This morning in church I had the rare treat of being able to sit with Renata in the pew, rather than being up front. This was especially gratifying because the Old Catholics make a substantially bigger deal of Palm Sunday than most church traditions I’ve been involved in, and I was looking forward to enjoying worship without having to think about what was coming next. Even so, I arrived early – cycling off from home ahead of Renata and the girls – so I could join Dick, the Bishop, in greeting people at the front door as they arrived from all directions on bicycles, in cars, trams, buses, and on foot.
A bit later, after Renata cycled up, I took my seat in the church and marveled at the number of people I’ve come to know in the last 4 months and how they have found a place in my heart. I was also keeping an eye out for a visiting couple from Chile whom one of the parishioners told me would probably be there; they stopped by yesterday during the Saturday “church open” time to inquire about the Sunday service. They spoke only Spanish and with my make-do Portuguese I could at least let them know they were welcome. As I scanned the pews, I noticed another face I didn’t recognize: a man with long black hair, full beard, and olive skin sitting uncomfortably in the last row, still wearing his oversized blue winter jacket, all zipped up. I made a mental note to have a word with him too after the service.
The clergy and helpers processed in and my eye picked out various choreographic hiccups some of them would be kicking themselves for later. Good to know these things happen even when I’m not involved! Never mind; Bishop Dick, for being fairly “high church”, is quite relaxed about it all. The children then displayed their Easter handiwork and led us all in a procession in which we received our palm branches and marched to joyous music three times around the sanctuary. At this point I noticed the visitor in the heavy jacket was the only one, except for a few elderly who cannot easily walk, who did not join in.
No sermon today; the Gospel reading took 20 minutes and covered the entire Passion of Christ. The story spoke for itself. This was followed by a beautiful piece from the organist, accompanied by a single flutist. I sat back and drank in the rich traditions of European worship: the musical heritage, the elaborate front of the church, the stained glassed windows and paintings by Dutch masters. “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever!”
Sharing the bread and wine came next and when the Bishop finished the Communion prayer he invited us to come to the front to receive. Before anyone else responded, the visitor at the back was suddenly on his feet. Speaking in a loud voice he strode down the aisle toward the front. I didn’t catch it all, but it only took about 3 seconds to realize he was a Muslim, probably Moroccan, and he was telling us to turn away from these Christian traditions that were inspired by Satan. My singular inner-city-multi-culti-war-on-terror nightmare was playing itself out in front of my eyes: a belligerent Muslim radical walking up the church aisle in a thick coat with who knows what strapped inside.
I looked around and realized I was the only hefty, not-yet-elderly man in the area. “Shoot,” I thought, “too bad Rob didn’t make it this morning.” Rob is even younger and heftier than I am, and grew up in a no-nonsense neighborhood of Amsterdam. But the ushers were good; by the time I made it out of the pew they already had the man by both arms, firmly, but not violently, leading him to the door.
I reached the church door at the same time the ushers pushed the visitor out into the portico. I followed, intent on making sure he would not return, and curious why he had done this. He had not looked back, and when I put my hand on his shoulder he turned as if prepared to fight. I remembered my airport aggression training, and took the appropriate stance, both hands open at my sides in a non-threatening manner, but ready to deflect a punch. “What was that all about?” I demanded.
He explained that he had received a revelation from God that he is a Messenger, and he was intent on turning church people away from Satan’s lies and toward the one true faith, Islam. “Well,” I replied, “for one thing you’ve got a lot to learn about how to deliver an effective message. All you’ve done is further convince us all that we’d do better to stay away from Islam.” To which he became extremely derogatory about the Communion service; words that pierced me and which I don’t want to repeat here.
“Good day, sir,” I said, and offered him my hand; “If you want to come back to talk sometime, you are welcome; but please don’t disturb our service again.” He shook my hand and left.
For the first time in my life, ever, I had the sense that my hand was dirty – no, filthy – as I went forward to receive Communion only two minutes later. Gratefully, the words of the Anglican prayer flooded my mind: “Most merciful Lord, your love compels us to come in. Our hands were unclean, our hearts were unprepared; we were unfit even to eat the crumbs from under your table. But you, Lord, are the God of our salvation…”
I received the bread into my hand, knowing in a poignant new way the insults still hurled at the crucified Saviour. And even today the broken body of Christ is stronger than all our sins. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”