It was a great joy to see my friend and Sister of Saint Francis, Sister Geraldine Hartke yesterday. We had a rather short visit, as I had to get back to Indianapolis for some pastoral duties that came up. We both wished it could have been longer, but as Sister said yesterday, “At least we had a visit.” There was still a sense of joy in her voice that we had the time together. It is always great to spend time with Sister who has been my prayer partner for many years now. She has also been a great encouragement to me as well.
It was a special weekend to see Sister. Tomorrow is the Feast Day of Saint Francis in the Christian world. It is also World Communion Sunday observed by many Protestant denominations around the world. It is fitting that these two celebrations are on the same day this year. I realized as we were talking that I would be preaching and celebrating Holy Communion on such a special day. She told me of Francis’ love of the Eucharist, as we recognized our common love and appreciation of the Lord’s Supper as well.
We have different denominational traditions, which means some different theology, but what unites us is our common love of Jesus and Francis. What unites us is stronger than what divides us. Our friendship is stronger than our differences. That sums up the spirit of both Jesus and Francis.
As we remember the life of Saint Francis, it can be easy to look at this man as more heavenly than earthly, yet Francis loved the earth and creation. Perhaps this heavenly demeanor or perception makes Francis appear beyond or out of sync within Protestant traditions. As I have shared for a long time now, I strongly believe that we have much to learn from those outside of our regular tradition. I grew up in the United Methodist tradition, but that it didn’t keep me from learning from and building relationships with my Franciscan Catholic friends.
There is much for us to learn from the life, teachings and way of Saint Francis, even if a Protestant is reading this post. In 2013, the United Methodist News Service shared this article titled “What St. Francis can teach United Methodists.” The link to this article is below. It is a great article. The author compiles the following list of what we can learn from Saint Francis: ministry with the poor, the importance of preaching, dare for peace and care for creation.
I certainly agree with and appreciate this list. There are few items I would add to this. Here are a few things I have learned from Saint Francis and Sisters who follow his way.
Joy: One of the ways that Saint Francis and his band of merry brothers grew, was a result of the great joy that Francis had. He grew in an affluent family in 12th Century Italy. Francis became a soldier and fought in battle. In late 1204, Francis set out to fight in the crusades when a vision prompted him to return home and seek God’s will. It was in the Chapel of San Damiano in Fall of 1205, where the crucifix that he prayed in front of spoke to him “rebuild my church.”
In early 1206, in an act of complete transformation, Francis takes off his robe and gives it to his father, who demanded payment for his cloth. It was here in front of the Bishop of Assisi that Francis renounced his inheritance and moved toward lady poverty. In return, Francis’ joy was complete in his Lord. Certainly there would be times of struggle, but he would often find joy in singing, creation and in the small things in life.
I see this in the followers of Francis’ way today. Every time I see the Sisters of Saint Francis, there’s often a smile on their face and they have outstretched arms for a loving embrace. I know they have struggles and challenges, but they still find joy in their Lord. I often think about this sort of joy and peace of God that passes all understanding (Phil 4:7). I pray we’ll find such a joy and live in such a peace.
Unity: Saint Francis sought change within his own Christian tradition. After he heard the San Damiano cross speak to him to rebuild the church, Francis picked up stone after stone to literally build the church. Some say that Francis was the first reformer, because in a way, he truly wanted to change his tradition. While he wanted change, he still desired unity.
There’s often talk today about splitting denominations and congregations. I believe that Francis’ emphasis on what unites us rather than what divides us is important. He was also willing to step beyond what was acceptable when he went to the Middle East to meet with the Islamic sultan. There was often a hope of peace in Francis, for his order, between religions and in the world. I pray we will find unity and love for each other in the midst of the many differences we may have.
Love for Holy Communion/ Eucharist/ Lord’s Supper: Saint Francis had a great love for Holy Communion. This is a prayer of Francis,
“I believe that You, O Jesus, are in the most holy Sacrament. I love You and desire You. Come into my heart. I embrace You. Oh, never leave me. May the burning and most sweet power of Your love, O Lord Jesus Christ, I beseech You, absorb my mind that I may die through love of Your love, Who were graciously pleased to die through love of my love.”
Jesus is truly present as we receive Holy Communion. There seems to be a growing movement in the universal church embracing the significance of Holy Communion even within the Protestant tradition. Such quotes, as shared above from Francis, are not out of line with my Methodist heritage. As I will share in tomorrow’s sermon, Fr. John Wesley, wrote on the importance of Holy Communion. Fr. Wesley wrote that Holy Communion is “the grand channel whereby the grace of his Spirit was conveyed to the souls of all the children of God”. In his sermon “The Duty of Constant Communion”, Wesley wrote, “It has been shown, First, that if we consider the Lord’s Supper as a command of Christ, no man can have any pretence to Christian piety, who does not receive it (not once a month, but) as often as he can.”
I pray that the denomination that I serve within does not keep tradition from holding us back from recognizing the real presence of Jesus Christ in the breaking of the bread and the taking of the cup. If it is a command of Christ, as Wesley wrote, and it is a means of grace, then we have a duty of constant communion.
I can recall the importance of this unique act from an early age. It was something that was beyond me, that was beyond my world. We took bread and the cup. We remembered Jesus. We ate. It was a beautiful thing. I found a great love for Holy Communion early in my life. When I had the opportunity to learn about this man named Francis, I realized that he also recognized the importance of the Eucharist. As I continued my study of Fr. John Wesley, I again became aware that even within my tradition Holy Communion was an essential piece of our connection, our community with Jesus.
Tomorrow, as we celebrate World Communion Sunday, I will be wearing my San Damiano Cross in celebration of the life and person of Francis of Assisi. He has taught me much, along with his followers. I pray that tomorrow of all days will be filled with joy where we find Christian unity in Holy Communion and in the person of Saint Francis of Assisi.