Sixty-five years ago, an Anglican priest in London, England, changed the way we talk about faith. John Bertram Phillips published a little book, Your God Is Too Small, that pushed beyond the popular notions of God and challenged his readers to redefine a higher power in ways that were relevant to the issues of his day. His challenge is as relevant today as it was then.
To someone outside the Christian faith, Phillips wrote, the churches “seem to have captured and tamed and trained to their own liking Something that is really far too big ever to be forced into little man-made boxes with neat labels upon them. ‘If,’ the Churches appear to be saying to him, ‘you will jump through our particular hoop or sign on our particular dotted line, then we will introduce you to God. But if not, then there’s no God for you.’”
Such insularity and narrow-mindedness is as old as the Christian church. Remember how St. Paul scolded the Corinthian Christians for their sectarian quarrels and divisions, each group thinking they had an exclusive understanding of God (1 Cor. 1:10-17). It’s apparent that the church is as deeply divided in its practice of faith today as it was then. We argue and divide over issues like race, abortion, gay marriage, social and economic justice, immigration and hospitality to the sojourner, freedom of expression, and of course the list goes on.
We even have a hard time worshiping together as we separate over choice of music, styles of liturgy, language and names for God, translations of scripture, the posture for prayer, the content of our creeds and affirmations of faith. That list goes on, too. The church has so many ways to practice faith, and so many ways to worship, and so many disagreements over which way is proper, you might wonder if we’re worshiping the same God.
Today, at least for this day, we move beyond all that. Today (and every first Sunday of October) a large part of the worldwide church are observing World Communion Sunday. First celebrated in Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1933, it was a day created as a way to bring churches together in Christian unity and to recall how interconnected all parts of the church are as the body of Christ.
Today we enact symbolically what St. Paul wrote to the church in Roman. “I say to everyone among you,” he wrote, “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Rom. 12:3-5).
We are part of one another like eyes and ears and hands are parts of the same body. All of us, no matter how differently we practice our faith and express our worship, are necessary to each other as we serve the good of the whole body. We must look beyond our differences so we can see our unity. And it’s a unity that goes beyond membership in the church.
Enter almost any restaurant, and you’ll see amazing differences among the people there, differences in dress and manner, differences in skin color and ethnic background, differences in social and economic status. You’ll see differences in the food they choose from the menu and in what they talk about while they eat. But one thing is always the same, and it’s something almost no one pays much attention to. Everything that happens in that restaurant is organized around the simple act of lifting fork from plate to mouth. What matters is that people are fed and nourished.
So it is with faith in all its diversity. In the Christian church, and in the whole human family beyond the membership of the church, we come from different backgrounds and faith traditions, we use different languages and symbols, we practice different forms of worship and organize around different sacred scriptures. Our creeds and customs vary. But everything that happens is organized around living in a vital relationship with our creator and with creation. All of our faith practices and forms of worship, no matter how different, are there to help us feed our souls at the table of the same God.
Karen Armstrong, perhaps the most influential commentator on religion in the English-speaking world, looked at the roots of all the great religions of the world, and this is what she found. All of them – Confucianism and Taoism in China; Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism in India; Monotheism in Israel, Philosophical Rationalism in Greece – all of them, she found, have at their heart the practice of compassion rather than adherence to any religious doctrine. The central impulse and priority of all the great religions of the world is to value others enough to treat them as you would have them treat you. It’s what we know as the Golden Rule.
John Wesley observed in our experience that we cannot all practice our faith alike, and we cannot all worship alike. But, he asked, may we not all love alike? He was convinced we can. And doing so – loving one another with authentic compassion despite our differences, perhaps even because of our differences – is key to the ministry of universal reconciliation that Christians believe is the heart of the gospel (2 Cor. 5:16-20).
If your heart is as my heart, Wesley said – if you will stake your life on loving one another with an authentic love, as I have staked my life on that love – then give me your hand. And then, hand in hand, we will gather around the sacramental table and be fed and nourished, all of us, by God’s unlimited grace. ▪