“Be careful about studying Islam.”
We were seated in a dimly lit room in Jakarta, Indonesia. Our host was a Christian, a minority in the largest Muslim country on earth. I was with a group of young, brash college grads who had come to Indonesia to do research on slum communities. For many of us, it was our first real exposure to Islam outside of what we had heard and seen in the media.
During the trip, my reaction to Islam fluctuated between confusion and fear, bewilderment and awe. There’s something hypnotic about Islam; a sea of men and women clothed in pure white kneeling in unison, reciting together a sacred prayer in a foreign tongue. For a naive recent college grad such as myself, the image of thousands of Indonesians uttering prayers in Arabic was utterly mystifying – why were these Asians murmuring in a foreign language few of them understood? Why were they attempting to read their holy text in the same language and not through translation? Why were these Asian men attempting (with little success) to grow out full beards to imitate their Arab neighbors?
Since then, I’ve learned that “unity” or the concept of the “Ummah” is a core tenet of Islam. Not only that, but it’s one of Islam’s first arguments levied against Christianity.
Islam prides itself on uniformity. They claim they have few to no divisions or denominations, and respond to Christian attempts at evangelism by pointing to the multitude of Bible translations and denominations. “You Christians don’t even agree amongst yourselves! The Bible is clearly corrupted with so many translations and denominations! We Muslims are one.”
At first glance, it’s hard to argue against such a seemingly convincing polemic. How can you deny the unity of a movement where everyone prays in the same language and dresses in the same clothing? Perhaps the most powerful symbol of this unity comes in the form of the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, where about 2 million Muslims, nearly all dressed in white, pray in unison and encircle the Kabal.
Jesus himself prayed for the unity of the church (John 17:22), so we know unity is not a concept foreign to Christianity, though the Bible envisions a different kind of unity.
Christian unity is a unity that extends beyond external appearances. The Bible itself is written in multiple languages and to people from diverse cultural backgrounds. Our unity is not one that erases our cultural differences; rather, ours is a “unity of the Spirit” (Eph 4:3). We are united in one body and one Spirit, with one Lord, one faith, and one baptism (Eph 4:5).
One way Christians express this unity is through the practice of Communion. Whether it be Irish Presbyterians sipping from the same chalice, or fundamentalist baptists passing cups of grape juice, Communion undeniably unites Christians across time and space. The fact that this ancient practice goes back to the beginning of the church and is practiced among so many is a testament to a uniquely Christian truth – that it is often in diversity that we find the greatest unity. Communion unites people of diverse backgrounds and across vast epochs of time without erasing, or even dimming, their differences. There is perhaps nothing so basic to our existence as eating and drinking, and in Communion we confess our shared need for the spiritual sustenance we receive from our one Lord by one Spirit.
As Christians, we don’t make it our life’s aim to travel to a distant city on a pilgrimage, because our Lord and Savior endured the most painful pilgrimage on our behalf to deliver the city to us (Rev 21:2). And yet Communion unites us as we all partake of the feast. There is no pilgrimage, because Communion is a celebration of the fact that in some sense we have already arrived at our destination. The New Covenant has been ratified, and we celebrate the feast that our Lord instituted on that day.
How does your church practice Communion? Remember next time you do that as you partake of the cup, not only are you declaring that Christ has broken his body and shed his blood for your sake, but also for billions of others throughout ages past and across distant lands today.