, and knowing exactly what to expect. I think sometimes we’re embarrassed to talk about our faith in our secular lives or invite our friends to come to church with us. We don’t want to risk rejection or awkward conversations if our friends don’t respond in ways that we anticipate.
But honestly, what are we afraid of? Are we afraid we don’t have enough faith to do what Jesus calls us to do? Are we afraid that we don’t have enough faith to follow Christ’s call? Are we afraid that the problems of this world are too big for us to fix? Guess what? The disciples were afraid of that, too! So, we’re all in pretty good company!
The disciples have this idea that faith is just something that Jesus can bestow upon them. Like a cup full of water, Jesus can just pour his faith into them, and they’ll be equipped for whatever tasks Jesus tells them to complete. Perhaps they don’t understand that there’s a time when they won’t have Jesus in the world to direct their actions.
Just like the disciples, we want easy answers: “Jesus, increase our faith!” We want bad teaching, that tells us we don’t have to change, that we can remain in our comfortable lives, just as we are, and still follow Jesus. We don’t want to practice our faith in ways that challenge us and force us to grow.
We make the mistake of thinking that faith is like knowledge; faith is what we believe. That’s a fundamental misunderstanding on our part. Faith is not simply a cognitive function; faith isn’t just what happens inside of our heads. Faith is what we do and how we act. Faith is how we follow Jesus. Faith is how and why we invite new people to this table. Faith is how we build the kingdom of God here on Earth. The way we get more faith is to go out there and practice the faith we have. The way we grow our faith is to constantly put our faith into action. And then we examine our actions, and ask the Holy Spirit to continue to guide us, so that we find new and challenging ways to practice our faith.
That’s scary. Very scary.
It’s supposed to be scary. Following Jesus is scary.
Like the disciples, we’re afraid we don’t have enough faith or enough members or enough money to do the work of faith. But that’s not true. We already have all the resources we need to put our faith into action. When we come to this table, we are reminded of the grace that is offered to us, in and through the person of Jesus Christ. That is all the faith we need as we go about the work of building God’s kingdom here on earth. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we have all the faith and love and grace that we need to go out into the world and build God’s kingdom. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!