Book Excerpt: Getting to the Heart of Interfaith

In the chapter "Honoring the Spirit," the Interfaith Amigos describe one of the most meaningful moments they have experienced in their work together.
Bread and wine

Photo by Kevin Rawlings.

During the course of our interfaith journey, we have shared our stories and our deepest beliefs. We have wrestled with the problems and the promises of our faith traditions. We’ve gone beyond what is “safe” and moved to a different level of understanding in matters of the Middle East, where tensions and tempers are so very volatile. We have shared in each other’s rituals and practices. In each of the five stages of the journey, we have been taking steps toward participating in an authentic spiritual experience through a tradition other than our own.

This dimension of honoring the Shared Universal is the most challenging. Sometimes we are not able to appreciate the true depth of an experience until we actually live it. This was surely the case for us in what turned out to be a moment that integrated the major elements of our work together.

It started casually enough. Pastor Don had invited Ted and Jamal to help him lead a preworship forum on interfaith and social action at his church. About a month before that, Don realized that, since the three of us were going to be at the church anyway, we could preach together on the golden rule as the sermon during worship. It seemed a safe enough topic.

But about two weeks before that service, Don realized that it was to be a communion Sunday. What to do about that? Then he remembered an experience from our Israel-Palestine trip where we had visited and taught at the Mount of the Beatitudes in Galilee in northern Israel. It had been a Friday afternoon, so Ted had concluded the teachings with the Kabbalat Shabbat, the traditional Welcoming of the Sabbath with wine and bread. Immediately, it had become clear to both Ted and Don how similar the ritual was to the traditional words and symbols of the sacrament of communion for Christians.

It had been a remarkable experience of the convergence of three traditions in that special moment and place. Jamal had also offered some reflections from his tradition, explaining the significance of Friday in Islam as the day God created Adam and his spouse, placed them in Paradise, and sent them to earth. Friday is also the Day of Judgment. On Fridays, when Muslims gather in community to praise and remember God, their prayers, especially at midday, have enhanced spiritual merit.

As Don sat reflecting on these events, he began to conceive of the possibility of including Rabbi Ted and Sheikh Jamal in the communion service. When he consulted with his colleagues on the pastoral staff at his church, they agreed that Ted and Jamal should be invited to serve the bread at the communion service. Step by step, little by little, that ritual moment was coming together. But on the morning of that Sunday, as he was driving to church, Don began considering how he was going to introduce the communion moment. He certainly didn’t wish to compromise the integrity of communion. The congregation would already have had a few surprises—leaders from the three Abrahamic faiths standing together, sharing the sermon, showing how the core teaching of the golden rule appeared in each tradition.

Don decided to start by introducing the “Open Table” to which his church welcomes all who wish to share. He reminded the congregation that communion is a sacrament, a moment when we are more deeply aware of the presence and the love of God through the person and teachings of Jesus. He talked about the way communion invites us all to experience forgiveness and, with love, to build loving community within a life of faith. The meal remembered and represented by the sacrament brings people together around a table, a ritual that exists in different ways in all religious traditions. Then he said that Rabbi Ted and Sheikh Jamal would help serve the bread, and he asked people to reflect on how the presence of a rabbi and a sheikh could remind them of the greater embrace of a loving God and a welcoming community.

Pastor Don administered the sacrament at the communion table with the words from the United Church of Christ Book of Worship, “Through the broken bread we participate in the body of Christ,” which is considered to be loving community, and “through the cup of blessing we participate in the new life Christ gives,” indicating the openhearted love and compassion, which is identified as this new life.

Four pairs of people then took their places at the front of the sanctuary, one holding the cup and the other holding a basket of bread. Jamal and Ted stood with the center two pairs, each holding a basket of bread. Don had worried that too few people would accept the bread from Ted and Jamal, but actually very few came to his own basket of bread. The lines in front of Jamal and Ted were far longer than the others! Afterward, many expressed deep emotion about the reconciling presence of these two religious leaders in the midst of the sacrament.

For Don, it was a dramatic step away from a long history of repudiation of other faiths and a step toward honoring other spiritual paths without any need to feel coerced or defined by them. He knew that what happened that Sunday morning bridged the tension between the sacrament of communion as a symbol dedicated only to Christian community, and the need—suggested at the heart of Jesus’s teachings—to be welcoming to all people. In the great mystery of the sacrament, this communion represented what Jesus taught: love, forgiveness, and loving community.

Jamal expressed his heartfelt gratitude to the congregation. He was aware of the deep spiritual significance of the sacrament to Christians, and, as a Muslim, he felt blessed to participate because he felt a closeness to Jesus as a revered prophet, a connection with the ceremony, and a humble aspiration to experience community. A verse in the Qur’an tells us that if we remember God, God remembers us (2:152). The Prophet added that when people remember the Divinity in community, God remembers them better. The sacred community created by this communion was truly a circle of love and beauty. Jamal was deeply moved by the large number of Christians enthusiastic about receiving communion from a Muslim, and it reaffirmed for him the power and majesty of hospitality and openheartedness.

Perhaps the moment was most complicated for Rabbi Ted. Communion ceremonies clearly excluded him; taking communion meant that you were Christian. But over the years, Ted’s relationship to Christians and to Christianity had changed. As he stood in Pastor Don’s church that morning, he thought about the literal symbol: Jesus, a Jew, was sharing bread with other Jews. And he let that symbol expand so that a Jew was sharing bread with more than Jews, with those who would later be identified as his followers and called Christians. While it was true that over centuries, the symbols of communion had developed deeper theological meanings and served to distinguish Christians, in the context of Pastor Don’s teachings that morning, the bread and the wine could also be bread and wine. Like the bread and wine shared to welcome Shabbat, this bread and wine could celebrate sacred community and universal spiritual truth. This communion could represent a community, a place of nourishment, a place of forgiveness, of compassion, and of love. Standing at the front of that United Church of Christ, wearing kippah and tallit, Rabbi Ted was not Christian and was not pretending to be. He was a Jew honoring the church community with whom he was sharing. He was a Jew honoring the God of Love.

We are not recommending that interfaith participation in communion be standard practice. But the freedom to step into that place of Spirit on that communion Sunday was a blessing for the rabbi, for the sheikh, and, of course, for the pastor.

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