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Going to the Altar

The claim has recently been made in this space that God has given the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) a moment of grace, following years of intense warfare, in which we have an opportunity to rethink who we are called to be and what God is calling us Presbyterians to do in the new century — to rekindle our commitment to Jesus Christ and to reinvigorate our mission to the world for which he died.

One of our first tasks in this situation will be to approach sisters and brothers with whom we have disagreed intensely, sometimes violently, with hand extended in Christian fellowship.

Why do we need to do this? Because Jesus tells us to. In the Sermon on the Mount our Lord says: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

The most difficult relationship to repair is not the one with the unknown theological or ecclesiastical “enemy” far away, but the one near at hand whom we know all too well, the one who broke fellowship with us (or with whom we broke fellowship) years ago over some position taken, and has remained sullen and silent ever since.

This is not to say that we don’t have major, highly significant differences within our church about the faith, but it is to say, we must by Christ’s direction pray mightily that somehow God will heal those divisions. In fact, we’re told not to go to the Table of the Lord, until first we’ve made the effort to ask for and extend forgiveness to one who has hurt us deeply, perhaps someone we once loved very much.

The practice of attempting to re-establish communion between those close at hand — in the church or otherwise — whom we believe have treated us badly in the process of disagreeing would give us some perspective out of which to relate to larger groups whom we dislike and with whom we disagree.

It is encouraging that throughout the many years of the Presbyterian troubles, especially in the last decade or so, there have been many of differing persuasions who have associated themselves in colleague groups, and have insisted on standing together even when they saw things almost completely differently. We affirm such groups and call for more.

In all too many Presbyterian locales, however, one side or another assumes power and then systematically practices the politics of exclusion, a kind of ecclesiastical apartheid.

It’s time for all of us to meet Jesus Christ at the Table; but unless we can first go and make peace with our Christian brother or sister from whom we are estranged, then we are warned away. If we were honest, there would be far fewer taking Communion in some churches and Presbyterian gatherings.