A couple of weeks ago I received an email from Pastor Hatie Soyzayapi. Soyzayapi is the pastor of the church in Pfizda, Zimbabwe with whom we are in partnership. United Church of Christ churches from all over New Hampshire have each partnered with a congregation from the United Church of Zimbabwe and we have called this initiative the Ukama partnership. Ukama is a word in the Shona language meaning friendship, and through this project we hope first to form friendships between churches divided by continents and an ocean.
And every couple of months I hear from Pastor Soyzayapi. He tells me about what is going on in his congregation and in his community. And he always reminds me that his church is praying for us here in Exeter. But this time, Soyzayapi asked me a favor. He asked that this week in particular we would pray for Pfizda.
This is the start of the farming season in Zimbabwe. The country is south of the equator so as we here in New England are harvesting all that we have planted, they are doing the mirror image and planting in order to prepare for a harvest. And this week, they are praying in particular that the planting will be successful. And Pastor Soyzayapi asked us to pray in particular for the seeds they will plant, and for rain to come.
I wrote back and told him we could do that, and we will do that during this service. But what I didn’t realize until after I’d already written back is that today of all days is fitting for us to lift up these prayers. That’s because today is celebration called “World Communion Sunday.”
I’ll come back to that in a minute. But first, I want to lift up today’s text from the Gospel of John. In it Jesus is doing something that Scripture often doesn’t record. He’s praying, not in front of others, but for others. And he’s praying in particular for his disciples and asking for God’s guidance and blessing for them. And he prays for all who believe in him and asks “that they may all be one”.
It’s a bold prayer. It was bold when he was just dealing with twelve disciples. But it’s particularly bold in today’s context. Because while there are roughly 2.2 billion Christians in the world, we are divided into an ever-expanding list of denominations, organizations, and traditions. Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Protestants make up the three major movements, but even within those broad categories there are so many divisions.
In the United States, for instance, there are at least 217 different denominations. The UCC, for perspective, is somewhere around the twentith largest American denomination in terms of number of members, with right around one million people. And in this town alone, we have Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, evangelical, and non-denominational churches.
And we have our reasons. We have different understandings of the Gospel, different thoughts on who should be allowed to be members and who should be able to serve as clergy, different views on who can take the sacraments and who cannot. And I am profoundly grateful that a place like the UCC exists, because it is my church home.
But on the other hand, I sometimes wonder what Jesus would say if he came back, and he stood here on Front Street among our churches, and saw that his followers all gathered in different houses of worship with little interaction at all. I wonder if he would think of that prayer from centuries ago about us all being made one. And I wonder if he would say, “guys, this is not what I meant”.
That phrase, “that they may all be one”, that is the official motto of the United Church of Christ. Sometimes we think it’s “God is still speaking” but really it’s that passage from John, that hope that the people of God will overcome differences and join together in the work that needs to be done in this world.
The UCC took that motto in 1957 when the Congregational Church, the denomination whose name we still bear, joined with a predominately German-American movement called the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Somehow New England Yankees and mostly midwestern and mid-Atlantic German-Americans were able to gather around the same table and say “you know, our theology isn’t all that different, and we might just be better together.”
When the denominations merged I think that was a shining moment for the body of Christ, a sign that God’s people can come together by building a bigger tent. And it’s one that I hope will be repeated again and again, until we are reconciled with our brother and sisters in the faith, and until we are all one in Christ.
And that’s the hope of World Communion Sunday. It was started in this country in the 1930’s and is now celebrated in Orthodox, Protestant, and Evangelical churches not just here but around the world. Today in churches everywhere Christians will be sharing in the feast of Holy Communion together, and we will all be lifted up into the glorious feast that has been prepared for us.
But as we eat of it, and as we celebrate, we must remember that there is more to do. And we must let the meal we share strengthen us for the work of reconciliation.
There was a time when if you came to church, it was not guaranteed that you would be able to take communion. In some churches you had to be examined in the days before Communion by the minister or deacons and, if you were found worthy, you’d be issued a token for the sacrament. A sort of religious “admit one”. And even in the Puritan churches here in New England, before you could take the sacrament you had to sign the church covenant and be a member.
That’s not the practice here. We welcome every person to the table. Adult or child. Devout believer or faithful doubter. UCC member or first time visitor. That’s because this is not our table. It’s Christ’s. And who are we to turn anyone away from his table?
But as open as our table is, we need to remember, this table before us is only one small leaf of a table that extends across denominational lines, across traditions, across borders, across oceans. It is a small part of the same table at which the people in Pfizda sit. It is a part of the same table that sits on then churches of the Native American reservations in the Dakotas where much of today’s Neighbors in Need offering will end up. And it is part of the same table as the other churches in our town.
It is an infinitely big table, and it is ever expanding. There is always room.
Two weeks from today, I’m not going to be with you. I’ll instead be with the rest of the United Church of Christ board traveling back from Canada. The day before we are going to cross the border at Niagara Falls and meet our counterparts from the United Church of Canada there.
Together we are going to be signing an agreement that will bring our two churches into full communion with one another. That means that the UCC and the United Church of Canada will agree that we share the same basic beliefs, the same understanding of the sacraments, and that we will freely share our clergy, among other things.
It’s a big step towards all being one. One that we have also taken in recent with the largest American branches of the Presbyterian, Lutheran, Reformed, and Disciples traditions. One that I hope we will keep taking with other churches as well.
That’s something big to celebrate on this World Communion Sunday. But on the other hand, the fact we even need to have a World Communion Sunday, that we need to name that we are bound by this sacrament to one another despite our differences, shows just how far we have to go. Because we should never have to have a special day to say that. It should just be known.
I’ll close with this. There was a time when this church knew what it was to be divided. From 1638 to 1748 there was only this church, First Parish. Some people in our town still call this church First Parish. But in 1748, the Congregationalist in this town split over what we would now think was a pretty small dogmatic matter. And then there was First Parish and Second Parish, just a few blocks down.
It took until 1918 for those churches to get past it, and join back together. And then there was neither First Parish nor Second Parish anymore. There was just the Congregational Church in Exeter.
Almost a hundred years later, we are one. Our spiritual parents and grandparents and great-grandparents stitched one congregation out of two, and made the tent bigger. They proved that, truly, they could all be one. And the fact we are all here today is all the proof we need that they were right.
The work of our time won’t be about getting rival Congregational churches together. It will be about reaching out to our Catholic friends, our Baptist friends, our Episcopalian friends and saying “we look different, and we are different, but at our core, we follow the same Lord”.
That’s reason enough to find ways to sit at the same table. And that’s reason enough to try to answer Christ’s own prayer, and to pledge that we will strive that, someday, we may all be one. Amen?