Seeking Common Ground

To be in Communion: Heart and Mind, Body and Soul

Seeking Common Ground Advocate Amelia Koh-Butler reflects on how we go about Ecumenical and Interfaith relationships

Parking close-by, I walked toward the gate to be greeted by various senior school students, dotting the path, pointing me in the right direction.

A reception table, adorned with carefully printed tags and stunning flowers, was near the door, but guests didn’t seem to get anywhere near it, as greeters came to each, finding the tags and escorting the guests to tables.

By the time we were introduced to our dinner companions, we must have been welcomed by at least six young people, all neatly attired and wearing faces full of friendship.

Their welcome would have made Hillsong proud – and that’s saying something, as Hills do the best church-welcoming I have ever come across!

Having been involved in the Team hosting the Assembly/Synod/Affinity Iftar the previous week, I was learning about how a Muslim school hosted an Iftar. Happily, I was seated with school teachers, both Muslim and Christian, some of whom I knew. I could see them, conscious of their own students (seated at other tables), observing the animated interactions, proud of their contribution to developing the conditions for celebrating peace and goodwill.

Feasts often have speeches. They usually feature stories, tapping into our emotions and stimulating our thinking. We admire those who talk as role-models for understanding and progressing relationships of worth in complex circumstances.

Yet, it is the food and table conversation that does much to build capacity and civil behaviour. We learn to simply be with one another. We participate in physical presence with one another, sharing a ritual. We emerge different.

The anthropologist, Victor Turner, would have called this ‘building communitas’. We are more than a community defined by our identities. We become communitas through an experience of transformation.

Attending Iftar dinners has an Agape Meal flavour. They are carefully crafted banquets of generosity and shared love.

Sharing food together – reminds me of Jesus’ hospitality – not always being the host, but sometimes being the guest.

As a Christian Minister (and evangelist), I have a deep longing to share the deepest of feasts with my new friends, but how could we presume to share Holy Communion?

I feel somewhat ashamed to even think the thought. Am I guilty of having a personal agenda in our new friendship, whereby I seek to impose my experience of faith and spirituality on others? To use the words of the Great Thanksgiving and proclaim the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, at this table, seems out-of-place – premature. However, it feels in my deepest being, that this is where the story could go.

Recently, I was one of the respondents to a report about the UCA-Lutheran dialogue. Much hard work had taken place over some years. Relationships had been built. Friendships had been formed.

As an outside commentator, I saw elephants in the room… the unnamed issues needing to be surfaced if progress was to be made. Suddenly, I was transported back to the magnificent Convivisori (the Vatican’s most senior meeting room) where the World Methodist Steering Committee met with Pope Francis in 2017. After receiving the report of 50 years of Methodist-Catholic Dialogue, His Holiness thanked everyone for the work and charged us: but don’t rest on your laurels… we should be doing nothing less than seeking full communion! [my paraphrase]

The Iftars, the dialogues, the church partnerships, the challenge from Francis. They are not simply about personal holiness or personal salvation. The focus of ecumenical and interfaith work is salvation of all humanity. It is about the work of the Holy Spirit to sanctify God’s whole creation.

Sin – what Wesley explained as ‘obstacles to grace’ – occurs wherever and whenever we are unable to eat together in spiritual fellowship. If we are to be companions, there is much to overcome.

I suggest there are four areas Jesus challenges us to address:

  1. Heart

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)

We need to learn to love people we have not really known before. It means getting to know them and seeing them, not for their differences from us, but as those whom God has been loving since before they were born.  

  1. Mind

Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts?” (Luke 5:22)

We need to examine our thinking. Are we open to what the Spirit might teach us through other traditions? Are we open to questioning and correction? Are we able to use reason in a constructive, rather than oppressive, way?

  1. Body

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. (1 Corinthians 12:12-14)

The physical bodies are nourished in order to be the shared spiritual body of humanity. God calls us into the body of many parts. Are we able to appreciate the rest of God’s creation – or only our part?

  1. Soul

What can one give in exchange for their soul? (Mark 8:37) and

Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37)

We don’t spend a lot of time in our tradition defining what we mean by ‘soul’. Perhaps we should? There is certainly something there about spiritual identity. Some traditions talk of life-force or energy. Thinking about what we mean by ‘soul’ impacts on how we regard ‘souls’ with different experiences from us.

When the Mosque killings took place in Christchurch earlier this year, Muslim friends (from our scholarly Muslim-Christian dialogue) went to Christchurch to assist with the funerals. The Christians, remaining here, prayed for their ministry.

When the Sri Lankan attacks took place, Muslim and Buddhist friends participated in an Agape meal of remembrance. I explained the significance of the Mass (where some killings took place) and the Thanksgiving Meal they were participating in.

I did not consecrate the Agape bread and grape juice, but the shared memorial was sacred and deeply prayerful.

It was not a time for emphasising things that divide, but for building an understanding of how we could mutually bless one another and glorify the One we understand as God.