We are entering a season of “Homecoming” – a rich tradition when schools and churches welcome back those who have been away from one another. A centerpiece of every decent homecoming is a feast, a place where people’s relationships with each other are renewed, where their identity as part of this particular community is reinforced.
Today our presbytery is gathering for a “homecoming” of sorts at Crestfield Camp and Conference Center. Our presbytery has long met there annually for its September meeting. Crestfield has been the go-to place for retreats for Pittsburgh Presbytery congregations and committees for years.
That all got waylaid by the pandemic. Many groups have begun returning to Crestfield, but the last time our presbytery met at Crestfield was three long years ago. After three years away from Crestfield, it is a special joy for our presbytery to be able to return there today. We cherish the opportunity to set foot again on the grounds that have been for many of us a “thin place” where heaven seems a bit closer, and we treasure the fellowship that gathering there uniquely affords.
Not only has presbytery been unable to meet at Crestfield for three years – we have had no opportunity to gather at the Lord’s Table anywhere. At this meeting we will celebrate Holy Communion together, where we are all united in the one Body of the One whose body was broken for us that we may be whole. This will be a spiritual “homecoming” for us.
Over these three years, online engagement has proven to be a wonderful way for us to make the connections necessary to continue the work and witness of the church. But the lack of face-to-face fellowship has taken a toll on the church’s esprit de corps, and our inability to gather at the Lord’s Table has been especially damaging to our health.
The Reformed movement arose from the Catholic tradition, which teaches that communing at the Lord’s Table is essential for Christian life. Jesus declares that just as a branch has no life apart from the vine, so apart from him we are unable to live. Life in Jesus, he says, is sustained by eating and drinking his very self, something we do whenever we come to the Lord’s Table.
Over the centuries, the Reformed movement has increasingly downplayed the necessity of coming to the Lord’s Table. We rightly lift up proclamation of the Word as essential manna for life, but wrongly diminish the Lord’s Table in the process. We claim to be a church of “Word and Sacrament,” but usually have acted more like a church of “Word (and Sacrament).” We betray our precedence of Word over Sacrament with our Book of Order, which requires that the Word be proclaimed each Lord’s Day, while requiring that the Lord’s Table be celebrated in worship only once per quarter.
Our Reformed ancestors saw the Lord’s Table as essential for Christian life in ways we have forgotten. That is revealed in the 16th-century Genevan practice of stipulating that those who have gone astray begin their repentance by coming to the Lord’s Table. It was seen as a lifeline for sinners, not merely an extra benefit for those worthy to be welcomed.
We will celebrate “Homecoming” today at Crestfield by gathering at the lunch table, as well as at the Lord’s Table. Those two tables are in fact one – whenever we bless the meal we share in the name of our Lord, the table becomes holy unto the Lord. This homecoming will be all the sweeter for our having been away from each other over the past three years.
Much has changed over the course of these three years. We are not the same people that we were back then. Crestfield is under new leadership, with Mike Little now at the helm, doing a wonderful job. When we last came to Crestfield, we numbered 130 congregations; now we are 123. When we last gathered, we had maintained a practice of annual in-person visits with our mission partners in Africa for thirty years; we have not been together with them since then.
But the news is not all loss. Thanks to the pandemic, we now have been enjoying Zoom meetings regularly with our African partners. Congregations are reaching their shut-ins and those who are away far more effectively than before, thanks to video streaming of worship services. Leaders of the PCUSA’s 166 presbyteries who were accustomed to seeing each other just once a year now gather by Zoom every couple of weeks.
There is no going back to our pre-pandemic reality. And much of that is a good thing! But let’s not forsake those things that, though having been lost for a while, are urgently needed. Gathering at our go-to Retreat Center. Joining at the Lord’s Table. Celebrating together our many engagements in Christ’s mission.