Answering the Prayer of Jesus
A Sermon for Northminster Church
Preached by Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy
October 3, 2021
John 17:20-26 and Psalm 98: 1-3; John 3:16
I love a Sunday on which we gather for worship knowing that we are uniting with Christians around the globe celebrating God’s gift of communion together. As we drink from the cup and munch a pinch of the loaf that ushers us into mystery and evokes awe within our hearts, we sense a special joy. This day heightens our awareness that God not only has provided gifts to us in the past—bread and wine that communicate love—God now provides gifts in the present—our brothers and sisters in the international family of faith, from whom we receive encouragement, among whom we share love, and with whom we learn to live and love beyond ourselves and our own kind.
I am sad to confess that there was a time early in my life when I would have been uncomfortable participating in a World Communion Sunday—not because of my thoughts, but because of the teachings that I heard in the early part of my life. Closed communion—so-called fence-making churches with communion—prevailed in the church in which I grew up. A person could only take what we called “the Lord’s Supper” in the church of which that person was a member. That time is no more. Thanks be to God! But I have never cleared from my childhood memory a story about the First Methodist Church in my hometown firing their pastor because he took communion in a Baptist church.
Briefly I want to share with you the road I traveled on my way to finding a communion table at which all people are welcome. So, let me begin with the intercessory prayer of Jesus that opened both my eyes and heart and expanded my narrow understanding of communion.
I Read Jesus’ Prayer and Wanted to Help Fulfill His Request
In the last days of his ministry, Jesus prayed for himself, for his disciples, and for his future believers—for all of us. “That they may all be one,” was the prayer of Jesus which reads in more contemporary language “I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.”
Jesus was a realist. He foresaw disagreements and a lack of trust that divides crowds, tears apart relationships, and leaves societies in fragments. Daily traveling with his disciples, Jesus made clear the wrongs of prejudice, jealousy, and judgments. Jesus prayed that his followers would enjoy unity with each other like he enjoyed his unity with God. Clearly, Jesus considered unity—personal and social unity—as one of his highest priorities.
Divisions among Christians is counter behavior to Jesus’ message and prayer. We are to love each other more than we love denominations, rituals, statements of faith, structures, governments, political parties, and institutions. That which brings us together is more important than what divides us. Keep in mind Jesus’ prayer for complete unity among us: “that (WE) may be one.”
Breaking bread and drinking wine together is a means of spiritual nurture, love-based union, and a contribution to answering Jesus’ prayer. Surely, if we Christians can gather around communion together, we can find ways to experience unity and cooperation.
I Paid Close Attention to How Jesus First Served the Bread and the Cup and Who He Welcomed to the Table
I think Jesus was a much better person than are many biblical scholars who try to prove that Judas was not at the table when Jesus broke the bread and poured the wine in the upper room. Numerous scholars do not want to think that Jesus would serve Judas during that meal. If Judas was not in the room, it was because he left. Jesus wanted Judas at the table. Think about what happened a few hours later that evening.
Frederick Buechner described the relationship between Judas and Jesus: “They were two old friends . . . knowing that they (would) never see one another again.” Buechner’s commentary is so true: “Here is where religion becomes reality.” Here is where we see hypocrisy and authenticity becomes transparent. “The substance of our faith is made clear in how we treat our friends in some perilously pivotal moment in our own Garden of Gethsemane—those whom we betray and those who betray us. In the final analysis, our identity as people of grace and our fidelity as followers of Jesus come down to the manner in which we treat people who have treated us most poorly.”
Judas, the traitor, kissed Jesus. What did Jesus say in return?
Jesus was a friend of Judas right up until the end. Never did Judas move beyond the reach of Jesus’ love or the embrace of Jesus’ grace—Never! Jesus would not have told Judas to leave the table in the Upper Room. That was just the beginning of times when Jesus and his followers would invite to the table people who many individuals would argue that those people did not deserve to share in the meal.
I fight back tears when I think of Jesus and Judas standing in that distant garden looking at each other, thinking of the life they had shared together, wondering how on earth they ever got to this moment—two old friends together who would never see each other again. I find myself looking around in search of people who need me or us. I want to say to those people, “Come on, let’s meet at the table my friend. Have some bread and wine.”
I Changed my Thoughts About Communion Even More During a Visit in South America.
On February 1, 1981, I preached in the FBC of Ipanema, Brazil. The congregation was a collection of people with a variety of skin colors. When I concluded my sermon that day, the dark-skinned pastor asked me to lead in a prayer for the bread before serving communion with him. While I was handing people the bread and cups of communion, suddenly I was stunned. I saw my white hand placing bread in a black hand. For the first time in my life, I was serving communion to black people. My mind raced back to the church of my childhood in which black people were not even welcome in the church. I thought of Martin Luther trembling as he served his first communion. I was trembling. A black man and a white man were standing together at God’s table. Late that day I wrote in my journal “A black man and a white man standing together at the Lord’s table. Never had a realization of the unifying power of Christ come with such an impact.” After the service that morning, the black and white pastors walked arm in arm to the door of the church where we greeted women, men, and children of all colors with tight embraces. All I could say was “Hallelujah!” and I said it numerous times.
Serving and receiving communion has never been the same for me after that day. How good it felt to share God’s table with diverse people. This was so right. It felt so good to be with the people of the world all together at God’s table.
More Spiritual Changes Occurred in Northminster Church
One of the most moving experiences of corporate worship I have ever experienced occurred in this sanctuary on a Sunday morning when numerous members of Temple B’Nai Israel joined us for worship. Knowing the importance of bread and wine in both the Hebrew and Christian traditions, we asked our guests to join us in partaking of the bread and wine and, as they did so, to think of the meaning of those gifts in their religious tradition as we would think of the meaning of communion in our tradition. As members of Northminster Church ate the bread of Christian communion, members of Temple B’Nai Israel ate the bread at the center of the Hebrew tradition. Interestingly, the memories of both congregations quickly intersected because shared bread and wine brought us to recognize our union in the presence of the God who is the source of bread and the source of our desire to see that all people have bread. At that moment, this sanctuary was filled with compassion and commitment and love.
Beginning to Live Beyond the Bible and Going Beyond My Own Theology
I have always taken the Bible seriously, carefully studying passages to properly understand the type of literature I am reading and how that writing is to be interpreted and applied to our lives. But many issues are not addressed in the Bible; they are not even mentioned.
With that recognition, I turned to obvious wisdom and scriptural truths that pushed me beyond the Bible. Why would Jesus pray for unity among his followers and not also pray for unity among all people who love one another? I believe he did. I believe when God sets a table it is for the world!
Walking in the steps of Jesus takes us into important issues, questions, and decisions that are not addressed by the Bible but challenge us to address with God’s justice and grace. That has taken me places I never expected to go and participate in religious experiences that nurtured my soul.
On a day celebrating unity among Christians, I cannot help but reach more deeply into truth and desire for unity among all people. Why would Jesus, who prayed for unity among his followers, not want unity among all people who love one another.
On May 6, 2005, in Boca Raton, Florida, in Temple Beth El, guarded tightly by police because of the threat of antisemitism, I delivered a sermon on Shabbat. In every synagogue, the Torah scrolls are kept in a cabinet called the Aron haKodesh, the holy ark. As those scrolls are removed, the Rabbi lifts the Torah before the worshipers as they chant “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” Then comes one of most moving moments of the evening—the Parading of the Torah—as the Rabbi holds high the scrolls and moves among the worshipers. I could hardly believe what happened that evening. The Rabbi handed the scrolls to me and asked me to walk through the worshipers holding high the scrolls for people to see and touch.
In the holiness of those moments as worshipers gazed at and touched the Torah, chills shook my body and holiness shook my soul. I was at the center of the kind of worship Jesus regularly experienced.
I don’t remember the date, but I remember a crisis had erupted in the Middle East. A group of Muslim leaders invited me to explore with them strategies to avoid violence. After talking with a few people in the National Security Office in the White House, I knew the situation was serious. During the afternoon session of this gathering with multiple Muslim agencies, we stopped the meeting so the Muslims could offer the third prayer of the five prayers they offered every day. As we walked out of the meeting room, two of the Muslim leaders who were my friends turned to me and said, “Why don’t you join us in our prayers. You are welcome.” Immediately I accepted the invitation. I thought of Jesus’ prayer for all of us to be one and felt like God was happy that we were intensely speaking to God about peace.
Those experiences are what I mean when I say I have gone beyond my own theology and lived beyond the Bible—not against the Bible but beyond the Bible. The prayer that Jesus offered on our behalf was a call to unity. My feelings in those moments were akin to eating the bread and drinking the wine of communion.
Communion can occur anywhere anytime. The elements of communion do not have to be bread and wine. Many people use grape juice rather than wine and a variety of breads—flat bread, yeast bread, and, not intentionally, but one morning during communion here, we had onion-bread. Recently I have been thinking about and working to see that people in out-of-the-way places around the world who are denied desperately needed vaccines that could save them from death by COVID-19. For so many people a shot of
Pfizer-BioNTech or one of many other vaccines in their arms would be like broken bread and poured wine on a communion table--healing and giving hope. I once knew lovers who used grape jelly and water for communion. I hope you see what I am suggesting.
I have no desire or authority to judge who should take communion and how. Sadly, in a world that is more politicized than spiritual, I am sickened by the Catholic Priests and Southern Baptist pastors who refuse to serve communion to anyone who supports women who defend and take care of their own bodies. I so respect Pope Francis’s opposition to the secular politicization of holy communion. This past Wednesday, Pope Francis said that since he has been a priest, “I have never denied the Eucharist to anyone.” I can assure you, that same confession can be made by worshipers in Northminster Church.
Look carefully at the intercessory prayer from Jesus in which he prayed for unity. Keep in mind that unity is not the same
as uniformity. The apostle Paul made clear that diversity within a fellowship is a strength rather than a weakness.
We already know God’s will on the matter. We are different from each other by God’s design. We can live in unity with each other by God’s grace—praying, taking Communion, and building a peaceful universe.
Today, I delight in the love of God that has provided a family of believers larger than I had ever imagined and created the possibility of experiencing a world-wide fellowship that I once thought could be no larger than the membership of a little church in West Tennessee. It is not that I have created a religion to my own liking. From no less authority than Jesus of Nazareth, I have learned that Christianity has love at its center, open arms as its posture, encouragement as its demeanor, and a welcome to all people as its first spoken word.
On this World Communion Sunday, without apology, I encourage all of us to shape our corporate character after the pattern of the God who sets a table before us and calls us together there to break bread and drink wine together, rejoicing among ourselves, caring for each other, and, as we think of others, seeing to it that all who want to join us at this table receive our warmest welcome.
Remember Jesus’ prayer. He prayed “that (all of us) may be one”—“so that (we) may be brought to complete unity.” Let us pray that one day the prayer of Jesus will be answered, and we will have helped make it happen.
Holy God, El Shaddai, Elohim, Adonai, Yahweh, Jehovah, I AM WHO I AM, Shammah, Messiah, Mighty God, Great Spirit, Father, Great I AM, Mother, Allah, Theos, Istu, Abba, Alpha and Omega, Good Shepherd, Mighty God, Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Creator, and Holy One with so many other names.
You have set us within a family. Our heritage stretches all the way back to the antiquities in which Abraham, though noticeably flawed morally, admirably demonstrated his fidelity to your will. Our destiny reaches into a future known only faintly by glimpses into the vision on the Christ who named us as brothers and sisters in life and in death. Thank you for surrounding us with a family of faith readily recognizable whether we are looking back over our shoulders or peering into the far horizon or trying to make sense of the present moment.
O God, help us to understand that your presence is realized most when we relate to each other as emissaries of your love. O God, enable us to recognize that your forgiveness is most palpable when we forgive each other. O God, open our eyes to the truth that your peace is most pervasive when each of us acts as an instrument of your peace.
Holy Father, Sacred Mother, in the name and by the instruction of our elder brother, Jesus of Nazareth, bring us together as one family , celebrating your presence, enjoying your forgiveness, and resting in your peace. Amen.