Rethinking exclusivity

A Muslim man joined us recently for our regular communion service at the place where I live and work.  Which made me think hurriedly about how to do communion inclusively and build bridges rather than barriers.  I could of course simply have said “This is not for you, but you’re welcome to observe”, as indeed you might, but as part of a community that is trying hard to get along well with our ‘cousins’, I knew this wasn’t how we would want to treat a visitor.  So I improvised.

Communion can in many ways be one of the most exclusive things Christians can do.  It focuses on the death (real, not seeming) and resurrection (tangible) of Jesus the Messiah, the divine Son of God.  The introductory words we say often make it clear that this is only for people who trust in Him for their salvation.  Then we pray to him, and at the climax we may also drink alcoholic wine.  So for a Muslim person even to attend this event as a guest is an act of outreach to us.

For some of us, communion will be a non-negotiable.  It is only for believers, and we shouldn’t compromise it.  Others will not think it particularly important how we do it.  I think communion is vitally important, but I do value thinking through how we can make it more inclusive.  15 years ago I felt scandalised when a church I attended suggested that the ‘belong, behave, believe’ model meant communion wasn’t the final reward for completing the Christian initiation process but a part of that journey itself.  Today, I feel differently.

Someone once told me that if our mission is not stretching the boundaries of our theology, we are not stepping out deep enough.  So how do we do communion differently?  And indeed we need to think about other things too which are essentials of our faith but which may also alienate those enquiring.  Should we wear hats when we pray or take our shoes off when we enter a church building?  What posture should we adopt when we pray?

As we rethink mission for another age and multiple competing/complementary paradigms and worldviews there is a need for more discussion about what can be changed and what can’t, what is essential and what is cultural.  As you go through this week there will be many things that you do as part of your outreach/mission simply because you’ve always done them that way.  Why don’t you take the opportunity to ask yourself if there’s another way, different but equally good.

So in presiding over communion with our Muslim visitor, I dispensed with our usual liturgy and read the story of the road to Emmaus.  I explained that we are all on a journey, and Jesus walks with us on it, but we don’t always recognise him.  I shared the broken bread and cup of fruit juice as reminders of the meal he had in Emmaus, and said that perhaps we would see him better as we eat.  I pointed out that the meal mirrors the one he had with his disciples the night before he died, when he told us to eat it and remember him.  I said that he loved eating and drinking and would welcome everyone to eat with him, and he welcomes all of us too.  We don’t have to be perfect to eat with him.

And we all ate together.  After all, the essence of communion is reconciliation, isn’t it?

Passive-aggression in the mission field

Source: www.freeimages.com

We have probably all seen passive-aggressive behaviour exhibited in workplaces, shops, families, churches and of course the mission field.  It is an immature way of expressing resistance without directly challenging.

It sits on a spectrum which runs from “Yes, I’d be happy to” to “No, I won’t do that” and while it may not be as vocal as either of those statements, it could be expressed with a shrug, a pout, and slow, unwilling movements.  Think of a child who has been told to tidy her room, and realises she has no alternative if she wants dinner.  She do it, so is actually being compliant but everything about the body language is saying “NOOOO!”

Sadly, the mission field is no stranger to this behaviour, and one of the reasons may be because, whether we are leaders or followers, we think we ought to avoid conflict.  Or perhaps we’re uncomfortable with conflict because we do so need to be liked.  Christians today don’t do conflict with each other well, but at least we’ve stopped killing each other, so things are looking up.

One way in which passive-aggressive leaders can try to avoid conflict is by introducing new rules which affect everyone, rather than the one person they have an issue with.  So, for example, imagine your team holds a regular lunchtime prayer meeting, which is voluntary.  Only one person in the team doesn’t attend, so the leaders make it compulsory.  Everyone knows why – the leaders don’t actually want the risk of triggering interpersonal conflict by engaging with the individual and asking if there’s an issue.

If the team member is also prone to passive-aggressive behaviour, he will go to the meeting but sit there sullenly, in silence, possibly sighing or yawning loudly, doing everything he can to say “I don’t want to be here” without actually verbalising it.  Outright resistance would actually be more productive, because it would bring the issue to a head and force a flashpoint, rather than leaving it to simmer, unaddressed, for many years.

So how do we avoid passive-aggression?  With openness, honesty and humility.  Whether we’re leaders or followers, we should find constructive ways of expressing how we feel.  Not in an angry outburst, but in a meek, non-confrontational manner.  One which will take tension out of a discussion, not add to it.

None of us like conflict.  We tend to sweep things under the carpet.  The trouble with that approach is that the lump under the carpet starts to get so big that people trip over it.  We try to keep the peace by not making an issue of things, but peace is more than merely the absence of war.

Peacekeepers prevent conflict breaking out, but they don’t bring real, lasting, restorative peace.  No wonder Jesus said “Blessed are the Peacemakers”.

 

 

‘Holy’ Communion?

A Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow

I recently had the opportunity to worship in a Russian Orthodox church, which has a very different practice to the informal protestant style to which I am accustomed.  The entire service was liturgical, with plenty of chanting, incense, robes and icons.  Their tradition is full of majesty, drama, and symbolism, something which many western churches with a ‘low’ tradition have lost.  Talking afterwards to the faithful believer who was my companion, she explained that she was unable to take communion on this occasion as she had not had sufficient time to prepare.

Apparently she would have had to spend about 2½ hours in private prayer following a prescribed liturgy reflecting on the gravity of her sin.  She would have had to fast for 5 hours beforehand so that she could take communion on an empty stomach, and prior to (or during) the church service she would have needed to make confession to a priest.  Only then was she ready to receive communion.

Many protestants will be challenged, or even angered, by this lengthy procedure.  They may be muttering about people putting stumbling blocks in the way of the penitent coming to Jesus for forgiveness.  They may be thinking that Jesus would have had harsh things to say about such apparently pharisaic behaviour.  Surely, they will say, the whole point of Jesus’ complete and perfect sacrifice was so that the sinner can come to him and find forgiveness easily, because there is nothing the sinner can do to earn it?

My Orthodox friend’s response to this suggestion is to point out that our sin is truly awful, and that we should take time to remind ourselves of the terrible price it cost Jesus before taking advantage of his free grace.  Only when we contemplate how our thoughts, words and actions have placed an impassable barrier between us and God which only Jesus can remove, are we ready to enjoy the fruit of this lavish forgiveness.

Perhaps she has a point.  Whether we are high church or low, sacramental or symbolist, what we all have in common is that we believe that communion is something special.  In many traditions it is specifically called Holy Communion.  Yet we often fail to treat it with the respect and awe that I saw in that Orthodox church.  It seems that the more informal our church meetings are, the less time we give to contemplate our sinfulness.  Many churches deliberately avoid reflecting on our human depravity because they prefer to emphasis the fact that we are saints by God’s grace than sinners by nature.  So we come to communion with nothing more than a quick ‘Sorry Lord’ to prepare our hearts, which can cultivate the impression that our sin doesn’t really matter.

Our sin matters hugely.  It is our sin that led Jesus to the cross on our behalf.  It is our sin that hammered huge nails into his innocent flesh.  It is our sin which caused him to surrender his life so that we can be reconciled to God and purchase our forgiveness with his blood.

Forgiveness is free, but it is not cheap.