This past week I had a good discussion with my daughter about the value of religious communities and, specifically, going to church meetings each week. “Why go to church each week,” she asked, “And why can’t someone find community in other ways, such as serving at a homeless shelter?” They are good questions.
I don’t know whether I have any great answers, and her questions speak to the challenge churches face in remaining relevant to youth, but I think Christianity has something unique to offer humanity. To illustrate this I shared with her a story from Rachel Held Evans’ book Searching for Sunday (pp. 150-151, my comments in brackets):
The Right Reverend Michael Curry, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina [he is currently serving as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church], tells the story of a young woman who became an Episcopalian in the 1940s. One Sunday, she invited the man she had been dating to join her at morning services. Both of them were African American, but the church they attended that day was all white, and right in the heart of segregated America. The young man waited in the pews while the congregation went forward to receive communion, anxious because he noticed that everyone in the congregation was drinking from the same chalice.
He had never seen black people and white people drink from the same water fountain, much less the same cup. His eye stayed on his girlfriend as, after receiving the bread, she waited for the cup. Finally, the priest lowered it to her lips and said, as he had to the others, “The blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.” The man decided that any church where black and white drank from the same cup had discovered something powerful, something he wanted to be a part of.
The couple was Bishop Curry’s parents.
Shortly before his trial and crucifixion, Jesus called together his disciples and shared a meal with them where he offered them bread and wine, referring to those items as his body and blood of the new covenant, afterward enjoining the disciples, “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19). He dined with a motley crew of fishermen, tax collectors, and other societal cast-offs; however, at that table they were equal. In fact, the author of the Gospel of Luke places the disciples’ dispute about greatness right after the institution of the Lord’s Supper, with Jesus telling them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-27).
So it is with us, as we get together each week and participate in a uniquely Christian practice of coming to the Lord’s table to eat of his flesh and blood. In doing so we come as equals – regardless of political beliefs, race, sex, income level, pedigree, or any other identifier other than Christian – in a ritual pregnant with the symbolism of love and oneness with Jesus. By eating his body and blood we become his body – all equal – and are then asked to take his image out to the world.
There is something powerful about this ritual, about coming together with others of varying backgrounds and throwing off all labels but one. It is an important message, especially in this divisive time.
What do you think? How might you have answered my daughter’s questions?