On Serving Communion to Muslims

I served Holy Communion to Mohammed last night, and I hope he doesn’t convert.

In most ways, it was a typical night at New Day, the missional micro-community that meets at the Indigo Apartments in Dallas every Sunday night. My Kenyan friends, Ceciliah and Jacob, host the gathering in their living room.

The Indigo Apartments are the first residence for most of the thousand or so refugees who are resettled in Dallas every year. The complex is a veritable United Nations tucked away in a suburban neighborhood.

We always begin the evening by sharing a simple meal together. On this evening, Ceciliah had provided sandwich ingredients. She’d also sliced up some watermelon, and opened a bag of chips and a packet of cookies.

Usually, the room is packed, but there were a little fewer than normal on this night. Nobody from First Rowlett UMC was able to attend – they were busy with Father’s Day celebrations and the beginning of vacations.

Besides English, one could hear French, Portuguese, Swahili, and Kinyarwandan. But there was a new sound on this night …

Arabic.

Jacob met a young, enthusiastic Sudanese man named Mohammed a couple of weeks earlier. He’d invited him to the gathering, and surprisingly, Mohammed showed up with a couple of friends.

They knew we were Christians, and we knew they were Muslim. They knew to expect Christian worship, and we knew not to pressure them to do anything.

When it came time to sing, they sang enthusiastically, and even taught us how to sing “God is So Good” in Arabic.

When it came time for Scripture reading and conversation, they participated. At one point, a Congolese brother named Peter mentioned Jesus’ divinity. This piqued Mohammed’s interest, and he asked the question, “But there is only one God.”

We all nodded our heads in agreement. I looked at Jacob a little nervously, fearing that we were about to veer off into theological deep waters. But Jacob leaned forward and said, “Yes, Mohammed, we believe that. Please, go ahead.”

Mohammed and his friends defended their understanding of God, explaining their esteem of Jesus as a prophet, and we listened. We also had a chance to explain what we believed as well, and they listened.

It was surprising to see how quickly we gravitated toward common ground, toward a place of understanding and appreciation for each other.

A little later in the conversation, I reminded everyone that Jesus had simply given us two commands – to love God and to love our neighbor. This was a sentiment that everyone could readily agree to, even Mohammed and his friends.

As I sat there in reflection, I realized that the only way to truly love Mohammed was to love him without strings attached. I cannot demand that he believe just like me; I cannot try to convince him of the rightness of my theology. I have to trust that he has his own relationship with God, even if it is expressed differently.

And I must resist the urge to convert him, to make him “fall in love with Jesus.”

For some reason, this is an uncomfortable place for many American Christians to be. We are used to defending our beliefs, our theologies, and our worldviews. We believe in this concept of “absolute truth,” and are determined to find it, hold onto it firmly, and convince others of it.

But last night, I grasped a new understanding of Jesus’ modus operandi.

The previous Sunday at church, I had preached on the “Open Table,” the United Methodist understanding that the Communion table is open to any and all who will come. I argued (persuasively, I think!) that nobody should be excluded from the table, not even those who are non-Christians.

However, my rationale for welcoming everyone to Communion was based on the hope of conversion. I remember saying, “Who knows but that the experience of celebrating Communion will be the means whereby one becomes a Christian?”

I have a friend who almost brought her Jewish partner to that service. She told me afterwards that she was glad her partner hadn’t come after all. Her partner had no plans on becoming a Christian any time soon, but she was interested in the ritual of Communion, and my words would have likely sounded exclusionary to her.

It hit me then that the point of Communion was never about exclusion or inclusion, but simply that Jesus likes to eat with people. That’s the only model he laid down for us. He ate with all sorts of folks, and never seemed to make a big deal about their reputations, religious practices, or sexual orientation. I don’t get the feeling that he made people uncomfortable.

When we serve Communion to others, I think we’re supposed to do it like Jesus. We’re not supposed to make them uncomfortable, or try to sell them something. We’re just offering them something to eat. We’re simply making a goodwill gesture of friendship.

The bread and cup is, of course, a symbol of God’s grace, but the grace comes to us through these very ordinary items and these very ordinary persons.

So when it came time for Communion in Ceciliah’s apartment, I looked at Mohammed and explained that this was the way we remember Jesus. He nodded as if he understood, and I handed him a portion of bread and offered him the cup.

I really don’t care if he becomes a Christian in the future. But I do care that he remains my friend.

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9 comments

  1. Kirk VanGilder

    Excellent missiological framing of the sacrament of communion. I continually recall one of my profs. for my PhD work, Bryan Stone, saying basically that if evangelism is done right, we truly offer the option for others to say, “No thank you.” Anything else isn’t offering Christ at all but forcing something that has strayed from grace.

  2. D

    It hit me then that the point of Communion was never about exclusion or inclusion, but simply that Jesus likes to eat with people.

    It is called “Holy Communion” noat luch with friends.
    It is sacred.
    Holy Communion “opened” is only opened to CHristians and the openess for all Baptized in the Christian Faith.
    Closed Communion is clpsed to a particular denomination.
    Before one takes Christian Communion they must confess thier sin to worthy of participation in Holy Communion.

    What is the UMC teaching that this Holy Communion is so misused and misunderstood.
    In part, Communion is a time to remember Jesus’ death, his self-giving sacrifice on our behalf. As he said to the disciples at their last meal together, “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24).
    http://www.umc.org/site/c.lwL4KnN1LtH/b.2247711/k.C611/Communion_Overview.htm
    In remembering his passion and crucifixion, we remember our own guilt; for we know that in our sin we crucify Christ many times over from day to day. So the Lord’s Supper is a time of confession: “We confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart….We have not heard the cry of the needy” (The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 12).

  3. Kelly Whitley

    Does a follower of Christ offer a hungry man a meal regardless of his beliefs? Yes, of course. Serve all the meals you like to our Muslim brothers and sisters or anybody else and call it what you want – a picnic, AYCE buffet, or whatever. It’s not just another meal that just happens to be of bread and wine or juice. The sacredness of communion comes when we ‘commune’ with our Savior Jesus Christ. To me, Holy Communion is a sacred and holy time where my soul is fed by my Savior, when I remember how desperately I need Him, when I’m humbled by His sacrifice, and I repent for my sins. If you’re not a believer in Christ then you’re just eating bread and drinking juice. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s cool that you served a meal to Muslims without Christian pretense or posturing. To them that is likely all it was – a peaceable meal – but this kind of friendly open sharing and conversation goes a lot farther toward opening the doors of conversion than Christian evangelical pushyness ever could. I think a follower of Christ and a real friend would now concentrate on intercessory prayer for the Holy Spirit to do the work of conversion. The Holy Spirit is the one who does the *real* work anyway, right?
    Also, I have to kindof disagree with you about Jesus about making people feel uncomfortable – the Bible tells us that He often challenged folks so much that they turned away by the thousands, unable to open their hearts to His message. Maybe Jesus didn’t address the homosexuality issue specifically, but He sure knew how to make people squirm in their sandals about other social injustices and exclusive religiosity.

  4. Jim Manning

    Careful Wes, your beginning to sound more like our ancestor, John Wesley, when he claimed “The World is My Parish.” when he faced the bureaucracy of the English church. Your “Preaching is Pointless Unless it is Political” and especially your “Serving Communion To Muslims” seems to imply that you feel the message of Jesus is far greater than the turmoil within the UMC and the present perversions of the Christian Religion. I don’t think Jesus expects you to try to “convert” the Muslims. Your voice is dangerous but so desperately needed today. It might even help lead toward what some used to refer to as the Kingdom of God on Earth.

    “Catch The Vision”-Let us all “Build Bridges of Understanding”
    and help make the World A Better Place!
    Let’s create a world -where people of every religion, every race,
    every culture, every political persuasion, every nationality and
    every background, can join hands and hearts to help create a
    much better world where we can all live together in peace and
    prosperity, freedom and justice, goodwill and dignity.

    MAY THERE BE PEACE ON EARTH AND GOODWILL TO ALL…
    God doesn’t limit Himself to “God Bless America.”
    BECAUSE GOD, JEHOVAH, ALLAH… BLESSES ALL HUMANITY!

    Jim Manning
    Dallas TX
    jimbettymanning@tx.rr.com

  5. John Wilks

    For the record, Jesus did not give only two commandments. He did state that two were the most crucial and that all other commandments and the whole of the Scripture depend on them. But He gave us many commandants, not just two.

  6. Umm Abdullah

    I’m just curious… When you serve communion to Muslims, do you explain to them that it’s not simply a piece of bread – that it symbolizes the body of Jesus (peace be upon him)?

    • wesmagruder

      Yes, I do. There is an extended explanation and prayer that precedes every celebration of Communion. We typically call it The Great Thanksgiving.

      And we believe it merely symbolizes the body of Jesus, unlike Catholics, many of whom believe the bread actually becomes his real body.

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