Three special Sunday themes in the Christian year are scheduled during October: World Communion Sunday, Laity Sunday, and Reformation Sunday. As we preach and lead worship, we pay attention to connecting lectionary texts with the emphases of the church.
This first Sunday in October is the celebration of World Communion Sunday. Recognized by several Christian denominations since the late 1930s and early 1940s, the General Conference of The United Methodist Church has designated World Communion Sunday as recognition of the inclusive and global nature of the church’s work. World Communion means that people across differences of culture and history join at the table that God sets before us.
Look at the dates of its founding – late 1930s and early 1940s. Worldwide Communion was named during a time the world was divided in what became a devastating world war. World Communion Sunday was begun in hope – looking for a time when barriers could be crossed and communities united.
Today, on this Sunday, millions join together to celebrate Holy Communion. United Methodist Church offerings go to empower students for service both in the United States and internationally. Yet, rumors of war are still heard, and barriers dividing people are still being built.
On first glance, the texts for October 6 and the celebration of World Communion do not seem to cohere. Yet, just as World Communion Sunday was initiated in a time of war, the first two lectionary texts for October 6 remember a time of war and devastation for the people of Judah. After a series of tribute payments, conflicts, and uprisings between the Jewish people and their overlords in Babylon, an invading army under King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem, devasted its great Temple built by Solomon, and took captives into exile.
The Babylonian exile created a significant problem for the people’s religious understandings. They asked: “Why has God let God’s people be taken captive (as we know Jeremiah seeks to address that)? How can God be faithfully worshiped without the Temple?”
Looking directly at the devastation of Jerusalem, the writer of Lamentations cries: Even the “roads to Zion mourn” (Lamentations 1:4 NRSV). The Psalm for today reflects the same pain. It appears to have been written in Babylon: “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4 NRSV.) It tells of the ways the faith of the exiles was ridiculed. The rabbis in Babylon worked to address that pain – to understand God’s continuing presence with the people and God’s hopes and expectations for the people.
Compared to the anguish of the exile texts, the messages of the New Testament readings are straightforward and almost simple. The Letter to Timothy (also written during a time of oppression – the Roman oppression of Jews and followers of the Way of Jesus) advises, “Hold on”; be faithful. Luke records a puzzling interaction between Jesus and the disciples about “increasing faith.” Faith requires moving beyond ordinary expectations of daily life, expectations learned in our culture, to seek more.
Celebrating World Communion Sunday itself offers good news. Our world seems always to be filled with rumors of war. And, personally, in our everyday lives, we face devastation. Both our world and our ordinary lives often call us to lament. We may even feel a similar anger to that of the Judeans imprisoned in Babylon. We fear we have lost faith, that God has turned away, and that hope (new life) is not possible.
The gift of World Communion is that even in the midst of brokenness and despair, God’s vision calls us forward. For Jesus, table fellowship was amazing. He gathered with diverse groups of people, even some who were not welcomed by others (see Mt 11:18-19; Mk 2:15-17; & Lk 7:33-34). Gathering at table sought to embody the vision of Isaiah (a prophet important to Jesus) where God would “wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth” (Isaiah 25:8 NRSV). Through table fellowship, Jesus called his followers to feed one another and build community.
As we eat the bread and share the cup, we remember God’s gifts of a good creation and God’s continuing creation. We remember the gift of Jesus and the way he taught us to live. We remember the continuing presence of the Spirit.
The message of World Communion is not simply hope instead of despair or endurance instead of tears. It calls for work! The vision of God’s banquet calls us to join with others. It calls us to reach out across barriers. It asks us to work with others to make the banquet a reality. Perhaps now Jesus’ response to the apostles’ question, “increase our faith” (Lk 17:5 NRSV), is clearer. The gift of the vision of God’s Table calls us to do more than the ordinary. We are called to live the Table – to join with those who are different from us, to work for healing and build community.
In the next three weeks in October, we will see this advice repeated. In the midst of everyday life, we are called to sing songs of faith and follow God by working to embody the vision of new life that the Table offers us.
Questions for reflection:
- What are the concerns and “devastations” facing those in your community? Is it fear of gun violence in schools, barriers being built on the border, or exclusion of believers from leadership in the church?
- Remembering that World Communion Sunday was initiated to cross even warring boundaries, ask yourself what barriers you and your congregation need to cross.
- Focus on the vision of the Table. Ask, together with members of your congregation, where you can work for this vision.
The Rev. Dr. Jack Seymour ([email protected]) is professor emeritus at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, where he taught for 30 years. He is an ordained elder in the Northern Illinois Conference of The United Methodist Church. Jack is the author of Teaching Biblical Faith: Leading Small Group Bible Studies (Abingdon, 2015) and Teaching the Way of Jesus: Educating Christians for Faithful Living (Abingdon, 2014). He has retired in Nashville, TN, where he is active writing and teaching in the church.