We claim to be a Community of Spiritual Growth and Healing Where Everyone is Welcome! How well do we live up to that claim? When “outsiders” or “non-believers” walk through our door, do they feel judged by us, or do they feel loved and welcome?
“If you judge people,
you have no time to love them.”
I recently received an email from someone who had joined us a while back, but had not yet returned. Let me share the gist of the email with you:
“Dear new friends,
I attended your service…because I am looking for community. I did not know, before I attended, that is was a Christian community. Although I respect and honor your right to believe as you wish, I felt like I was not being honest with all of you. You embraced me with such good will and I was not telling the truth. I want community, but I am not Christian, in fact, I am atheist. I did not know, until today, how to handle this. So, I am writing to let you know that I enjoyed your company and your good energy, but I would be dishonest if I told you that communion meant anything other than fellowship, for me. I would be lying if I let you believe that I believe like you believe. I am not opposed to participation in ritual, I like it, but I must state my case and ask you all how you would feel about me being present during your services.
I thank you for your sweet generosity and your kind embrace…”
Yes, the email stated we were welcoming and gracious. But, the author also wondered whether, if we knew the truth, would we be just as gracious and welcoming? It’s a fair question. And it’s that question spurred me to give it serious thought.
If We Had Known
If we had known the truth, that the author is a self-proclaimed atheist, would we have just has gracious and welcoming? I’d like to think we would. And, the short easy answer is “yes, of course.” Personally, I think we live up to our claim pretty well. But why do we make that claim? Why a simple “yes, of course?” Is it because we simply want to attract people? Is it because it feeds our ego, allowing us to feel good about ourselves; or to feel somehow superior? Sure, it makes us feel good. We’d like to think of ourselves as open, accepting, loving. And, we want to treat others well. But, is there more to it?
I believe there is more to it – much more. I believe it’s at the very heart of Jesus’ teachings. On the face of it, this might seem like a no-brainer. But, I think it’s important to really examine the “why.” Part of what we strive to do is to make sense of Scripture, and to discuss how words written and lessons taught 2000 years ago can apply in our lives today. This is a perfect example.
Let’s take a look at Paul’s letter to the Colossians. In Chapter 4, verses 5 & 6, Paul writes: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
Who are “outsiders?” At the time, anyone outside of the Jewish faith was an outsider. Today, within the Christian framework, those who are not Christian, those outside of the church, are outsiders – they’re outside of a relationship with Jesus. Some denominations call them “unbelievers,” some call them the “un-churched.” Whatever the term, as our emailer said, outsiders are simply people who don’t believe what we believe. And how does Paul instruct us to behave? With wisdom. Why? Because we are the embodiment of Christ’s message. Non-believers will judge Christianity by what they see in us. If we are unkind, ungracious, un-welcoming – that’s exactly how they will view the whole of our faith. On the other hand, when we are kind and loving – that’s the portrait of Christianity they will see. Remember 1 Peter 3:8 – “…all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit.”
Paul also tells us to make the most of every opportunity. Outsiders who walk through our door have come for a reason. We may not know the reason, and it doesn’t matter. We all come to church for our own reasons. What matters is that they took the time to seek us out and to walk in the door. This is our opportunity to shine. It’s our opportunity to be a living example of the love and the life that we find through Jesus. If, on the other hand, our conduct is anything less than kind and compassionate, we malign Christ in their eyes and we push them away.
Next, Paul tells us to be gracious in our speech. Basically, he’s saying “watch your tongue.” When we’re speaking to others, especially non-believers, we must be living examples of Christ. How?
By not gossiping, by not slandering, by treating everyone with the same respect (not showing favoritism). And, not just when we’re talking about scripture or our faith – notice the word “always.” We are to be gracious in our speech in every situation. When we’re playing sports; when that driver cuts us off; when we’re at work; in our business dealings, etc. And, most especially when we have visitors at our table. And what does it mean to be gracious? Remember Ephesians 4:29, “Do not let any corrupt talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Salt preserves. Our words are to be seasoned with salt – they should preserve the message of Christ, not corrupt it.
So, Paul tells us that we should be welcoming and gracious. But, what about Jesus?
Jesus, the very example we are trying to emulate, provides us with plenty of precedent.
Let’s look at Matthew 9:11-13: “When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”” And in Luke 15:1 & 2 we read, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Remember, the “Law” prohibited eating with certain people. Jesus rose above the law to teach that people are more important. In Mark 7:13, Jesus tells the Pharisees and Sadducees that their strict adherence to “the Law” actually invalidated God’s word – “Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” And Paul warns that the letter of the law kills – is hurtful to people; but the Spirit (Jesus’ teachings) give life. 2 Corinthians 3:6 reads, “…For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
It is through inclusiveness, sharing Jesus’ love, that the law is fulfilled. Jesus ate with the sick, the poor, the tax collectors, thieves, etc. He invited everyone to his table, those who didn’t already know Him, and God’s love, needed Him more than those who knew Him. Jesus welcomed everyone – the un-churched, the non-believers, need his message just as much, if not more, than those who are “churched.” If Jesus welcomed “outsiders” to His table, should we do any less?
What About Communion?
Questions like those from our emailer are good because they encourage us to examine why we do what we do. We celebrate Holy Communion, also called the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, every Sunday. But why? And who should be allowed to participate? Did Jesus institute Holy Communion? Did He give us a commandment to celebrate Holy Communion, and how often?
Some churches don’t celebrate Holy Communion at all. Some only celebrate once a month, some only at specific times of year, and others, like us, choose to celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week. The list of who is permitted to partake of the Lord’s Supper is just as varied. Some churches only allow those who are members of that particular church to participate. Others allow only those who are baptized and/or confirmed in that particular denomination to participate. Some allow any baptized person; and some allow anyone at all.
Of course, there’s Scripture relating to Holy Communion. But, as with any other topic, the interpretations of Scripture on the subject are as varied as who is allowed to participate and how often the Eucharist is celebrated.
Starting in the Gospels, Luke is the only one to say, “do this in remembrance of me.” And, it was only in relation to the bread, not the wine (Luke 22:19). What were Jesus and His disciples doing? Sharing the Passover Meal. The Greek word that has been translated as “communion” is koinonia, which means a full sharing. The English definition of communion is “the act of sharing, as of intimate thoughts or feelings, especially when the exchange is ona mental or spirutal leve….” The original context was gathering together to fully share in a meal, and to share intimate thoughts and feelings of a spiritual nature. Notice that in the Gospels, Jesus gave no instruction as to specific days or times of year.
Now let’s look at the only actual instructions, which were presented by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. 1 Corinthians 11:17-30 reads, “Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you. There when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you. For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you; that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betreayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes. Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in any unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep.”
It’s important to note that this was not a ceremony with little cups of juice or wine and some wafers. This was a meal being shared. At the time, bread and wine were common to every meal. According to Paul, Jesus’ instructions were to remember Him as often as they ate and drank. In other words, remembering Him at every meal – not just as a ceremony during worship services. The Christian church adopted the Eucharist as a way to come together, symbolically share a meal, and remember Jesus together. But this should not be the only time we remember Him.
We should pause and take a moment to remember Him every time we eat or drink something – just as Paul instructed. Which is one of the reasons many Christians take a moment in prayer before meals.
So, if we choose to celebrate the Eucharist as part of our worship service, which is certainly appropriate, who should be allowed to partake?
Many churches justify excluding certain people from Holy Communion based on the passage we just read. They feel that anyone who is not part of their particular faith or denomination, or anyone not baptized, etc. is “unworthy” and is therefore to be excluded. But let’s take a closer look at what Paul was saying.
I know some interpretations would have it that those who partake of Holy Communion in an “unworthy” way (according to them or their interpretation) would bring sickness and death upon themselves. But that’s simply not how I, and many others, interpret what Paul is saying. The Lord’s Supper was a celebration and remembrance of the risen Lord. The Corinthians had corrupted and twisted it. They were not eating and drinking in a manner that remembered and honored the living, risen Christ. They were gluttons and drunkards. They filled themselves and left others to go hungry. Which is exactly what Paul meant by eating and drinking in an “unworthy” manner. If they wanted to eat their fill and get drunk, they could do that at home. But they shamed the church by gorging themselves on food and getting drunk, while at the same time leaving others to go hungry. This is why many were weak, sick, and dying.
When we share Holy Communion, we are remembering Jesus death, His resurrection, and fullness of life we find through Him. It’s also important to remember who He died for. He died for everyone – not just believers, not just those who believe a certain way, everyone! His message is for everyone. Yes, even those who would see Communion as simply a ritual.
If an “outsider” chooses to join us to hear His message, shouldn’t we rejoice? And if that same “outsider” understands the meaning behind the Lord’s Supper and wishes to partake of it with us, shouldn’t we welcome them to the table? Remember what Paul was saying to the Corinthians.
By misusing Communion, they were excluding others. That’s why he instructed them to examine themselves – they were to examine their hearts to figure out why they were behaving in such a way.
Many churches celebrate Holy Communion, it’s tradition. And, tradition can be good. It’s when that tradition becomes more important than the people things start to fall apart. Remember, in Mark 7:13 Jesus warned, “Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”
Let’s face it, much of how Christians are judged by non-Christians is based on how Christians are portrayed in the media. The most sensational, mean-spirited, and outlandish behavior by people loudly proclaiming their Christianity as justification for their behavior is what the media will broadcast. If that’s all a non-believer sees, is it any wonder they say “no thanks?” When non-believers walk through our door, we have a rare opportunity to show them something different. To show them the true meaning of our faith. It is incumbent on us to demonstrate our Christian faith is much more than what is seen on T.V., heard on the radio, or read in the papers.
I’ve read and heard things like, “if someone’s not a believer, why would they even want to attend our service,” and “if someone doesn’t believe, why would they even want to partake in Communion?” Honestly? I don’t know. But, I do know they have their reasons.
I discussed this very topic with a friend of mine, who happens to be Catholic. Through our discussion he let me know that he doesn’t agree with the Catholic Church’s stance taht only baptized and confirmed Catholics are permitted to take Holy Communion. He feels that everyone should be welcome to our table. And, he reminded me, as Pope Francis recently said, “who am I to judge?” Their reasons are their own. Just as our emailer who is looking for community. If we make people feel welcome and part of our community, isn’t that what we’re supposed to be about? Who knows, maybe that’s what will foster Spiritual Growth. Maybe it’s what will help heal past hurts that have caused someone to turn away from their faith. Maybe it will open their heart enough that they, too, will come to know God and the love we find through Jesus.
We know that Jesus loves us despite our flaws and imperfections. We also know that we are to love others as He loves us. This includes the “non-believers.” So, instead of judging them or their reasons, let’s simply do what Jesus commanded – take them as they are and love them.
As our hymn said, by our love they’ll know we are Christians. Just as Jesus welcomed everyone to His table, let’s also say, “Welcome to Our Table!”
- Colossians 4:5 & 6
- 1 Peter 3:8
- Ephesians 4:29
- Matthew 9:11-13
- Luke 15:1 & 2
- Mark 7:13
- Luke 22:19
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We Are A Community Of Spiritual Growth And Healing Where Everyone Is Welcome!