Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
October 1, 2023, World Communion Sunday
Scripture: Luke 14:12–24
When Rev. Hugh Thomson Kerr began the tradition of World Communion Sunday in 1933 at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, with the professed “attempt to bring churches together in a service of Christian unity,” the world was in the throes of the Great Depression, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was warning the international community of Germany’s rearmament in violation of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, and German Jews defied oppressive Nazi rules by celebrating Rosh Hashanah in record-breaking attendance at German synagogues. At that time of great fear and suffering, the world needed a model of God’s faithful demonstrating the power of love and peace.
When, in 1940, the Federal Council of Churches, which would eventually become the National Council of Churches, endorsed and promoted World Communion Sunday, the world was at war, with Germany launching its bombing campaign, the Blitz, against the United Kingdom. Germany, Japan, and Italy fortified their alliance, indicating that the march of war showed no sign of slowing. At that time of great violence and the traumatic atrocities of war, the world needed the witness of the followers of the way to an alternative ordering of the world. And yet, the church’s message was muted. Many of the churches in America during this time failed to see the irony and hypocrisy in observing a day set aside for Christian unity when many or most Black Christians would not have been welcomed in their services. And yet, in the very idea, in the practice of a World Communion Sunday, was a recognition of the substance of Jesus’ ministry, vision, and prophetic challenge to the church and the world to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery to the disabled, and freedom to the oppressed.
Throughout the Gospels, we find Jesus doing some of his most important teachings and encountering people desperately needing spiritual and physical deliverance over a meal. While many of Jesus’ discourses and miracles took place on mounts, plains, and bodies of water, it was often over a meal that Jesus seemed to be most inspired, most connected, and most present among the masses of people, revealing how vital table fellowship was in demonstrating the wideness of God’s welcome and the radical hospitality found within God’s kingdom. As our text shows so vividly, Jesus was not shy about critiquing and correcting the prevailing cultural conventions about meal practices and social stratification that left many people behind. Jesus was not concerned about doctrinal agreement or moral rectitude when sharing God’s abundance.
As one commentator aptly described, Jesus is not simply “a passive guest” at any meal he attends (Justo Gonzalez in Luke, 179). Jesus could be counted on to confound the customs, traditions, and cultural expectations any chance he could. He raised the ire of his religious opponents by pronouncing a series of woes on them, decrying their practice of public piety while neglecting justice and loving God. He had a practice of healing on the Sabbath in the synagogue. And at the occasion of this meal, Jesus does not forgo the opportunity to raise questions about the kind of table fellowship that reflects the values and practices of the kingdom of God. So, for Jesus and his followers, the meal became the central feature of worship, both when Jesus was with them and after Jesus departed.
In this Parable of the Great Banquet, Jesus raises all kinds of questions for the host, the guests, and his followers about the purpose of table fellowship, about whether such a gathering reflects the true vision and commitments of God’s kingdom, about who should be invited and embraced. The message is provocative and countercultural: Throw away the guest list, dismantle the revolving turnstile at the front door, and welcome those shamed or rejected into believing they are outside God’s loving embrace. Rather than inviting the people you know, those who can reciprocate with an invitation, or people you want to impress, invite people experiencing poverty, people with disabilities, and people who are blind. Of course, some people take the grace and invitation to God’s feast for granted, finding more important things to do than gather with their neighbors around the table. In the parable, when those invited forgo the opportunity to gather and politely decline, the owner of the house sends his servant to the streets and the lanes to bring in people experiencing poverty, people with disabilities, and people who are blind. And even after he does so, there is still room. When we throw away the guest list and throw open our doors, there is still more room at God’s table. The task before us is to keep inviting those on the margins to the table so the house of God may be filled. Jesus keeps no guest list because we have all been already invited, already expected, already welcomed to this feast.
As we celebrate World Communion Sunday, I’m mindful of the concern of the great theologian of worship, Laurence Stookey, that the church unintentionally and unwittingly practices subtle forms of excommunication from the communion table by rigidly guarding the rules, traditions, and practices we’ve created. In our boast of an open table, do we practice the kind of radical hospitality that mirrors Jesus’ reckless, open invitation? The church has been woefully inattentive in modeling and sharing our most incredible gift: the gift of community in a fractured and separated world. That stinginess is most visible in our practice of communion, which the church has primarily turned into an individualistic act of private piety and neglected the image of God’s feast open to all in the Parable of the Great Banquet in the Gospel of Luke. The power of that parable lies both in analog and praxis. It offers the church a rich witness to the great cosmic banquet when God reconciles all things to God while furnishing us with the prophetic mantle and model of radical hospitality, inclusion, and welcome to all God’s children. The world is crying out for community in our age of isolation, polarization, and radicalization that pulls communities apart.
The church is always at its best when it makes community real, available, and inclusive for all the world to see. It was on World Communion Sunday, October 6, 1968, when the defrocked Church of God pastor Rev. Troy Perry opened his home for a worship service in his living room in a small house in Los Angeles. He was stripped of his credentials when church officials found out he was a gay man. But Rev. Troy Perry knew that his divine calling was not canceled, so he wanted to bring the good news of God’s unconditional love to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people who had been excommunicated from their faith communities because of who they were. And so he went out into the streets, the clubs, and restaurants where LGBT people lived on the margins and told them that the feast of the Lord is going on, and you are welcomed.
Even though the liturgy of that first day did not look like his Pentecostal worship service, Rev. Perry knew that through the communion table, those LGBT people who were denied the grace and radical hospitality found in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the cup would accept the invitation to the Lord’s Supper. Twelve people showed up that day. And the kept gathering at the table. Over the next five years, they gathered beyond Los Angeles, in San Fransisco, New York, Chicago, Dallas, and Washington, DC. And every Sunday to this day, LGBT Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians, Mormons, Presbyterians, and Unitarians gather around the table. Talk about church unity. People gathered around Christ’s table without regard to doctrinal agreement or moral certainty. Most churches that observed World Communion Sunday on that day when 12 LGBT people gathered in Rev. Troy Perry’s living room neglected their own call to Christian unity.
So, we join in World Communion Sunday in service to Christian unity and also to demonstrate the wideness of God’s welcome and the radical hospitality of God’s reign. We break the bread and drink the cup with every soul, rejoicing together in the boundless grace and reckless love of the One who taught his table companions to throw away their guest lists. We accept this unexpected invitation over and over and offer it, too. We remember and enact this great banquet with no charge, no requirements, and no reciprocation, knowing that it is pure gift, pure presence, and pure embrace. We proudly let the world know that it is a feast not confined to those who hold membership or are already known to us. Unlike the house owner in the parable who sought out those on the margins in anger when his invited guests declined, we extend the invitation to this feast of God now and always to the seeker, the doubter, the rejected, and others not thought of. We accept the invitation and heed the call to go out into the streets and lanes, to those on the margins so that the house of God may be filled.