On the first Sunday of October every year, many Christians celebrate World Communion Sunday. The tradition started in the Shadyside Presbyterian Church in 1933, spread to other Presbyterian churches, and then to other denominations. The Federal Council of Churches, which is now the National Council of Churches, endorsed World Communion Sunday in 1940. Churches that participate in World Communion Sunday focus on remembering that they are part of the whole body of believers. They may have a display of breads from various countries, or use hymns and prayers from different cultures.
The celebration of Communion is a central part of worship for those who follow Christ, as they remember him in the sharing of bread and wine. It is also a moving and beautiful part of worship which, unlike most other parts of the service, involves physical interaction between the worship leaders and the congregation. The term “communion” is derived from the Latin word “communio” which means “sharing in common” and there is something inspiring in joining with others to fulfill Jesus’ request to “do this in remembrance of me.”
Sadly, as with so many other issues, the practice of Holy Communion has become something that Christians of different denominations argue about. This has led many churches to not only disagree about the meaning of communion but to also put restrictions on exactly who can participate in its celebration. What began as a simple sharing of bread and wine done in remembrance of Jesus has turned into something that divides Christians and causes those outside of the church to be further turned off by it.
In the United Methodist Church (UMC), it was a tradition until recently that children not partake in Holy Communion until they were confirmed, but now children are encouraged to join in the celebration that commemorates Jesus’ Last Supper. It is a beautiful thing to watch as the children approach the adult holding the communion bread who may have to bend down so that the smallest ones can take a piece. Unfortunately, there are some adults who don’t think children should be participating in communion until they can understand its full meaning. The UMC website addresses this concern by stating:
Do they understand the full meaning of this holy sacrament? No, and neither do any of us. It is a wonderful mystery, and children can sense wonder and mystery. Children cannot understand the full significance of family meals, but we feed them at our family tables and at Christ’s family table. Young children experience being loved by being fed. They sense the difference between being included and excluded at a family meal. They have the faith of a child, appropriate to their stage of development, which Jesus recognized and honored. Indeed, he said to adults: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15 NRSV).
In the UMC, as in many other denominations, open communion is practiced which means that all are welcome to receive communion. Participants do not have to be members of the UMC or even baptized Christians. The United Methodist Book of Worship says, “All who intend to lead a Christian life, together with their children, are invited to receive the bread and cup. We have no tradition of refusing any who present themselves desiring to receive.” The invitation to communion is an invitation to Christ’s table, not the table of any one church, and it is not up to human beings to interfere between a person and Christ.
In John 17, Jesus prays for his disciples and says “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word that they may all be one.” Let us hope that soon our practice of Holy Communion will truly be something which unites us rather than divides us and that someday World Communion Sunday will include all followers of Christ.