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“This is the joyful feast of the people of God. Come from the east and from the west and from the north and from the south. Gather around the Lord’s table. Let God’s children of every nation, every color, and every language come to meet their Savior.”
Although the origin of this particular liturgy is unknown, for more than twenty-five years I included those words in the communion liturgy for the first Sunday of October, commonly celebrated as World Communion Sunday. Even now, my throat catches and my eyes well up to consider the inclusiveness and scope of this invitation to come to the joyous feast of the Lord.
It wasn’t always this way for me. I was raised in a tradition of “closed” communion. In the church of my childhood, communion was celebrated quarterly, and on the Sunday prior to the celebration a “Preparatory Exhortation” liturgy was read, exhorting those who would celebrate to carefully examine themselves in order to be “worthy” of the table of the Lord (at least that is how it was interpreted by the childhood Lisa). To this observant child, the liturgy felt punitive and led me to wonder, “Who then is able to eat and drink? What if you forget a sin, or aren’t penitent enough, or know that you will likely commit it again—do you really ‘eat and drink judgment unto yourself’? And what does that even mean?”
Another practice in this church was to exclude visitors from partaking unless they met with the Elders prior to the service. The childhood Lisa asked, what if you didn’t know that? Would you be excluded from the supper until the next quarter came around?
The childhood Lisa also observed an item printed in the bulletin every Communion Sunday. Communion was served by passing trays of bread and wine, and the bulletin blurb stated “The center eight glasses contain grape juice.” The childhood Lisa automatically translated this to read, “If you are an alcoholic, only select a glass from the center glasses.” A curious child, I would then be on the lookout for anyone who selected one of those and wonder if they were “worthy”.
As I recall these things, I marvel at the seeming incongruity with the words from the World Communion liturgy: “This is the joyful feast of the people of God. . .Come from the east and west and north and south. . .”
It also seems inconsistent with the words of Jesus at the Last Supper in Matthew’s account: “While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (NRSV). Even the childhood Lisa wondered, “Who are the many? Who is included? Who isn’t welcome here?”
World Communion Sunday has taken on special meaning for me as it has widened my vision of what it means to be part of the people of God. Its words translate to me as “Come y’all! Come from wherever you have been, wherever you are going, and wherever you find yourself today. Wherever you have come from, COME! All things are now ready for you!”
In 2011 I became involved with the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC). The WCRC is comprised of 100 million Christians in Congregational, Presbyterian, Reformed, United, Uniting and Waldensian churches (our closest siblings on the Christian family tree). The WCRC, working with its 233 member churches, is active in supporting theology, justice, church unity and mission in over 105 countries.
I raise this in the context of World Communion Sunday because it highlights an understanding of communion as koinonia. In the Reformed tradition we understand “communion” as a supper or feast which is not taken alone, but instead is shared in the fellowship (koinonia) of other believers who may live on the same street or a world away. Further, it is a fellowship that is bound not by skin color or national origin or agreement on any particular issue, but rather on being joined together in Christ.
The World Communion Sunday liturgy I have referenced includes these words from the Belgic Confession (Artcle 27):
We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by his blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit. This holy Church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed over the whole world; and yet is joined and united with heart and will, by the power of faith, in one and the same Spirit.
Come. . .from the east and the west, the north and the south. Gather around the Lord’s table. Let God’s children of every nation, every color, and every language come to meet their Savior. Thanks be to God!