“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” John 3:16
Today is called World Communion Sunday. It began as an attempt to get Christians to ponder and love each other. In fact, it began at the Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to enable Presbyterians to respect and honor each other as Spirit filled people. Initiated by the Pastor Herr Thompson Kerr in 1933, it was adopted by the National body of Presbyterians in 1936. In 1940, the Federal Council of Churches, now the National Council of Churches, adopted the plan to set aside the first Sunday in each October to celebrate our unity in God’s Spirit. After World War 2, almost simultaneously with the creation of the United Nations, the World Council of Church in Geneva, Switzerland adopted the same recommendation. Today it remains practiced in many Protestant Churches worldwide.
Today the idea also extends to religious circles outside of Christianity. In our own Erie County what was once called the Buffalo Council of Churches, a Protestant organization, expanded to include Roman Catholics in the 1980’s and in this century, it has evolved to be the “Interreligious community.” The gathering is no longer just Protestants and Roman Catholics but includes Muslims, Buddhists and Hindu, and any other religious organization which care to join. What a wonderful organization to have in our community.
A couple generations ago it was rare for Protestants to join with Roman Catholics. My predecessor at Wayside Presbyterian Church, Dr. Walker Brownlee, was known as a leader in the community by bringing together Catholic and Protestant leaders. By the time I had arrived in 1976 there were regular Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Roman Catholic services and activities going during the year. We continued to expand them.
Yes, there was some opposition at the time. Some of the older members, (as old as I am now!) were suspicious with joining the Roman Catholics! Later, when I began to include some historic Roman Catholic elements in our worship, such as the Ash Wednesday imposition of ashes, incense and ringing of bells, some were upset. But it wasn’t long before they learned to appreciate it.
When I traveled to India in 1987, some thought that I was on a mission to convert Hindu and Buddhist people to Christianity. Some asked what I could ever learn from “pagan and heathen people!” They were confused when I said that I was on a mission to learn from them ways to connect with the Inner Spirit within us all. Soon after my return, sure enough, they began to hear new sounds and bells at Wayside! How could this be, and how could such happen?
Recognition of a world Communion begins with the recognition that all of us are God’s children, that all of us have the Divine Presence within. Granted, this is a dramatic break from traditional Christianity. It is the breaking of over 1500 years of tradition. It’s difficult enough for most of us to overcome dysfunctional thinking from our early childhoods which occurred just a few years ago. So it ought not to be a surprise that some will be reluctant to find religious communion with other traditions, and indeed with everyone, after an exclusionary tradition of over 1500 years.
This new recognition of communion was caused partly by the way the world has changed. Human population exploded in the past century and brought diverse peoples much closer together. Despite animosity and suspicions, this closeness has helped us grow in understanding and knowledge of peoples unlike them.
World Communion recognition was also aided by a new look at Scriptures in our own tradition. We now see elements of Universalism in ancient Hebrew Scriptures and in early church writings. In the 1930’s scholars such as Professor Herbert G. May of the Oberlin Graduate School of Theology, pointed out Universalism in key passages of the Hebrew writings. He taught how Isaiah 19 as a strong vision of the then known world coming together under recognition of one God. We read,
” On that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the center of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a Savior, and will defend and deliver them. 21The Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians; and the Egyptians will know the Lord on that day, and will worship with sacrifice and burnt-offering, and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them. 22The Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing; they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them.
On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.
On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, 25whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.’ (Isaiah 19:19-25)
We can see it now in such familiar passages as John 3:16;
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
This passage is no longer seen by many of us as an exclusion of others who don’t believe in him. We now see how we are part of that “begotten Son,” which is a part of the Divinity within all of us. We see this as the “Christ Self” in us all! And when we recognize or understand it (gnosis) we need not live a life of perishable illusions but one of freedom in love. This is an offering to everyone and certainly not just a few people who define it narrowly and call themselves Christians.
We also understand this new world Communion through the discovery in 1946 of the Nag Hammadi documents in northern Egypt. We learned these were the remnants of a great Gnostic library which was destroyed by early church leaders in the Fourth century. We found these lost Scriptures speaking to us of the Kingdom and Light within, and of our access to It by the resurrection of awaking.
We also have come to understand this new world Communion from the availability of other great religious Scriptures. The sacred Koran of the Muslim tradition and the great Scriptures from the Eastern traditions such as the Bhagavad-Gita and the Tao Te Ching have opened minds to a much deeper appreciation of their understandings of the Divinity within us all.
We also have lived within times of great awakenings as in the 1960’s when racial barriers, sexual barriers and religious barriers began to be broken down in our own country and throughout the world. People like George Harrison of the famous Beatles quartet and Ram Dass (Dr. Richard Alpert) of Harvard University made trips to the East where they met wise gurus and teachers who taught them how the answers they sought for love and peace were within themselves.
Thus in the last generation it has been a wonderful but often frightening turning point for churches such as ours. We have grown to understand it’s not just us but it’s them too! It’s part of the current frequent use of the word “inclusive.” God is in all peoples, everywhere! We have one Spirit but in many different forms. It doesn’t matter who we are or where we are but love is love and love always seeks to grow and to expand Itself.
To experience Holy Communion, we must simply (but not easy) change our thinking in many of our practices. This Holy Communion, and its expression of Divine love, is our only truth and our only reason for existence. All the rest is passing illusions and untruths. If we miss this God of love we have missed it all! Tom Bandy wrote in his book, “Kicking the Habits”, “everything is about the love of Christ and all else is just tactics.”
How then might we experience this communion here? We open ourselves up to the Divine Presence within, listening and following as we feel the Voice directing us. We learn to practice the ancient art of meditation such as Elijah practiced in the Mount Carmel cave where sitting in silence he heard the voice of God. (1 Kings 19)
Once we begin to experience this awareness it will open anew this congregation. You can use all sorts of tactics to open this church up to draw people in; youth nights, knitting or gardening groups, a hunting or golf group, travel clubs, marches on Washington, or now Wall Street! You could begin a Help Others group, a trip to Kenya or Haiti, or visitations to prisons. Any of these tactics could work. But the most important part of these tactics will be to deepen our own sense of Holy Communion through prayer and silence and in sharing our own personal struggles of living the life of love.
Opening this congregation to the PasiPalooza group last week was an example of this tactic. I discovered late on that being co-sponsored by the Unity Church of Buffalo meant that they would be with us! I’m sure some were reluctant to even come because they were afraid of their not being Presbyterian or Christian as we like to think of ourselves, whatever that means! But recognizing Spirit in each other as enhanced by the leadership of the artists gave us a wonderful evening together.
Holy World Communion; it’s the greatest peace and joy we can ever know, and it begins within each of us. God loves the whole world and God gives us freedom to love it or be caught in the illusion of time by rejecting it. Let us choose to accept the Christ Self and not only feel the One Holy Communion but in sharing it with all, know the Presence of Love and Joy on the most deep possible level!
Namaste! God’s peace to you all!
Reflections given at the First Presbyterian Church of West Seneca, NY, 2085 Union Road, October 2, 2011 by Rev. David G. Persons