Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818. He escaped in 1838 and went on to become a noted abolitionist, orator, publisher, and statesman. One night he was delivering what became known as, arguably, his most pessimistic speech about the evils of slavery.
It was the most pessimistic because he hopelessly concluded that white people of America would never willingly end the bondage of Black folk. This was a formerly enslaved Black man who advocated gradualism, political action, and the high moral ground. There was only one answer, he asserted that night—and that was an armed revolt by the slaves themselves, which would invariably result in wholesale slaughter.
Suddenly, at the rear of the speaker's platform, a woman stood up. She was a towering figure—in fact, an outspoken and revered abolitionist in her own right. It was Sojourner Truth. And there in the crowded auditorium—in her rich deep voice—she roared at the speaker: “Frederick, Frederick, is God dead?”[i]
While Frederick Douglass suggested that a merciful God would have delivered African Americans from bondage already, Sojourner Truth refused to abandon her belief in God's power and willingness to save the enslaved at an unknown future date.
Of course—we know—God can do what God wants to do on God’s time because he’s omnipotent and the author of time.
Douglass needed to be reminded and remember that God is not dead. In a very real sense, as Christians gather around the Communion table and observe World Communion Sunday, we communally remember and publicly profess: God is not dead!
World Communion Sunday is observed every first Sunday in October. It’s a time for the more than 2 billion Christians around the world to reflect on God’s redemptive act in human history and remember our calling as followers of Jesus Christ. It’s the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, recorded in Matthew 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-26; Luke 22:14-20; and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.
We celebrate a living God, a gracious God, a forgiving God, and a sacrificial God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). He shared of himself in Jesus Christ to save the world, to save you and me. That’s what Communion is about; that’s why we observe the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. It’s an opportunity for us to rekindle this most precious gift from God.
How is it that we rekindle this gift of God?
The Apostle Paul addresses this matter of what I call “a rekindled faith” when he writes his second epistle to Timothy, his son in ministry. In 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Paul encourages young Timothy to hold fast to the Christian faith—even in the midst of the suffering that comes with Christian discipleship.
First, Paul says: “Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel…” (2 Timothy 1:8).
Our faith is rekindled when we unashamedly share in the suffering and all that goes with following in the footsteps of the faith.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Wyatt Tee Walker, John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer—and countless other freedom fighters of the Civil Rights Movement—were jailed because their Christian beliefs told them that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”[ii]
Martin Luther, the German theologian, sparked the Protestant Reformation when he challenged the Catholic Church’s teaching in 1517. He argued against the indulgence system, “which in part allowed people to purchase a certificate of pardon for the punishment of their sins. Luther argued against the practice of buying or earning forgiveness, believing instead that salvation is a gift God gives to those who have faith.” Luther boldly told the Church that he would not recant his belief, saying: “Here I stand. God help me. I can do no other.”
He was persecuted and called a heretic because he dared to say that salvation was through grace and not something to be purchased from the Church.
We need to share in the Lord’s Supper as a regular “remembrance” because we need to regularly remember God’s love for us. It’s through Jesus that death is abolished and new life is ushered in. As Tyndale Bible Dictionary points out, “In biblical thinking ‘remembrance’ often involves a realization and appropriation in the present of what has been done or what has proved true in the past.”[i]
The apostle Paul says to Timothy and to us: “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:13).
The apostle is speaking to his mentee in ministry. He’s affirming a generational faith that began before the ages began. It’s a faith that Paul and others of his generation have passed to Timothy and succeeding generations.
It’s the type of sincere faith Paul saw, also, in Timothy’s grandmother Lois and mother Eunice—and is now manifested in Timothy. And isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? God’s Word instructs parents and the local church to “train children in the right way…” (Proverbs 22:6). That’s why Hannah dedicated Samuel back to God when she presented him to the priest Eli (1 Samuel 1:21-28). That’s why Mary and Joseph consecrated the baby Jesus back to God when they took him to the temple (Luke 2:21-40). That’s why we dedicate babies in the local Baptist church.
Paul knew that folk could easily get entangled in the latest trends, thin theology, and cults of personality. This happened in the early Church. And, frankly, we see it happening today with political extremists spreading a so-called Christian nationalism.
This Christian nationalism is a visceral type of extremism that is wedded to a bigoted white supremacy; it’s an antisemitic, anti-Black political agenda. It’s being echoed by power-hungry politicians and money-hungry cable news networks. It’s pleasing platitudes for folk who fear they’re being systematically replaced by the browning of our nation—the so-called “great replacement.” It’s unsound teaching because it’s not really concerned with the concerns of what I call basic Jesus: “…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me’” (Matthew 25:35-36).
Make no mistake: This Christian nationalism that these particular political extremists are peddling is mean-spirited, potentially violent, and insensitive to the most vulnerable in our global community. They can say they’re “pro-life” and yet remain audibly silent about a water crisis in Jackson, MS—no clean water to drink, bathe, or flush the toilet. Moreover, Jesus spoke of welcoming the “stranger,” but these extremists can advocate busing migrants from the border state of Texas and dropping them off in Washington, D.C. and New York City.
The apostle knew about societal divisions, as well as divisions within the Church.
Finally, God’s Word tells us through the tent maker from Tarsus: “Guard the good deposit entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us” (2 Timothy 1:14).
The spiritual mentor is telling the mentee to take care of what has been entrusted to him. Be encouraged! Safeguard your spirituality! Be prepared to give a defense of the faith you hold on to, and the faith that has a hold on you!
As a diverse global Church, we conspicuously and distinctly rekindle the precious gift of God when we share in The Lord’s Supper. The Markan writer describes the Communion scene: “While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God’” (Mark 14:22-25).
Symbolically, the bread represents Jesus’ body, and the drink represents his blood. Jesus is giving himself for the redemption of all humanity.
World Communion Sunday is a unified “backward look in thankful remembrance for the sacrifice of Christ offered once for all for the sins of the world, the realization of the Lord being with his people in the present, and the look forward in hope.”[ii] Believers rekindle God’s ultimate gift whenever we commune, again, at The Lord’s Supper.
Rev. Dr. Glenn Porter is senior pastor/servant leader at Queen Street Baptist Church, Norfolk, Virginia, and is the author of Journey with Jesus through Lent (Judson Press)
[i] Walter A. Elwell and Philip W. Comfort, Tyndale Bible Dictionary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 825.
[ii] Walter A. Elwell and Philip W. Comfort, editors, Tyndale Bible Dictionary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 826.
[i] Douglass recounts the event in an 1885 letter to Elizabeth Chace Wyman, reprinted in “Is God Dead? Frederick Douglass’s Recollection of a Contentious Moment in Antislavery History,” edited by Alex Schwartz, IUPUI. New North Star, 2021: 3:64-66.
[ii] Joslyn Pine, editor, Book of African American Quotations (Garden City, NY: Dover Publications, 2011) 114.