World Communion Sunday      A United Public Witness  

Loraine McKenzie Shepherd                          Oct. 6, 2019

John 17:6-8, 11, 20-22

Fifty years ago, Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon. His companion, Buzz Aldrin, was the first person to do something else on the moon. Any guesses? He took communion. While he was in the lander, waiting for permission to join Neil on the surface of moon, he took out a little bag that contained a tiny piece of bread and some wine, both blessed from his Presbyterian Church. He then took out a chalice and poured the wine into the chalice. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, he watched the wine slowly curl and gracefully come up the side of the cup. When Neil Armstrong’s feet touched the surface of the moon, he pronounced, “One small step for man; a giant leap for mankind”. John Longhurst suggested that Buzz Aldrin’s actions were a giant leap of faith for mankind. Or—in today’s language—a giant leap of faith for humanity.

Broadcasted commentary that accompanied the footage of the landing indicated that it would help the world transcend borders and become united (I think we need another person to land on the moon soon!). That must have been in Buzz Aldrin’s thoughts as he said to the world, “I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.”

There is a similar global sentiment that accompanies World Communion Sunday. On this day, churches all over the world are sharing communion together and offering prayers of unity. A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from Rev. Daniel Izquierdo, the minister at our sister Luyanó Presbyterian Church in Cuba. He asked me for a note from Westworth that he could read to his congregation this morning and I sent him the following:

Our dear partners in Luyanó, on this Sunday of World Communion, we will remember you in our prayers. As we share in the one body of Christ, we celebrate that you are an important part of our one body. Together, we are made whole.

Daniel, in turn, sent us this message:

Sisters and brothers at WESTWORTH UNITED CHURCH, our congregation here in Luyano fondly remembers the relation that has kept us united over the years. That´s certainly a sign of the ONE BODY, that we witness as churches to the world. In this time of divisions, troubles and individualism, may our bonds be a sign to others of love, friendship and good will. Peace be with you as we celebrate together this World Communion Sunday.

The gospel lesson is the source for the quote on the United Church Crest “that all may be one”. In this passage, Jesus has just finished the last supper with his disciples and offers his lengthy prayers and appeal to his disciples for them—and for us—to be united in our witness to the world.

As you know by now, I am passionate about building interfaith and ecumenical relationships, because I’m convinced that we will only make headway in bringing compassion and justice to our world when we work together with others. These days without Presbytery it seems as if United Church congregations are functioning in silos more than ever before. It takes effort to continue working together. But the last Friday of September demonstrated the power of interfaith and ecumenical cooperation in the two interfaith services that happened just before the Climate Strike rally. Both Disciples United and All Saints Anglican were packed with 250 people each.

Last night, I attended a dinner at Broadway Disciples United Church on the eve of their celebration this morning of entering into full communion between the United Church of Canada and the Disciples of Christ. Representatives of various denominations across Canada and the U.S. are her for this celebration. Harrow United Church actually cancelled their worship service this morning to join them in this celebration. Our own Ray Cuthbert, who is a Disciples of Christ minister, is also with them this morning. I have assured them of our prayers and you will find a detailed description of this momentous event of full communion in your bulletin. When we can stand together with one voice united across our differences, we truly do witness to the world, as Rev. Daniel Izquierdo notes in his message to Westworth.

When I was involved with the World Council of Churches, I learned a tremendous amount from our ecumenical partners and I was changed by this interaction. I gained a new appreciation of our Christian tradition. Up until that point, I ignored or even disparaged it. But I learned from our Orthodox sisters and brothers a depth of tradition that supports radical stands for justice. I learned that you can be both conservative by honouring our Christian roots and progressive in applying them to issues of justice for today. I might call it a third way that draws on the strengths of both the right and the left.

I also learned at the World Council of Churches that the United Church and some of the northern European churches are reticent in sharing our strengths with the rest of world. We are very aware of our mistakes in colonization here and around the world and we are afraid to speak out about anything today. Our ecumenical partners, on the other hand, are asking us to help lead them on issues of gender and sexuality. We have much to offer them as they are beginning on a path that is well-worn and well-known by us. Even here, in Winnipeg, Shahina Siddiqui has asked us to help the Islamic Community understand issues of gender identity and sexual orientation. In turn, we might draw on their help to understand issues of racism and Islamaphobia.

We are realizing that our increasingly divided and callous world is needing our united voice across ecumenical and interfaith identities. I predict that the media will be calling us more frequently over the next few years so that they can offer a strong alternative to a growing hate & mistrust of differences. It’s a bit of an irony that, even though individual interest in joining a religious community seems to be on the wane, the demand for our united, public voice is growing. Why? Because they see us living a united, compassionate alternative.

This is one of the strengths of thriving United Churches. They are becoming the leaders in their communities. Hillhurst United Church’s website has a button on its homepage saying “In the News”. Media has them on speed dial so that they can quickly offer a counter voice to incidents of right wing extremism.

The United Church used to have the interest of politicians and was consulted by premiers and prime ministers. Those days are gone, but it is the media and the public who are now coming to us and we have a responsibility to tell our truths.

But there is one caution as we strengthen our united voice. We must remember our colonial past and offer our voice humbly. We have words of unity that we must speak but we also have lessons that we still must learn.

In the forward to a Mennonite Cookbook, Paul Longacre recounts visiting an indigenous church in Argentina and was asked how he would share the gospel with other indigenous communities. He replied, “I would go and eat their food.”[1] Sharing the gospel sometimes means listening and receiving rather than speaking and giving. The Franciscan Order has a rule that comes from their founder St. Francis of Assis and states, “Preach the Gospel at all times; and when absolutely necessary, use words.”

May God grant us the courage to speak when our voice is needed and the humility to listen when our understanding is needed. As we share a holy meal in communion with sisters and brothers all around the world, may Christ’s body strengthen us to be Christ’s voice and Christ’s ears.


[1] Paul Longacre, “Forward,” Extending the Table: A World Community Cookbook. Mennonite Central Committee, 2014.