Church Exchange, Part 2Posted: December 14, 2011
A couple weeks ago I wrote about Brad’s and my experience at the LDS church. Here are–finally–my reflections on the service we attended that same day with the missionaries and Alex at Santa Barbara Community Church:
SBCC isn’t “my” church (I usually worship at Montecito Covenant Church), but it’s home to Brad and some of our other friends. Plus, they have an evening service: perfect for scheduling around the ward’s morning meetings. And, of course, I acknowledge that SBCC is part of the universal Church; I’m fully comfortable worshipping with my brothers and sisters who are part of that local body. This point–I hope–spoke well of the Church’s (often halting, stumbling) progress towards unity. Our diversity can be both a blessing and a curse in our interactions with Mormons. On the one hand, it was partially inter-denominational bickering that made Joseph Smith question traditional Christianity, even to the point of declaring that the Church no longer existed on earth. On the other hand, our diversity proclaims the value of theological debate, of cultural contextualization, and of God’s own creativity and glory that eludes denominational confinement. Elsewhere I’ve written more extensively about the importance of ecumenism in the realm of interfaith dialogue. Suffice it for now to say… it’s really important.
The service began with a pretty sweet worship set–yeah, that’s right LDS church, our music is way cooler than yours. ; ) I let my mind wander a bit during the announcements that followed, and suddenly I realized that I had forgotten to have the “communion talk” with the guys. See, that morning during the LDS service Alex had told us to feel free to take the “Sacrament”–the Mormon equivalent of communion. As he explained to us later, it wouldn’t have mattered if we had taken the Sacrament because it doesn’t become effective until after baptism. In Mormon theology, the Sacrament is a renewal of baptismal vows, a kind of mini-baptism performed each week. Brad and I, having not been (properly) baptized, would have just gotten some free bread and water (score!). We didn’t, because we don’t consider Mormonism part of the Church, and communion is something we both believe should be taken only by a group of (“orthodox”) Christians. At Montecito Covenant, for example, we say the Apostles’ Creed–one of those darn creeds Mormons believe is an “abomination“–before taking communion. I had meant to talk with Alex and Elders Smith and Harris before the service at SBCC to let them know–sensitively–about our stance on communion, but the missionaries had been running late, so I forgot. Now, during the announcements, I nervously tried to figure out what I would do if they tried to take the elements (SBCC goes with the get-up-and-come-to-the-table approach, rather than the pass-the-plate one). Awkward confrontation in church? Not my favorite thing in the world.
I grew increasingly uncomfortable regarding the communion question as the service went on. The pastor had chosen this week to preach a sermon on hell–on the “narrow door” described in Luke. Okay, yes, this passage is in the Bible, and I think I believe in hell, but did this have to be one of the only weeks I’ve ever heard a sermon on the topic in my life? Plus, the context of this passage (which we didn’t discuss) juxtaposes the exclusivity of salvation with the expansiveness of the Kingdom: it’s like yeast that levens large amounts of dough. The point of the sermon was mainly to encourage costly discipleship–something I think the Evangelical world definitely needs to talk more about, and something that I think is actually really helpful in dispelling a common stereotype Mormons have about Evangelicals: that our emphasis on grace creates a do-whatever-you-want religion. So I exaggerated a little bit: it wasn’t a “sermon on hell,” at least, not the fire-and-brimstone preaching that phrase connotes. But the thrust of the sermon was, “Make sure you go through the door! Don’t be left out!” and I had to make sure my Mormon friends were “left out” of communion.
My Religious Studies senior seminar this past year focused on ecumenism: the visible unity of the Church. We talked a lot about communion as both a means and sign of unity, and learned to collectively mourn our inability to take communion with, say, our Catholic brothers and sisters. This scenario was different, because, well, Mormons aren’t Catholics. Interfaith dialogue isn’t the same as ecumenism. But there’s something that’s still painful about the fact that I can’t include these friends at the communion table, especially when they claim to worship Christ, too.
I’ve alluded to the fact (in previous blogs) that I think the question, “Are Mormons Christian?” is usually answered too simply. I don’t know the answer, but I draw my provisional view partly from John 4: the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. We usually hear the story explained as an example of Jesus approaching the “least of these” to offer Himself as living water, and there’s nothing wrong with that interpretation; I think it accurately describes one level of the story. But lately I’ve been reading this encounter as an example of healthy interfaith dialogue. The woman is surprised that Jesus would even talk to her, much less ask her for a drink, not just because she has had five husbands, but because “Jews do not associate with Samaritans” (4:9). Like contemporary Mormons and Christians, the Jews and the Samaritans were closely related religious groups with differences significant enough to cause widespread animosity between the two. The Samaritans were Jews that had intermarried with other races (definitely not kosher), and they also accepted only the first five books of the Old Testament (the Torah) as canonical. The two groups even argued over the proper place to worship God: “Our ancestors worshiped on [Mount Gerizim],” explains the woman at the well, “but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem” (4:20).
Nevertheless, Jesus chooses to engage in His own kind of “interfaith dialogue.” “Believe me,” He declares, “a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (4:21-24).
Jesus isn’t a relativist. He tells the woman that Samaritans have an incomplete understand of God and upholds the “scandal of particularity” that “salvation is from the Jews.” But He still declares that the Samaritans worship, even if it’s “that which [they] do not know,” and that one day they’ll be able to worship in both “the Spirit” (which they already do?) and “in truth.” And the woman’s response is significant, too. Even without the more complete picture of God the Jews have, she knows to expect the Messiah (4:25), and she recognizes Jesus for who He is.
This passage isn’t a perfect analogy. It’s poor exegesis to overlay–with a simple, one-to-one correspondence–a contemporary religious movement on a theological issue facing the New Testament church. The Mormons are the ones in this scenario, for example, that accept additional revelation as canonical, so maybe they’d be the Jews and we’d be the Samaritans (uh oh…). But I think John 4 is a helpful, hopeful picture of what Mormon-Christian relations could look like ultimately, eschatologically. I think the LDS church has a lot of things seriously wrong, and that means I can’t take communion with Mormons right now. But it’s possible that one day I could break bread with Mormon Christians, if not in this world, then in the next.
The words “Jesus Christ” keep getting bigger in the LDS church’s logo; as one of my professors joked, soon they’ll market themselves into orthodoxy. But, seriously, Pastor Greg Johnson, who led the trip to Utah I took this past spring, believes there’s hope that Mormon church might be making a slow, institutional return to the fold. They do talk an unsettling amout about Jesus, and, even if they misunderstand who He is, they too recognize Him as the Messiah. I hesitate to make pronouncements about whether or not Mormons are Christians. I suspect some are, and some aren’t, and the proportion of each within the LDS church changes depending on how I’m feeling about Mormonism on any given day. But it’s an intriguing question, one that beckons us to a liminal, ambiguous threshold. And that’s why I keep asking it.
(Oh, and I didn’t have to worry about the awkwardness of thwarting my Mormon friends’ communion-taking after all. The pastor used the language of “bread and wine,” so, even though the cup was only filled with grape juice, Alex and the missionaries conveniently misunderstood our sacrament to violate the Word of Wisdom (we found this out from Alex afterwards). Usually it’s a bad thing that we misunderstand questions of metaphor as regards communion, but I was sure thankful for it that day!)