The Peace of Bread
with Rev. Laura Sherwood
October 2, 2023
The message on World Communion Sunday explores how the Communion Table brings together people from all places on earth and how the act of sharing the Bread of Christ can be the beginning of peacemaking between peoples and nations.
Leviticus 26:1-6a, 10-12
“‘Do not make idols or set up an image or a sacred stone for yourselves, and do not place a carved stone in your land to bow down before it. I am the Lord your God.
2 “‘Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary. I am the Lord.
3 “‘If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, 4 I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees their fruit. 5 Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land.
6 “‘I will grant peace in the land, and you will lie down and no one will make you afraid.
10 You will still be eating last year’s harvest when you will have to move it out to make room for the new. 11 I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you. 12 I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.
32 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
34 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Read the Full Text
Today we celebrate World Communion – which is one of my favorite church days. I have always been fascinated by other cultures and languages and learning about people and lands around the globe has been an important part of my faith – each one showing me another way to see and experience God. I have already shared with you a few stories about my experiences with the country Ukraine – and I promise I’m not going to do that every Sunday, but as I thought about World Communion today and especially the central role of bread in the sacrament and in scripture, I couldn’t help but recall how Ukraine has shaped the way I think about bread. So, I hope you’ll allow me to share another part of that story today.
It was 1991 the year I graduated from college and was my first trip anywhere overseas (prior to that I had been to Canada for 1 day). I traveled as part of a 3-month Russian language student exchange sponsored by my University. Our group of 4 was actually going to the country of Ukraine, which is on the Western border of Russia, but it didn’t matter because at that time it was all still the Soviet Union and Russian was the main language.
I had never been that far from home in my life, especially without my parents. I was a little frightened and a lot nervous. We were all really tired after 16 hours in the air and in 4 different airports and we still faced an all-night train ride to get from Moscow to our city in Ukraine. The first sights of Russia were strange, the buildings looked different; the people looked different and somehow not too happy. Everything even smelled funny to me and the language that I had spent 4 years of college studying did not sound even remotely familiar once I heard it in real life.
Three months was starting to sound like an eternity! I was already fantasizing about ways I could be sent home early – a mysterious illness, an allergic reaction or, better yet, losing my only pair of glasses.
We had about 5 hours before the train left so; the representative from the Ukrainian University who had come to meet us took us to his cousin’s apartment in the city. It was a lovely two-room apartment where a family of four lived – which was fairly typical. I couldn’t understand a word they said to me, but I did understand the smiles on their faces and their gestures to us to take a seat around their small kitchen table which had been piled high will all kinds of homemade dishes, steaming hot bowls of potatoes and, of course, several loaves of freshly made bread.
When I arrived at my host family’s apartment the next day, the first thing I saw when I entered was their table, set up in the living room with a beautiful cloth, lots of homemade foods in crystal and china serving ware and loaves of fresh bread. I discovered that bread was essential to any table set for guests and I myself got to be the one to go and get the fresh loaves from nearby bakeries before special dinners with my host family. The table would not be complete without the bread.
As the three months went by (I never went through with my plans to get sent home early), I was invited into many people’s homes and I was always offered a seat at their tables and invited to literally break bread with them. What I realized was that in the course of sharing meals and sitting at the same table, we were becoming friends instead of strangers and that I was no longer a frightened foreigner but a welcomed guest.
It was made all the more amazing given how recently the Cold War had ended and how just a few years earlier the act of sharing time, let alone a meal with someone from the Soviet Union could mean you as an American were literally consorting with the enemy. I remember my parents telling me stories of regular air-raid drills in the 50’s and 60’s to be prepared in case the Russians fired nuclear missiles at us. I hate the thought that we might be returning to that kind of relationship again.
When I finally left for home I left a country that was no longer strange and scary, but a place that had become like a second home with warm memories of the most hospitable people I had ever known. One of the strongest associations I now have of Ukraine and Russia is bread. Not only because it was always at the dinner table, but because of what it symbolized to the people. Bread meant that there was enough food to eat – this was significant to a nation that had known terrible hunger in past years. Bread meant that they would survive and even thrive. Bread meant life. And when they shared their bread with me, a citizen a former enemy country, bread meant peace.
In the presbyterian church World Communion is also when we receive a special offering for Peacemaking efforts in local churches, in our various regions, nationally and throughout the world. This offering was recently renamed from Peacemaking to Peace and Global Witness. Each congregation keeps 25% for local peacemaking efforts. This year our 25% will go to Chalice House which provides temporary housing and support for families and/or individuals navigating the U.S. Asylum process.
In the passage we heard from Leviticus, God promises the people of Israel that there will be peace in their land. In that same passage, God promises that there will be grain enough for them to have plenty of bread to eat. For them, too, bread meant that they would not go hungry, bread meant that wars had ceased long enough for them to grow and store grain. For them, bread also meant a time of peace.
In the winter of 1935, at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, a group of ministers from different churches met to study the spiritual needs and possibilities of the church during The Great Depression. In the Lord’s Supper, they saw an opportunity to unite all their memberships in dedication to Jesus Christ. This early ecumenical awareness led to the first Worldwide Communion Sunday on Nov. 11, 1936. It was moved to the first Sunday in October the following year and was finally promoted by the Federal Council of Churches to be observed by all churches as a sign and symbol of unity across the boundaries of denomination, race and country.
The September 1941 issue of The Christian Century reported that churches were to celebrate worldwide communion “with an acute awareness of the fellowship they have with the millions, in all lands and churches, who are similarly and simultaneously renewing their allegiance to the same Lord.”
This service gained popularity in churches all over the world and especially among missionaries who carried it to many far-reaching places. But an even deeper significance of the new practice came through, of all areas, the military, after American involvement in World War II. It became increasingly important as the war progressed for the soldiers to know that they were celebrating communion on the same day as their family and friends back home. And it was equally important to know that they were sharing in the Lord’s Supper with other people of faith around the world, even people in the countries of their enemy, praying together to the same God. For them, the Bread of Communion had come to mean peace between nations, even nations who were at war – peace in the knowledge of God and the eternal love offered to all in Christ.
As it says in our text from John, “the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”
And now here we are, people of the First Presbyterian Church in Arlington Heights, IL, celebrating World Communion as part of a now time-honored tradition in our denomination and in many churches around the world. Like in days past, it is a time in our history when killing and violence are a daily occurrence, when nations are at war with one another – including the 2 countries that together were the location of my association of bread with peace. It is a time when many sons and daughters of our country are far from home with some living in enemy lands. It is a time of deep frustration and confusion about where the lines are drawn. A time of shaking our heads in disbelief over the cruelty and violence being played out in so many of our communities.
It is a time when we need Peace more than ever.
(Motion toward the Communion Table)
And so, we have gathered around this familiar Table, a table that we know in our hearts stretches across the boundaries of time and place, across the boundaries of enemy and ally, across the boundaries of stranger and friend. Christ our host, is inviting us to take our seats, offering his people a chance to be united by something other than suffering and sorrow, something other than hate and fear.
As we find our places, we can look to our right and to our left and see with spiritual eyes the other guests at this humble and yet generous table. We see people from Arlington Heights and nearby cities, we see our neighbors in Christ from other denominations, Methodist, Lutheran, UCC, Catholic and so many others.
We see our siblings of faith – those who are represented in the choice of breads we offer this morning and from every country on earth. People who, just like us, long for a time of justice, righteousness and peace and have gathered around the Lord’s Table to find it in the breaking of the bread.
All is ready; let us prepare to take our seats. In the name of the One who brings us together and calls us to make peace with one another. Amen.