World Communion Sunday celebrates oneness in Christ

Dr. Glenn Porter

October 2, 2019

World Communion Sunday is observed every first Sunday in October. It’s a time for Christians around the world to celebrate oneness in the body of Christ. 

The commemoration illustrates both the diverse community and loving unity that are hallmarks of the Christian church.

Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, is one of the two ordinances in Baptist tradition. Unlike sacraments, which are seen as a means of grace, “ordinances are symbols that visualize and magnify the truths of the gospel.”[i] They are outward symbols of one’s Christian conversion, and celebrated by those who are professed participants of the faith. Baptism is the other ordinance.

The Bible records that the New Testament churches practiced baptism and the Lord’s Supper, in that order, and as symbolic rituals. They are ordinances because Jesus participated in both and he instructed his disciples to follow his example (Matthew 28:19; Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24-25).

As Everett C. Goodwin relates in “The New Hiscox Guide for Baptist Churches,” Communion is “based on the celebration of a Passover meal among Jesus and his disciples on the night before his betrayal and arrest (Matthew 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-26; Luke 22:14-20).”[ii] Jesus takes the traditional and transforms it into the Lord’s Supper.

Goodwin explains further:

“The Lord’s Supper is so situated in the scriptural narrative of the passion and death of Jesus as to be a point of transition. At the meal, Jesus shared in fellowship and worship with his disciples; following the meal, Jesus was arrested and began his anguish as the Paschal Lamb ‘being led to the slaughter.’ Because of this, Baptists have generally believed that Jesus established the meal as a symbolic reminder of his role in salvation and as a communal event by which his first disciples and later believers could be bound with him forever.”[iii]

According to the Presbyterian Church (USA) website, World Communion Sunday began at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA in 1933. PC (USA) adopted it as a denominational practice in 1936. The Federal Council of Churches (now National Council of Churches) adopted and promoted the celebration as an ecumenical and global observance in 1940. Today, it is widespread and observed among the 38 Christian faith groups comprising the NCC.

From its inception, the duality of community and unity in Christ has been the concern of World Communion Sunday. Each participating denomination of the NCC brings unique faith practices to the Council’s consortium. The NCC reports that “Protestant and evangelical traditions are represented by churches of British, German, Scandinavian and other European origin, historic African American churches, and immigrant churches from Korea and India. Orthodox member communions have roots in Greece, Syria, Russia, Ukraine, Egypt, India and other places where Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy have long histories.”

The Markan writer describes the Communion scene:

“While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God’” (Mark 14:22-25) 

Metaphorically, the bread represents Jesus’ body and the drink represents his blood. Jesus is giving himself for the redemption of humanity. And, as the late homiletics professor Rev. Miles J. Jones pointed out in “Preaching Papers: The Hampton & Virginia Union Lectures,” while there is no Leonardo da Vinci-type table, per se, “it is table that has come to symbolize that around which the early disciples gathered for that final act of fellowship.”[iv]

It’s a sacred act of community and unity at the table.

By its very nature, community in a global neighborhood suggests living in distinctly different contexts — a mosaic of people and their conditions of existence. According to a Pew Research Center demographic analysis, Christians remain the largest religious group in the world, making up nearly a third of the Earth’s 7.3 billion people. Because of the love of Christ, we can recognize, respect and appreciate the particularities, while simultaneously being sensitized to the manifold conditions of our neighbors.

And moreover, community includes unity. Unity is “the quality or state of being made one.”[v] It’s a concord. It’s “an entity that is a complex or systematic whole.”[vi] It’s “being one in spirit.” It’s a oneness that welcomes everybody to the Lord’s Supper — figuratively, the Lord’s table — because it’s the Lord’s prerogative to invite whomever the Lord chooses. There are no squabbles over “open Communion” or “closed Communion.” The Lord chooses to invite “whosoever.” 

The unity at the table speaks to a feeling of fellowship, hope and mutual concerns in a fractured global society. One can only imagine what is heard in the conversations at Jesus’ table: discussions about unequal justice, mass incarceration, health care, economic opportunity and unemployment, mass shootings and gun violence, racial profiling, wars, food deserts, affordable housing, extreme poverty, human rights, environmental justice, food and water security, malnourishment, migration, voter suppression and disenfranchisement, gender inequality, climate change, the escalating racism from U.S. national leadership, and so much more. It’s a colloquy of critical concerns which calls for the Church’s response.

But not only those concerns, we can imagine table talk about faith, forgiveness, service, hope, humility, compassion, commitment, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).  And “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise” (Philippians 4:8) they discuss these things.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was correct when he wrote, “We are caught in a network of mutuality, tied to a garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”[vii]  

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians reminds us: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:4-6).

World Communion Sunday offers reflection on God’s redemptive act in human history and brings to remembrance our collective calling as followers of Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Dr. Glenn E. Porter Sr. is senior pastor at Queen Street Baptist Church, Norfolk, Va.; adjunct professor of Religious Studies at Tidewater Community College; and volunteer chaplain with the City of Norfolk Police Department. He is author of “Journey With Jesus Through Lent” (Judson Press, 2017).

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i]Howard B. Foshee, Broadman Church Manual (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1973), 33.

[ii] Everett C. Goodwin, The New Hiscox Guide for Baptist Churches (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1995), 139.

[iii] Ibid., 139.

[iv] Miles Jerome Jones, Preaching Papers: The Hampton & Virginia Union Lectures (New York: Martin Luther King Fellows Press, 1995), 13.

[v] Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, tenth edition (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 1993), 1292.

[vi] Ibid., 1292.

[vii] Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” in I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changed the World, ed. James M. Washington (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco [A Division of HarperCollinsPublishers], 1992), 85.

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