Communion in Chile

"And as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears.  Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”   Luke 7:38,39

In my last week serving as a Volunteer under Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ with the Pentecostal Church of Chile, I had occasion to feel the part of the Pharisee.   I attended the annual communion service at the cathedral church of the Pentecostal Church of Chile in the small city of Curicó.  The problem was that they did several things wrong.

There is no doubt that the service, held on the national holiday of St Peter and St Paul, Thursday, August 18, is a big deal.  When we arrived better than an hour early, parking spaces were filling up with the charter buses bringing the people in from the “locales” (daughter churches under the administration of the cathedral) of the entire countryside around Curicó.  Chairs, benches, and pews had been set up in an extra transept alongside the regular transept of the “L”-shaped “cathedral” (still bearing all the architectural distinctiveness of the warehouse that it once was), clear out into the open patio that normally serves as a parking garage.  By the time the service began, it was standing room only, but as a visiting dignitary from the States, I had the best seat in the house—up on the platform alongside the Bishop of the church.

Something in me rebels at the communion service being such a big deal.  Just the idea of an annual communion service is unpalatable to this old Disciples minister who wants his Lord’s Supper every week (every day if at retreats or assemblies).  You shouldn’t have to charter a bus to go take communion.

And the preparations are indeed elaborate.  Take the wine, for instance.  The day before the service the “voluntarios” (the men’s fellowship) purchase some ten five liter bottles of wine.  Keep in mind that this is a church that does not countenance the consumption of alcoholic beverages (despite being located in the wine-producing center of Chile and having much of its membership’s employment dependent on that industry), but they have also read John 2:1-10 where Jesus turns a great deal of water into a great deal of wine.  How could you use anything but wine in the Lord’s Supper and be scriptural?  But how can you be faithful to your conscience and serve alcoholic beverages at communion?  The answer is simple in conception, but challenging in the execution—you boil the alcohol out of the wine, and mix in copious quantities of sugar and cinnamon to make a very sweet grape syrup drink.  The sweetness of the treat becomes important for another reason which becomes apparent later on.

Then, take the nine communion tables and the stacks of paper napkins at each one.  Those stacks of napkins, “What are they for?” I wondered.  I would have reason to be glad of them later.

After everybody got settled and the choir warmed us up (literally, with a rousing number that had us dancing and wearing the chill out of the air and from our bodies—August is winter in the southern hemisphere and we were at the same latitude as Amarillo, Texas), the first major order of business, introduced with a fifteen minute homily was baptisms.  The Pentecostal Church of Chile, following its Methodist roots, baptizes children and does so in its regular weekly services.  If adults wish to be baptized, however, that is not only allowed but encouraged at the annual communion service—in a way that again runs counter to Disciples polity (i.e. “the right way”).  I didn’t so much have a problem with the fact that they baptize with aspersion out of these little bowls (the less water, the better)—even I could see that baptizing a couple hundred people by immersion in unheated water in the dead of winter was a recipe for a major medical emergency.  No, the larger problem is that virtually all of them had been baptized before, either in the Catholic Church or, in the majority of cases, in the very congregation where they were being (gasp!) rebaptized.  For Pentecostals, this is no big deal.  You can get baptized whenever you have a significant spiritual experience.  It doesn’t seem to qualify as rebaptism so much as multiple expressions and experiences of the one baptism.  

The second order of business, after the choir again held forth and another fifteen minute homily, was the reception of new members.  With smugness I observed that merely stating that one believed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God and that I have taken Him as my Lord and Savior was not enough but that people were led by the bishop to commit to such things as church unity, respect for leaders, financial support, holy living, and the such.  Apparently, they expect you not just to believe the Scriptures but to make some attempt at living them out—with joy, no less.

Finally, the choir sang and I was honored (and frightened) to give the homily that preceded the Lord’s Supper.  I had asked the Bishop whether the Pentecostal Church of Chile had an open table policy.  He refused to say yes, and I thought that this would represent a crisis of conscience for me.  So I preached on Matthew 22:1-14 about the Wedding Banquet and how all were invited.   If I thought I was treading on thin ice, I was wrong.  The Bishop gave the words of institution and then every ordained and lay leader was assigned according to an elaborate diagram to serve the elements (the wine syrup and delicious Chilean bread) at the nine communion tables all around the building.  The lay leader who was with me gave bread to everybody, no questions asked.  I followed his lead and gave the cup to everyone, regardless of age, appearance, or medical condition.  The table was TOO open, in the sense that the cup is literally shared.  Only my wipe of the cup with a constantly changing succession of fresh napkins offered by those who assisted me provided any kind of barrier to whatever germs might be lurking.  It was truly a missionary moment (“Lord, I will drink this cup…just keep me healthy.).

OK, so things weren’t done the way they were supposed to.  I am sure that they were not done the way the Lord Jesus would have done them if He had been there (surely, He would have insisted that everyone use those little, sanitized, prepackaged communion cups with wafer attached).  But people were so moved!  I have never seen such weeping and radiant joy at communion!  Then, when all the adults and children had participated in a process that must have taken 40 minutes (my arms felt like they were about to fall off. That chalice got heavier and heavier.), the signal was given for all the babies and toddlers to be brought forward to be blessed—with the communion elements!  Some kids had to be coaxed to taste the wine, as though it were medicine.  Other babies were spoonfed wine with tiny baby spoons.  I thought, “this is crazy!”  And immediately I felt from somewhere the words, “And I love it.”   It also explains why the sugar has to be added to make a baby’s first communion a pleasant rather than unpleasant experience.

I had a few minutes before preached on how the servants went out and gathered all the people, both good and bad and the wedding had been filled with guests.  I had preached how the willingness to examine ourselves is the way the Spirit dresses us in the appropriate wedding garment.  By way of leading the people, I had prayed that the Spirit would examine me.  The Spirit used the people to do it.  The Spirit broke my own critical spirit on the passionate outpouring of love for the Lord that I witnessed in each face to whom I said, “This cup is the new covenant in Jesus’s blood . . .”   Yup, all of us sinners, doing things the wrong way, forgiven much—and hopefully loving just as much.

David J. Huegel