Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"From East and West"

Text: Luke 13:29-30

Psalm 23


            As Jesus was traveling through the towns and villages on His way to Jerusalem, He was speaking of those who would enter the Kingdom of heaven. In response to someone’s question about how few or many would be saved, Jesus warns that while many would try to enter, the door would be narrow.

There would be those knocking at the door who had ample opportunity to know Jesus – having seen and heard Him in the streets; even eating at table with Him – but in the end would reject His witness. This word seems to be directed at the self-righteous religious leaders who considered themselves most worthy to be first in, first seated, and first served. At the end of this discourse, Jesus said as recorded in Luke 13:29-30: “Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

            On this day which we call “World Communion Sunday,” Christians in all parts of the world are gathering at table to celebrate the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. They represent every race, every ethnicity, every color of skin, every spoken language, every culture, every level of socio-economic strata. We might understand this worldwide gathering as a foretaste of that to which Jesus often alluded – a Kingdom of heaven assembly where every worldly barrier which divides will be broken down. We will metaphorically be seated at a great banquet table where Christ sits at the head. All those once at odds will be at peace. And not just for a season, but for all eternity. This is surely a grand vision of a promised destiny for all who not only saw and heard Jesus in the streets, and even ate at table with Him, but who professed Jesus as Lord and Savior. 

            The tables upon which the sacred meal is served today range from the marble altar of the magnificent European cathedral to the dirt floor of the hut church in Africa; from the simple wooden table of the Appalachian church in the holler to the ornately carved table of the Presbyterian Church in South Korea. Some who desire to come to table this day may be banned; because of their circumstances past or present; because of their social standing; because of their gender or sexual orientation; because of fear of discovery and persecution. Nevertheless, Jesus calls to His followers this day – upon every continent and in every land – to come as one; one people; one baptism; one faith in the world’s Savior Jesus Christ. And perhaps many of those barred and banned from table for whatever reason may be the “last who will be first.”

            As we at Central celebrate World Communion 2015, I’d like us to hold in our thoughts and meditations those in other parts of the world who are counted among the “last;” those in parts of the world, or even in parts of our own nation, where the table of the Lord is a dangerous place to take a seat. We take for granted more often than we should the privilege of bringing worship. We are free to assemble around this beautifully-crafted table, not to admire it’s beauty, but to laud and honor the one in whose remembrance it is crafted and placed front and center in this sanctuary. So many of our brothers and sisters in the faith are not permitted this privilege, or are forced to observe the Sacrament in secrecy because of where they live and whom they live among. Neither you nor I can comprehend the extent of persecution many endure for their belief and devotion. But they are – spiritually-speaking – among this worshiping body which today is gathered from east, west, north and south to sit at table; a foretaste; an appetizer if you will of that great banquet in the Kingdom of God.

            As there are more stories to be told than we could ever have the time to tell, we will limit ourselves this morning to just two. The first is a general report of persecution with a sad outcome. The second is a story of one particular woman which ends on a happy note. My hope is that in our hearing these stories, we might begin to develop a greater sensitivity to and higher regard for those who enter “through the narrow door,” and are recognized by Christ for their deep and enduring faith in spite of its consequences; those who this very day are at table with us in this worldwide communion of God’s people.

            The incursion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – better known as ISIS – into northern and western Iraq beginning in December 2013 foretold a year of atrocities against Christians and other religious minorities in various parts of the country. In June, 2014, ISIS took over the city of Mosul, the second largest in Iraq and a hub of Christianity. Thousands were given the option of either converting to Muslim, paying the exorbitant jizya tax for non-Muslims, or being executed. Almost immediately, an estimated fifty thousand Christians fled the city.

            The ISIS militants – known for hanging corpses from crosses and crucifying people alive before shooting them – also seized much of Fallujah, Tikrit, and the province of Nineveh. A Christian father in Tikrit was reported to have committed suicide after being forced to watch ISIS members rape his wife and daughter because he could not afford to pay the jizya tax. By the end of June 2014, ISIS announced its caliphate (or governance) and began marking Christian homes in Mosul with the Arabic “N,” symbol for “Nazarene,” identifying the residents as Christians subject to the Muslim terms of their continued existence there. Religious cleansing continued throughout last summer. Deprived of their possessions and every human right, all remaining Christians in Mosul were for all intents and purposes deported. In August, ISIS hit Baghdad with a suicide attack that killed fifteen people and wounded thirty-seven others; the first of several such attacks – mostly against Christian communities --that would kill hundreds in the capital through the rest of 2014. Overall, a country that once had a Christian population of 1.2 million was reported to have no more than 300,000 by year’s end, with most of those in hiding. This day, they are at table with us in this worldwide communion of God’s people.

            In Sudan, 27-year old Meriam Yahia Ibrahim languished in the dark prison of obscurity under charges of leaving Islam, even though she had never practiced the Muslim religion. After Islamists claiming to be relatives accused her of apostasy, which would lead to a death sentence, a judge told her that she would be freed if she renounced Christianity. Meriam refused. In so doing, she risked becoming the first woman to be hung for apostasy in Sudan. As it turned out, she was given instead one hundred lashes for having had children with a Christian, considered under sharia law to be adultery, then imprisoned. Her twenty-month-old son, and the unborn child with whom she was eight months pregnant, would become wards of the state and raised as Muslims. In spite of it all, she stood firm and would not recant her Christian faith.

            The story of trumped-up charges against Meriam was exposed by an organization called “Morning Star News” and began to circulate, setting off a firestorm of internationalprotests by Western embassies, legal and aid agencies, and the media. She gave birth in prison on May 27, 2014, with her legs in shackles. Under mounting pressure, she was released on June 23 only to be detained at Khartoum Airport less than twenty-four hours later. She was charged with forging travel documents, punishable by seven years in prison. Three days later, she was released awaiting trial. She and her family took refuge at the U.S. embassy in Khartoum. Under additional international pressure led by a group of Iranian pastors, the Sudanese government dropped charges against her. The next day, she and her family were allowed to leave the country, and are now living safely here in the United States. This day, Meriam Ibrahim and her family are at table with us in this worldwide communion of God’s people.

            For every happy ending like that of Meriam, there are tens of thousands more whose stories are without end. They continue this day to huddle, to hide, to gather around tables far different from the intricately-crafted table which stands before us. They enter the “kingdom of God” by the narrow door through which pass those of fire-tested and enduring faith; through which pass those whom Christ recognizes for their unwavering devotion.

            As we take the elements of bread and juice into ourselves this morning, let us send up prayers on behalf of those for whom the table of our Lord is a dangerous place to take a seat. At the same time, let’s look forward with joyful anticipation to the promised and coming day when all will come, “from east and west, and from north and south,” and in perfect safety and security “will eat in the kingdom of God.” Amen.