At our last meeting of Presbytery, the final candidate for ordination was being examined. It was past 2:30 and the meeting was held outside. Most of us were a little warm and ready to head home. The candidate was asked, “Who is invited to partake the sacrament of The Lord’s Supper?” The answer is routine. Everyone who has taken Polity 101 knows the answer by heart. “The invitation of the Lord’s Supper is extended to all who have been baptized, remembering that access to the Table is not a right conferred upon the worthy, but a privilege given to the undeserving in faith, repentance and love.” I remember thinking, they had sure served her a softball.
The young woman began with the answer I expected by saying, “The invitation of the Lord’s Supper is extended to all.” Then she noticeably hesitated before continuing, “Remembering that it is not a right conferred upon the worthy but a privilege given to the undeserving.” She looked up, well aware of the questions that were about to follow. It might have been 2:45 but some had not packed their bags.
The first shot across her bow was an opportunity for the young lady to correct herself. “Didn’t you forget the phrase, ‘Who have been baptized?”
“Yes,” she replied, “Intentionally.” Then she continued. “Baptized children who come to the table have yet to make a confession of faith. Why should we refuse anyone who understands something holy is happening?”
Once, when I understood my faith and the Book of Order much better than I do now, I would have been alarmed, perhaps even appalled at her answer. As I watched a herd of Teaching Elders run to the microphone to expose her obvious heresy, all I heard my soul say was, “Amen.”
The inspiration for Paul’s letter to the folks in Galatia revolved around one question. Do you have to be circumcised to be a Christian? That question hardly makes sense today. Can you imagine parents wanting their child to be baptized and being asked if the child has been circumcised? What on earth does that have to do with the parent’s faith in Jesus Christ?
In Galatia, the first members of this congregation had been born Jewish. When Paul arrived they were overwhelmed by the story he told and expressed their faith in the risen Christ. They shared this story with their neighbors, many who were not Jewish. When neighbors came to express their belief and be baptized, the original members opened their arms and said, “We welcome you. But before becoming Christian, you must be circumcised. You must reject your heritage before becoming a child of God.”
Obviously many of the new converts were not excited by this request. Paul, a good Jew and the leading advocate for Gentile conversion understood the problem completely. Circumcision was a cultural phenomenon. In the Jewish tradition, a boy is circumcised no later than eight days after birth. At the ceremony the name of the boy is first spoken. Then the child is lifted toward heaven and declared to be in a sacred relationship with God. Circumcision is as important to a member of the Jewish faith as infant baptism is to we who are Presbyterian. But circumcisions were considered a pagan ritual in the Greek world.
In the church at Galatia two questions arose, “What does being circumcised have to do with being Christian?” Second, “Why must I first become a Jew to become a follower of Christ?” Paul sided with the Gentiles by declaring the ritual unnecessary in becoming a new creation in Christ.
Circumcision as a religious practice in the Christian Church is no longer an issue, but this text continues to haunt us. Sometimes we become so rigid in our belief system instead of opening the doors to those who are seekers, we place a millstone around their neck. These stones are as varied as our faith communities.
Four years ago I remember at the end of a worship service in the middle of October, every car in the parking lot was decorated with a pamphlet from a local church explaining how folks who were really Christian were suppose to vote in the upcoming election. As outrageous as that might seem, I suspect we all have the occasional propensity to make our truth, God’s truth. When this happens we forget the true gospel has produced a church in which unity exists within a culture of remarkable diversity.
There is a remarkable congregation in Beirut, Lebanon where Muslims and Christians come together to worship. The common thread for the worshippers is their love for Jesus. When communion is served, the Muslims used to be excluded from the Table. The hard and fast rule was in order to take communion, one must be baptized. The Muslim congregants understood this but also knew baptism could mean being disinherited by families, the loss of a job and even be under the threat of death. The congregation prayed about this situation and decided the Table belonged to God and not to any denominational doctrine. From that day forward, all who came forward were served.
The longer I have remained in the church the more I have come to believe that we are encouraged by God to live in paradox. It would be wonderful if everything was black or white. Maybe I should be appalled by Muslims taking communion. Maybe I should stand up every Sunday and preach we should be willing to die for whatever we believe. THAT IS EASY TO SAY WHEN NOTHING I BELIEVE HAS EVER CAUSED MY LIFE TO BE THREATENED.
I once heard someone say that life in the Christian community is not based on the Law of Moses but the spirit of the Messiah. I can’t image anyplace this spirit is more openly reflected than the Table of our Lord. Listen to the words we use on approaching the Table.
“Come all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”
“I am the bread of life. No one who comes to me will be cast out.”
“Take, eat, this is my body.”
“This is a new covenant for the remission of sin.”
“The Peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with all of you.”
Living in faith and in doctrine sometimes means living in uncertainty. Doctrine is there to direct us. Doctrine is firmly planted in history and tradition. But doctrine is trumped by grace. It is the Love of God rather than the Law of God which should always guide our hearts.
Therefore live in God’s grace.
Live in God’s commandments.
Live in the paradoxes this might breed.
Live in the diversity God creates.
Live in the unity God desires.
Come to the Table and feast on the imagination of God.
To God be the glory, Amen.