Sunday, October 4, 2015

Many Tribes, One Table: Sermon for World Communion Sunday

Have you ever thought about just how blessed we are to have John 17? In revealing this chapter, the Holy Spirit gives us a treasure of unparalleled value. We get to eavesdrop on the prayer life of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as he lifts up his chosen band of followers to the Father. What does it sound like when God the Son prays to God the Father? It doesn't have to be a mystery! It's right here. Here we can see prayer echoing through the halls of eternity. And what, above all, does Jesus request, not just for his first apostles but explicitly for all those whose hearts beat in time with the message the apostles bring? For all of us – each and every one of us – Jesus' first and foremost prayer is that we may be one, anchored in the oneness of the Father and the Son (John 17:20-21). Jesus shares the truth, he spreads his glory over us like a holy shroud, so that we can be one just like Father and Son are one (John 17:22), and so the world can know who and what we're all about (John 17:23). It's an incredible chapter.

And there are a lot of groups out there twist what's going on in this chapter, trying to make it seem like Jesus is less than what the church has always honored him as. Many out there deny, in different ways, the biblical doctrine of the Trinity, our age-old witness that the actions of Father, Son, and Spirit actually expose the inner life of God. Our Jehovah's Witness friends, for instance, say that Jesus is only talking about a “oneness of purpose” that we can achieve with God and his first-created Son; they say the Father and Son are just “one in agreement, purpose, and organization”; they say that the Christian view would imply that we should all “become part of the Trinity” (Let God Be True [1952], p. 104; Reasoning from the Scriptures [1985], p. 424). With all due respect, they get Christianity so backwards. And our Mormon friends say basically the same thing. For them as well, the oneness of Father and Son here is just “oneness of purpose” (LeGrand Richards, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, p. 22). And one of their earlier leaders said that Jesus was only talking about a “unity of purpose and operation,” and said that the Christian view implied that believers would have to “lose their individuality and become one person” in order to be one as God is (James E. Talmage, The Articles of Faith, pp. 36-37). They get Christianity backwards too.

Neither group has it right on this passage. What's going on in John 17 is so much more exciting than what they're saying! The ancient Jews were totally convinced that there was only one God – and they were exactly right. And they realized, this beautiful truth isn't just something to learn in theology class at the synagogue and then go about daily life out in the field; it's relevant to the way we worship. If there's only one God, they said, then there's only one Law. If there's only one God, there's only one temple. If there's only one God, then the people of God are supposed to live as one community. One old Jewish book says, “We are all one named people, who have received one Law from One” (2 Baruch 48:24).

So as Jesus is teaching, he puts his own twist on it: We need to live as one people, because the Father and Son are one God. Living as one church – that's the only way we can be a living witness of the Trinity; that's the only way that “the world may know” that the Father sent Jesus and loves us just as much as his well-beloved and only-begotten Son (John 17:23). What Jesus is saying means that the Father and Son are one God, and the same love that comes from their oneness should bind us into one people, one church indivisible.

And that's something that was near and dear to Paul's heart also. In Paul's day, people kept wanting to take differences in the church and magnify them into divisions. They wanted one church for Jews and another for Gentiles, for instance. Paul said no: “In Christ Jesus, you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28). In the new creation Jesus makes, “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

In other words, no statistic, no demographic, no label comes in front of Jesus and the oneness he gives to his people. But the church can't be limited or concentrated in just one category. Even in a time when the church was mostly Jewish, or later on mostly Gentile, Paul knew that they were equally the church, equally belonging to Jesus, and they desperately needed to realize that, not just in theory, but to live it out in practice. Jesus has “made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14), creating “one great fellowship of love / throughout the whole wide earth.”

Today is World Communion Sunday. And we have to realize that God has not just called Americans. In America, we aren't the be-all and end-all of what it means to be Christian. We don't own the title of Christianity; we don't define it. The American church has had and does have a role to play, but it's not the leading role in the story of the church over its thousands of years. The center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted elsewhere, away from its long-time residence in Western Europe and toward the heart of Africa. America is not the center of the church world, not the pinnacle of Christian life!

Close your eyes for a moment; think of your mental image of the typical Christian. What does he or she look like? Where is he or she from? Well, in reality, the typical Christian today is not American, not middle-class, not white. The typical Christian today would be more likely found in Brazil or Nigeria or China – all places where the church grows by leaps and bounds. As the president of my seminary wrote, now “the heartlands of Christianity are located in Africa, Latin America, and Asia” (Timothy Tennent, Theology in the Context of World Christianity, p. 272), not here where we call home. And I'm thankful that the seminary I went to really, actually lived it: I frequently had more professors from Africa and Asia than from America, and my world religions class was full of Nigerians, Indians, Koreans, Sudanese, and Singaporeans; we had ex-Muslims, ex-Buddhists, even one who was both. I was so blessed to hear their voices – to hear the questions relevant to people ministering among Hindus, to learn evangelism on the streets of a Muslim-majority slum in Kenya. Christianity is not just for Americans.

When the Bible says God gathers his great multitude “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9), he doesn't just mean Pennsylvanians and Texans! Already, we're beginning to see that the church in other nations is sending out more missionaries than we do – even sending missionaries to America. We're the mission field! Even fifteen years ago, Brazil and Mexico together had more Christians than the whole United States. So we have to stop thinking about the church in American terms, have to stop defining it by American agendas, have to stop picturing the church as monolithic, as less diverse than the United Nations. The church is the real United Nations in Jesus Christ, who shed his blood not to write the United States Constitution but to “ransom for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). We here are not the majority in the kingdom of God. We may well be outnumbered by Rwandans, by Iraqis, by Koreans, by Ukrainians, by Egyptians. The church has thrived in many nations throughout the centuries. The unity of the church is global – “elect from every nation, yet one over all the earth.”

The unity of the church is also eucharistic. The way Christians have always shown their unity was by eating together as equals at the same table. To prove they recognized each other as validly Christian, congregations used to send each other small portions of their communion bread as a way of saying, “You are in communion with us, you are in fellowship with us, we recognize you.” Communion was meant to point to the fact that all of us in every nation, from every background, of every status, are equals in the eyes of Christ and to one another. We here in America don't have a monopoly on the gospel; we don't have a monopoly on the Lord's Supper; we don't have prettier chairs at the one table.

That's why, when Paul heard that rich Corinthian Christians were hogging all the food and pushing the poor aside at the Lord's Supper, he righteously blew a gasket and said they “show contempt for the church of God” and “eat and drink judgment against themselves” (1 Corinthians 11:22, 29). That's why Paul was so angry with Peter when he stopped eating with non-Jewish Christians at Antioch (Galatians 2:11-14). Nothing should divide communion between faithful believers in the same one God, the same one Lord, who share the same one Spirit and “partake one holy food.” You know, we have records of communion prayers throughout the centuries. Perhaps the earliest one we have, maybe dating from just decades after the time of the apostles or even earlier, is this prayer over the communion elements:

We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge that you made known to us through Jesus your Servant. To you be the glory forever! Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills and was gathered together and became one, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom; for yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever. (Didache 9.4)

That was the communion prayer of the early church. The bread came from all over – you never know which hills, which fields grew that wheat – and yet it all became one loaf. So the church comes from all over, from all the hills and all the tribes in the whole world, but we're meant to be one church without division. Paul wrote, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17). At this past year's National Conference, Randy Sizemore reminded us that, while some people think we should care for the church here before we care for the church way over there, that's like saying we should care for our left arm before we care for our right arm: “We are a global church, a global community,” he said. Yes, there are differences: we don't all get the same shade of skin, we don't all come from the same place, we are not a clone army. But these differences are actually a witness to what God has done. Embrace them. Young and old, rich and poor, black and white, Palestinian and Israeli, American and Ugandan and Filipino – all one church, all gifted to equip the whole church to be built up to the full stature of Christ's maturity. We can't afford to “eat and drink without discerning the body” (1 Corinthians 11:29) – not just part of the body, not just the American arm, but we have to discern the whole body spread through all nations and stretched through all centuries since that first Easter morning.

We're about to come to the Lord's table now. But it isn't just the people in this sanctuary. To the left of the altar rail, picture the line extending vastly to the east, with Liberian believers kneeling at the altar rail in their churches, and our brothers and sisters from India doing the very same. To the right, imagine the altar rail stretching to the distant west, across the Pacific Ocean. Imagine our friends, our brothers and sisters in the Japanese church, also kneeling to receive the same bread, the same cup. Picture Jordanian believers, Russians, Vietnamese, Nepalese, Iranians, Indonesians, all with their flags somewhere in the background like ours but fading into the distance. It matters that we're from every nation, but those flags don't define us, they don't divide us, they don't make any of us better Christians than the other or any more loved and cherished by the Father. We bring them to Christ as we cast our crowns before his throne.

Imagine sitting down for a meal with all of our brothers and sisters from every tribe. Imagine the language barrier broken by the Spirit, learning from their wisdom and faithfulness and experience and sharing with them what we have as well. In other words, imagine worldwide communion. Imagine a feast that makes the world say we point to something bigger than all of us. Imagine a feast that looks like the Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit, one eternal God. Let's live for Jesus' prayer, having Jesus living in us through his body and his blood, to carry the power of God into our lives all around this globe. Let's live so that the world knows that the Father sent the Son and that they, as one God, love us enough to feed us at such great cost (John 3:16; 17:23). Let's all come now from many tribes to the one table, for one bread and one cup.

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