As most of you know, a couple of weekends each year I lay aside my pastoral duties to meet family and friends from around the country for a few days of camping and river rafting. Next weekend, will be the 89th time we have gathered. And though the cast of characters who gathers for each occasion varies, it is always a time of communal celebration and refreshment. It is, in a strange and wonderfully unique way, a gathering of family.
I can pinpoint the moment when this occasion became a family. The moment happened over 40 years ago, when we were young and considered ourselves indestructible. On what would turn out to be a weekend of torrential rain, about 25 hardy people bravely and somewhat stupidly answered my summons to gather at Standing Indian Campground in North Carolina located on the Upper Nantahala River, just a few minutes from the Rehbergs’ mountain cabin. Sure, we noticed that the river appeared to be somewhat swollen from the rain, but that didn’t stop us from blowing up our inner tubes, parking a couple of trucks as far downstream as we could manage on a muddy country road, then driving back to Standing Indian to sail off into the unknown – on a river we had never seen. Most of us were in inner tubes; we had only one raft among the 25 of us, and the four folks in the raft were the only ones possessing life jackets. They wouldn’t need them. Their raft was harpooned by a downed log within the first few hundred yards of their voyage, and they had to trek their way back to camp. But fortunately, they threw their lifejackets to four of our tubers, thinking they might come in handy. They would.
Suffice it to say, we managed to navigate this swollen mountain river pretty well – right up to the point we couldn’t. I had told my crew, “Look, if you see me motion for you to get out, don’t delay – head to shore!” That advice seemed sound, until suddenly I found myself rounding a curve and entering a section of the river where three swollen creeks fed into the one we were on – in an instant I was propelled into a welter of violent whitewater. It was if my inner tube had shifted into high gear. I tried frantically to motion folks to leave the river, but I was also hanging on to my tube for dear life. My companions knew they were in trouble when they saw me disappear over a waterfall. By the time I managed to reach shore and look back, it seemed that a bomb had exploded: bodies were floating everywhere, tubes that had ejected their original riders were grabbed by desperate swimmers, and those in relatively safe places threw lifejackets to those who seemed destined to drown. Miraculously – and I mean that in the theological sense — everyone made it safely to shore. However, four people had made it to the wrong shore. Two very thin girls who were not strong swimmers, were standing on the wrong bank with the two husky guys who had rescued them from drowning. They only had two tubes among them.
I formed a plan: I employed my sturdiest guy as the anchor; he wrapped his arms securely around a tree. Then using him as our foundation, the rest of us locked arms and formed a human chain that stretched out into the gushing water. It was a risky gamble, and there were plenty of reasons why it shouldn’t have worked – but it did. Each of the guys on the other side sat in their inner tube, put a girl in their lap and angled their way toward us as best they could. Hard though it was, that human chain held amidst the flood to where we could grab our friends and restore them to safety. In that moment, our group became a family. Many of them had been complete strangers just a few hours before. They didn’t even know each other’s name. But now they had shared a harrowing ordeal and all us knew that we all owed each other our lives. Now we were a family.
That incident from my own life comes to mind when I ponder what happened at Pentecost. Pentecost was simply an annual Jewish agricultural festival, attracting thousands of Jews from across the Mediterranean to Jerusalem and its temple. But among those gathered amidst that crowd were a small cluster of Jews who formed the nucleus of a movement centered around the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was God’s Anointed One, the Christ. And when the Holy Spirit descended with power and entered the lives of that small cluster of believers, and they spilled out into the city to begin sharing God’s Good News with the assembled multitude in a variety of languages that communicated the assurance of God’s redemptive love to each in his own tongue, in that moment an extraordinary thing happened: a movement became a family. People who just a moment before had been complete strangers to each other, who spoke words that were unintelligible to those not in their clan, suddenly, instantaneously, heard God’s Good News announced to them in their own tongue, and shared the mutual exhilaration of feeling the Presence of God. Strangers though they were, they shared a common amazement. They experienced a common joy. They felt a common liberation. Strangers though they were, they shared a common kinship, having been knit together into one family by the bonding power of the Spirit of God. That was the moment the movement of Christ began to be the family of Christ, the people of God, the earthly body of Christ.
When I try to envision the reality of World Communion Sunday and try to concretize in my mind the image of people of every language, of every color, of every country, of every possible cultural tradition and political persuasion, coming together on this day to celebrate the costly risk that our God took through the ministry of Christ to secure our redemption, what comes to my mind is the image of those rafters linked arm in arm, forming a human chain amidst the flood to become an instrument of rescue. For what is the body of Christ, or at least what should it be, but a community of fellow believers linked arm in arm amidst the chaos of the world, formed to be a redemptive community to pull others out of peril? And who is Christ but the foundation of that chain, the One whose strength will not fail us, but serves as the anchor of our chain of fellowship and the source of all our collective security? What is church, what are all communities redeemed and shaped by Christ supposed to be, but a group of people who throw others a life-jacket of Good News when they most need it? What is our faith to be about if it is not the willingness of individuals who have been rescued from trouble extending help to others who flail about in similar distress? Here is what constituted communion on Pentecost, and here is how communion with the saints ought to be conceived today: people of every language, every color, every possible cultural tradition and political persuasion, feeling linked by the Holy Spirit of Christ, linked arm in arm across every boundary and border, spanning every sea, standing strong against every chaotic force of threatening circumstance, to pull people into the safety and encouragement of Christ’s harbor. Christ has given us the power to commune with Him, but has also given us the power to commune with each other. That is what we, and believers across the globe, commemorate and celebrate on this World Communion Sunday around our Lord’s Table.