This sermon was preached on World Communion Sunday.
In the early 1970s the government of Peru did an extensive survey of their population, to find out how they could best serve their population. Some of the results were really puzzling, especially from the rural regions. One question in particular had a confused set of answers: “What are the major problems with Peru?” They did a follow up survey to see if they could find out what the problems were, which contained the question, “What is Peru?” To their surprise they learned that many of the people in the rural Andes had no idea what Peru was! They knew they were Quichua, the Incan tribe that populate the mountain regions, but they had no idea they were Peruvian.
Borders are a relatively new innovation. In the ancient world most borders were geographical features–rivers, mountains, or islands that naturally defined a region. Occasionally the Romans would put up walls, which acted as de facto borders, but that was more to keep invaders out than to define a nation state. Tribes would inhabit regions, but those regions had few if any borders. The Hausa and Fulani nations in Africa were spread throughout central Africa, and you might have a Fulani settlement right next to a Hausa village. Often the only border between peoples was their language. In medieval Germany for example, there were regions that were defined by which German dialect they spoke. You can find this even today. The people in Bonn spoke a German called Bunch, and it Kolne they spoke a dialect called Kolsche. Princes and kings had territories, which were defined loosely by who owned the serfs who worked there.
Italy became a nation state in 1861, and Germany did not follow suit until 1871. Almost all the borders in the Middle East came into being after World War I, almost arbitrarily drawn by the League of Nations. Iraq, for example, was established, with almost no thought to the Kurdish regions, or the fact that the country had interspersed in it both Sunni and Shi’ite regions. It was cobbled together like a mule, and then recobbled after the first set of borders did not work, and then recobbled again after WWII. African borders were mostly drawn by the people who came in to colonize the continent. They wanted to establish their territories, but they had almost no regard for the different tribal groups who lived there.
When we think about the Kingdom of God, a central theme in Jesus’ preaching and teaching, we may default to thinking of it as a modern kingdom, the kind with boundaries, and border guards and all the things that come with being a modern nation state. But in fact we best understand it when think of the Kingdom of God as a place with no boundaries, no borders, no lines saying, “Here it is, but not here.”
The Kingdom of God has no boundaries, and no borders. It is not defined by geography, or people groups, or language groups, or race. It is defined by only one thing–anywhere where any person gives their heart to Christ, there we find the Kingdom. Wherever there is a follower of Jesus, there you will find the Kingdom of God. The constitution of the Kingdom is the teaching of Jesus, and the founding moment was on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon people of all nations, and was extended when the Spirit came upon Gentiles. When that happened, it became abundantly clear that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was intended for all people in all places.
Christianity is truly a global faith. It knows no boundaries. As we sang this morning, Jesus shall reign where e’er the Sun, does its successive journeys run.
The only boundaries of Christianity are the ones we put on it.
Being a global faith, Christianity takes on many expressions around the world. I was worshiping in a church in Guatemala back in the 1978. The congregation was building a new sanctuary across the street from the hut where we were worshiping, and I noticed that during the service people would come in, tap someone on the shoulders. The person tapped would get up and walk out, the person who did the tapping would take their place. I found out where they were going when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I walked out and some guys across the street were waving me over. They were working on the new building. So I went over, and they had me hauling bricks from a truck parked out front into the building site. After I had worked about twenty moments, someone told me I was done, and go get someone else to take my place. Working on the sanctuary was seen as a form of worship for them. Oh, and by the way, the worship service lasted three hours.
I was worshiping in Haiti, and during the offering, when the plate went around, several people took the offering plate to the aisle, and stood on it. I asked someone later about that, and was told that if someone did not have money to give, they would give an offering of themselves. When they stood on the plate, they were saying that they were offering themselves to God.
There are as many ways to worship God around the world as there are churches. In Russian, it is customary to have a fence around your church. In Ghana they use banana chips for communion. In German churches they take up the offering as people leave church. Ushers stand in the exits with velvet lined bags, and people put money in them as they depart. But Germany also has the Kirchen Steuern–Church taxes. You pay your tithe when you pay your taxes. And no, you do not get to choose how much you pay.
In most countries they serve wine at communion, and they don’t understand why we use grape juice. I was with a group of Russian priests once in Alaska, and we visited the local Orthodox church in Fairbanks. At the time they did not have a local priest, and the Russian priests found out about it, they immediately wanted to hold a service there on Sunday, which was the next day. I explained to them that we expected them to be in our churches, and had planned around that, and then I said, “Besides, today is Saturday. We can’t get word out so that people will be here.” One of the priests looked at me in amazement, as if I had said the stupidest thing a minister could say, and he said, “You think we need a crowd? You think we do the service for people? We do them for God.”
They were also amazed that I did not wear a clerical collar when I was running them around Fairbanks, or even in worship. “Are you ashamed of being a minister?” they asked. “Why do you not want people to know?”
In short there a multitude of ways that Christians worship Jesus around the world, and sometimes it seems the only thing that holds them all together is the Name of Jesus.
But that is enough.
So what does all this mean for us?
First, that Christianity is a lot larger than our conception of it. We have a particular view of the faith here in this country. Other places have a different view of Christianity, with different practices. We do it one way here; other people around the world do it differently. What we do here is not the end all and be all of the faith. It’s just what we do here. There are some things all Christian churches all around the world have in common–celebration of communion, baptism and worship. And there are a lot of places where we are different, where the mores and ethos of the country we are in mold our faith. Few other countries, for example have a song like God Bless America. In some countries faith takes a large back seat in the public life, much more so than in America, and in some places the faith is essentially a national faith. In yet other places, people fight over which faith, or which form of faith will be the majority religion.
It is tempting to think that we are the center of universe, but when it comes to global Christianity, we are not.
The largest Presbyterian church in the world is Myungsung Presbyterian Church in Seoul, South Korea. It has over 100,000 members. The largest church in the world is also in Seoul, the Yoido Full Gospel Church, with 253,000 members. The largest Methodist church in the world is the Yotabeche Methodist Church, in Santiago, Chile with 150,000 members. There are more Anglicans, (Church of England and Episcopalians) in Nigeria than in Great Britain and the United States combined. In fact Nigeria, Uganda, and Kenya each, individually, have more Anglicans than Great Britain and the United States combined. African and Latin American churches are now sending missionaries to the United States and Europe, just as we sent them to their countries 100 years ago.
People who study statistical trends in Christianity all agree–the focus of Christianity is shifting from Europe and the United States to third world countries. The percentage of Christians in Asia, Latin America, and Africa is growing, while the percentage of Christians in Europe and North America is shrinking.
Secondly, what we do here is our expression of the faith. We may have a defined, American way to celebrate our faith, but other cultures have a defined way as well. In Russia, Christianity looks very Russian. In Peru, it looks very Peruvian. In Kenya, it looks Kenyan, in Iraq it looks like an Iraqi faith. Some expressions are much stricter than ours, some are much more tolerant. But what we do here is what we do. The point is not to fight about who practices Christianity the best, but to be as faithful in our practice as we can.
And thirdly, we can learn from the other nations around the world. A fish does not know it is wet. We are often very unaware of how American our particular version of Christianity is. When we see how other people in other countries do it, we can learn from them, and we can teach them. When missionaries first starting going to foreign countries to share the Gospel, they thought they were going to teach, but the longer they were in other cultures, the more they realized they could learn from the people they were supposedly going to convert. What started as a movement to bring a Western Faith to people in Africa, Latin America and Asia, turned into a way Christians in the West could learn from Christians around the world.
And that brings us here today–world communion Sunday.
If you look up communion in the dictionary, one definition is, “the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level.”
That is really what we are doing here today–sharing our intimate thoughts and feelings about faith to all the people around the world. That is why we are coming to this table. It is not a Presbyterian table. It is not a Pacific Northwest Table. It is not an American table. It is the table of the Kingdom of God. Today we celebrate that this table extends, spiritually speaking, across time and space, and into every human heart. Today we celebrate the transnational nature of this table. Today we also celebrate that everything that happens at this table transcends national boundaries, transcends language groups, transcends all borders.
And you are invited here to partake of this international feast.