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Refused Communion

     This is a true story.  My memory of it is not as rich in detail as I would like.  It is truth, nonetheless.  I was a child.  It was a Sunday morning in early fall.  We were in church in Keokee, Virginia.  We came expecting that worship would include Communion.  But, an elder from the church announced that it would not.  Oh, it had been prepared.  Everything was right there on the table in front of the pulpit.  Everyone could see it.  But, that Sunday, we discovered, it was not going to be served.

     The preaching elder said as much when he stood up slowly, sadly looked out over the congregation, and then solemnly announced, “The church is not at peace.” 
     Not another word of explanation was offered.  But, among that association of Primitive Baptists of the southern Appalachians, the pronouncement did not require any details.  It was simply said.  And, then, in spite of their expectations in coming to church that Sunday, people began to shuffle out the two back doors and quietly go home for Sunday dinner.
     To emphasize how dramatic the moment was, it should be remembered that Primitive Baptists only celebrate Communion once a year.  Accompanied with a foot washing service and special attention to the sacramental season (a phrase brought over from Scotland in the eighteenth century), it was a high point in the annual life cycle of every church.
     “The church is not at peace.”
     This and nothing else was said.
     As I understand it now, one of the stipulations for a church to celebrate Communion was that there could be no known serious unresolved conflict between members of the church.  You need to keep in mind the context in which this expectation existed.  These were Protestant Scots whose ancestor had migrated from Ulster (hence the terms: Scotch-Irish, Scots-Irish, or, in Europe, Ulster Scots).  Clan warfare was a ubiquitous part of their cultural heritage.  As anyone who ever fought the Scots discovered, these were people you did not want to make angry.
     These were also small and largely isolated rural mountain communities.  Many people in a congregation were related to other people in the congregation.  While a child might imagine this would make for a perpetually happy and loving church, you and I know that conflict between strangers is much easier to manage that conflict within an extended family.
     “The church is not at peace.”
     This created something extraordinary and quite foreign to most contemporary churches.  It created an immediate problem within the whole church because of a problem between a couple of individuals within that church.  With this recognition is the affirmation that the family of God cannot go about the things of worship as normal and remain unscathed when anger and bitterness is known to exist between its members.
     I am pretty sure phone calls were made.  I’d be surprised if there were not people knocking on each other’s doors.  There were prayers.  But these were real prayers, not pious pass-the-buck prayers.  The church prayed to God for resolution as that same church actively pressured individuals for that same resolution.  Switching churches was not an option.  These, after all, were what most other groups called the “hard-shell Baptists.”  Never celebrating Communion again was not an option.  In the end, there was only one option left.
     It was a Sunday in early fall.  My memory of it is detailed and the picture is still there.  Two old men, standing up from two different pews on the men’s side of the little meeting house.  No one even whispering.  The two walking to the front of the church.  Walking toward one another.  A brief moment of hesitation.  Then, the offered hand.  But a tightly held hand was not enough.  Not for this.  It merged into a long embrace.  That’s the only word for it.  Not a friendly hug, but a tightly held embrace as these two weathered old men’s shoulders began to heave with great sobs. 
     There were some shouts.  My grandmother started wiping her eyes.  I could hear sniffles and sobs around me.  And, in front, the two hardened sons of Scotland planted and grown in the hard tack soil between Cumberland Gap and Big Black Mountain, stepped back from one another.  Their hands still tightly grasped.  Their eyes red.  They spoke no words I could hear.  But, then I did hear some words.  Wonderful words.
     “The church is at peace,” the elder was standing at the pulpit. His voice was still somber, but his eyes were red with tears.
     Most Communion services cost us very little.  We concentrate on how much Christ has paid and how freely we have received.  This is certainly true.  But it is not all the truth.  Communion should also be costly.  Sometimes the Table makes demands of us.  And, sometimes, these demands require that we empty ourselves of pride and present ourselves at the Table of our Father as the prodigals who have squandered our blessings and wounded the family.
     “The church is at peace.”
     Because of our commitment to a tradition within the Restoration Movement, we happily serve Communion to everyone.  No questions asked.  Nothing required.  Yours for the taking.  No awkward moments of refusal.  No distressing announcement that a church being torn apart by anger and conflict simply will not be offered Communion that Sunday.
     I wonder…is one reason that our churches are so rarely at peace is that they never have to be?

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