In the summer of 2004, I sang on a college choir tour through Russia, Estonia, and Finland. I was 21 years old. The music was beautiful. The comradery between my friends and me were cemented for life. It was an amazing trip with many unforgettable moments.
One such moment came while we were preparing for a concert in a large cathedral on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. As I stood with my fellow singers, laughing and joking about some awkward encounter with the local culture, or a silly thing that a mate had said, or some other travel inspired tidbit, a woman walked straight through the middle of our choir. She looked old. She may not have been more than 50, but she wore her age, and then some. She did not look at us. Instead, she walked right through our group and stood before the iconostasis (a wall of icons separating the nave from the chancel in Orthodox churches). She then crossed herself in the Orthodox manner (full body cross, head to toe, not easy at any age) and planted herself face down, prostrate on the slate floor. I don’t recall if other choir members paid much attention to her, but I’ve never forgotten that moment. I’ve tried to imagine what this person’s life must have been like before that moment. Did she come to the church every day in this manner or had something very specific driven her to the floor that afternoon? What was it like for her to practice religion once again in this historic church whose public ministry was deemed illegal for the majority of the 20th century – the majority of her life? Most importantly, what does this woman’s expression of faith teach me about the God for whom both our souls long?
That moment, now in the seeming distant past, may have been the first time I realized why connection is important in Christianity. You see, I grew up in a somewhat narrow-minded church learning that just because other people may call themselves Christian, that didn’t make it so. We would often distinguish ourselves from others with the label, “True Christian.” And that was a hard-earned label. As I understood it, that woman in Russia was NOT one of those. She was Orthodox – which we had been taught was the Russian and Greek version of Catholic. They may call themselves “Christian,” but we knew better. They weren’t “True Christians.” We were not connected with those Christians.
And yet, seeing that woman, face down on the cold hard floor, I knew that wasn’t true. Even not knowing a single iota about that woman’s life, I knew that she was a believer. I knew that she clung to her faith tooth and nail. In fact, I knew that she had a lot to teach me about faith – not the other way around. My life was changed because of that woman. I don’t even know her name.
I use Brian Wren’s great communion hymn “I come with joy to meet my Lord” in worship as often as I can (Hymn 617). The second verse is to the point.
I come with Christians far and near to find, as all are fed,
The new community of love in Christ’s communion bread.
Christians far and near. Christians only in name. Christians only in deed. Good Christians. Bad Christians. Christians who vote the right way. Christians who vote the wrong way. Christians who welcome me. Christians who do not welcome me. True Christians. Other Christians. Christians in life. Christians in death. Christians together met. Christians together bound.
The love that made us makes us one. Amen.