World Communion Sunday was yesterday, and I couldn’t wait! I never received the sacrament of Holy Communion until I was 15 years old, so I’m still catching up. I was raised in the General Conference Mennonite Church and attended church every Sunday from my birth until I went off to college.
It never dawned on me that communion could be for all people because children and youth in my church could not participate in communion until they had professed their faith, were baptized, and joined the church. And we could not be baptized until we had gone through two years of “catechetical class” in 9th and 10th grade. The equivalent would be confirmation class, although it was much more comprehensive than many confirmation classes in United Methodist churches today.
The Mennonite church practices believers’ baptism, as distinguished from infant baptism. Rather than see baptism as a sign of God’s grace, given to all free of charge, Mennonites want to make sure that those who are baptized understand the meaning of and freely choose baptism. I feel fortunate that I remember the day of my baptism and how powerful it was for my pastor to place his hands on my head in front of the Holy Spirit stained glass window.
I also remember with chagrin when a new family came to our church when I was in junior high, and I saw my new friend taking communion. “Why can Jane take communion and I can’t? It’s not fair!” I lamented. My mother responded, “Well, Jane came from another Mennonite Church where youth go through catechetical class at a younger age.”
Looking back on my childhood, I wish the communion table had been open to me from the time I was very young because it is so important for our children to know that God’s love is for everyone, including them. One of my greatest joys as a local church pastor was offering the bread and the cup to children.
As the years go by, I yearn for communion more and more, knowing that it is only by God’s grace that I can represent that grace to others. Every time I receive the sacrament, I remember these words from 2 Corinthians 5:7 (CEB), “So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!” I am reminded through communion that I am not only a disciple and Christ-follower. I am a new creation in Christ.
A few weeks ago, at a meeting of the North Central College of Bishops and Assistants to the Bishop in North Canton, Ohio, our devotions included these words from Bishop Francis Enmer Kearns. Bishop Kearns was elected a bishop by the 1964 North Central Jurisdictional Conference of The Methodist Church and was assigned to the newly created Ohio East Episcopal Area, where he served for twelve years.
In August 1968, Bishop Kearns reflected on the April 23, 1968 formation of The United Methodist Church through the merger of The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren Church and the abolishment of the Central Jurisdiction. It was a time of coming together after many years of division, including the 1939 segregation of African-American Methodists into what was known as the Central Jurisdiction. The words that Bishop Kearns wrote in August of 1968 bear an uncanny resemblance to our world today.
“We are living in a new world characterized by technological advance, increasing urbanization, a growing gap between the ‘have’ and the ‘have-nots’. The tendency in this world of accelerated change is to dehumanize, to underestimate the worth of the person, to grow callous toward human need, to allow millions of our citizens to live in ghettos without a genuine concern for them.
“A new church is one that has become ‘a new creation in Christ’ and that is responding to ‘the ministry of reconciliation’ given to it by its Lord. The new church finds itself in a world where social structures, racial prejudices, economic orders, and international relations threaten human dignity and freedom.
“Our new church must find new ways to minister to people, in both urban and rural areas, who are living in frustration and without hope of breaking their bondage. The summons is for us to discover new forms of Christian community in which the love of Christ will become a reality. The Uniting Conference summoned the new church to be ‘a dramatic sign of hope and a symbol of compassion.’
“A new church will be the fruit of the Spirit of God, alive and active in the lives of the church members. Our sensitivity to human need will grow as we listen to the message of Jesus, who will give us directions in our daily living and kindle his love within us. The Sermon on the Mount will engage our attention in which Jesus’ words confront us with the irresistible demands of social justice rooted as they are in his intuitive awareness that God’s love is all-inclusive. The clergy will have the opportunity to exercise their teaching function as they seek ‘to equip the laity for the work of ministry.’
“An understanding of ‘the Word’ at its deepest levels by church members will enable the church to be more effective in its planning and participating in mission. In The United Methodist Church each local congregation will be given greater flexibility and freedom to determine and carry out its own particular mission in the community and in the world. Every church member is called upon to become involved in the mission of the church, to work for constructive changes in society and to be a witness for Christ in his(her) daily life and work.
“More creative worship and more effective leadership development will be needed if every Christian is to fulfill his (her) potential in the life and mission of the new church.
“The problems which confront The United Methodist Church are common to all Christians. If we are to fulfill our mission, then we must make an ecumenical thrust in which Christians of all communions demonstrate that ‘we are fellow workmen for God.’ A new church will bear witness that through Christ it has become ‘a new creation.’”[i]
Fifty-one years after Bishop Kearns’ wrote those words, are they not still relevant today? During those years, Methodists have continued to wrestle with what it means to be a new creation, both individually and collectively. After all, the history of the Methodist movement has always been one of “moving on to perfection.” When you and I are “in Christ,” we are not only a new creation, but we are continually seeking out the marginalized and the excluded. We are continually moving out of the comfort of our churches into our communities to meet people where they are and offer hope and grace.
What is the new creation that God wants to birth in you? What new creation is God birthing in The United Methodist Church right now? How are the millions of United Methodists around the world who received communion yesterday making a difference today? How will you offer Christ to your neighbor and your co-worker as well as to the one with whom you differ around immigration, gun safety, health care reform, or human sexuality?
Can we become a new church, a new creation in Christ, that responds to the ministry of reconciliation given to it by our Lord?
“Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery in which you have given yourself for us. Grant that we may go into the world as new creations in Christ, to give ourselves for others, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.
[i] The Bishop Writes; The Monthly Messages of Bishop Francis E. Kearns, Volume II.