1 Corinthians 11:17-26, 1 Corinthians 12:12-27
When I was a child, and in my early teens, I used to get excited on Communion Sundays because it usually meant that my pastor would preach either a very brief or no sermon at all. I knew that some faith traditions practiced weekly communion, though, and I couldn’t imagine that. I was sure that doing something every week like that would take away the meaning, the special quality of celebrating communion. Years later, though, when I was in seminary, I experienced living in the midst of a community of faith 24/7 in a way that I hadn’t before. And we had chapel services offered three times a week, with the biggest service being the weekly celebration of Holy Communion. And I found that I loved it. I found that it was moving in a way I didn’t expect. It was a bond that held us together as a community. It was a sacrament that drew me closer to God. It was a ritual that made the words that were preached just before make more sense. Over my years of ministry, I have found that celebrating the sacraments – baptism and communion – is one of the greatest blessings of ministry. There is nothing that compares with baptizing someone, and such intimacy in saying, “this is the body of Christ broken for you. This is the cup of Christ, poured out for you, for the forgiveness of sins.”
This summer, I took my first Doctor of Ministry class, “Continuity and Change.” The course was taught by a New Testament professor, who encouraged our detailed study of the early church as a way to examine our church settings today. New Christians in the early church – they had to work everything out. Everything was new. Everything was a learning process of living out the faith of Jesus Christ. How would they be community together? What of their old ways of living had to be left behind? Paul, the planter of so many of these communities, writes in detail to address concerns he has, teachings he feels each place needs, conflicts that already arise in the young churches. That’s the content of most of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. In class, I was immediately drawn to what we learned about first century worship, and particularly, the practice of sharing the Lord’s Supper, holy communion, in the community of faith.
Paul writes in most detail about communion and worship in his first letter to the church at Corinth. Churches – just a fancy word for the gathered faith community – met in homes of church members. For practical reasons, they met in the homes of the richest members because they had the largest houses and the most resources, and could provide the best setting for getting together. The church at Corinth met at the home of a rich man named Gaius. We can glean some knowledge from verses of scripture about worship and communion practices. They probably met weekly, on Sundays. They did many of the things that we do still – they prayed, both spontaneously and with ritual prayers. They sang. They read scripture. They shared testimony – their own experiences of God at work in their lives. They celebrated the sacrament. And all of this happened over the course of a meal. Worship was a feast – a meal shared together. The bread, the Body of Christ, was broken early on. The cup was given after the supper. But the meal, the feast, and the sacrament intricately tied to it, was the primary, central act of worship.
In our first reading from Corinthians, Paul is writing to address concerns he has about disturbing practices that have come up in worship and especially in sharing the sacrament. In Paul’s day, like ours, people came from many different economic backgrounds. But proper roles for people according to their classes were more structured. We still have plenty of class difference. But in Paul’s day, when people of all different backgrounds came together to feast and worship – things got complicated. In an early Christian household of a wealthy person, like at the home of Gaius, the host of the Corinthian church, a home would have an open air center atrium, and a room called the Triclinium – a dining room with three-sided couches, and an open side for servants to bring in food. There were places for about a dozen people to sit – to recline actually. Imagine meals taking place while everyone stretched out on lounge chairs. But worship feasts would bring in many more than a dozen people. So everyone who couldn’t sit at one of the dozen seats had to be served their food in the atrium. Guess who got the dozen seats on the couch?
Of course Gaius, the wealthy host, and his wealthy friends. Not only that, but Paul indicates that he’s discovered that those seated in the Triclinium were either arriving before the working poor or slaves who were members of the church, to start their meal early, or actually eating in front of them, first, while the others looked on. And further, food of different quality and quantity was served to the wealthy church members. So Paul says that some members are getting drunk on good wine, while others are going home from a worship feast hungry. Can you imagine, at worship, if we sat according to economic status, and served better communion bread to those of a higher status. Outrageous, right? What a horrible distortion of the beautiful meal left to us by Jesus!
But we can’t blame the people of the Corinthian church too much. They were only replicating in their brand new faith community exactly what happened in the rest of the social lives. In the other clubs, organizations, and associations they were a part of, this pattern was exactly how things functioned. You might all be part of the same group, but the societal divisions were still firmly in place.
Paul writes to remind the community what it means to be the one Body of Christ. He is passionate about this. He can’t say enough about how important understanding what it means to be the Body of Christ is. He says that if the Corinthians continue practicing the Lord’s Supper as they have been – well, it isn’t actually the Lord’s Supper at all. You can’t call the practices they’ve engaged in the Lords’ Supper. Paul says, repeatedly in his writings, that when we are in Christ, we are new creations. They are baptism words – in Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but we are all one in Christ Jesus. Paul means this with a sincerity, with an urgency that I find it hard to even convey to you. In Christ, we are new creations, and we are part of One Body. People were used enough to participating in religious ceremonies that had symbolic meanings. But Paul – he understood that the power of belonging to Christ was real change in your life and in the world. Real change. Real transformation. For Paul, that meant that your identity, so entrenched in societal standards – your gender, your ethnicity, your status – it was nothing, nothing anymore, because of Christ.
Paul wanted the community at Corinth to know that being a Jesus follower meant real, actual, concrete changes in the way you would live in the world and treat other people. If you come to the table together, if you feast together, if you share in the One Body of Christ together, you better expect some real changes in how you live. And so when we look again at our second reading from Corinthians, this imagery you know well about us all being different parts of the body, hear Paul’s repeated emphasis: we are one body, one body, one body in Christ Jesus. He doesn’t say it lightly. He doesn’t say it to sound pretty of poetic. He means it. We are part of each other if we are part of Jesus. We have to act that way, live that way, act to make the world that way.
We still struggle to get Paul’s message. But on this World Communion Sunday, I want us to think about what it would mean if every time we celebrated the sacrament, we remembered that if we want to be part of Jesus, we’re part of each other too. Not symbolically. Not to be forgotten as soon as we leave this building, or even just this time of worship. Not to be forgotten when we’re stuck in traffic, or in classes, or at work, or at the store, or confronted with racism or poverty, not to be forgotten when we want to put up walls between ourselves and those who are other. Because of Christ, because we are One Body, there is no Other. There’s only all of us. What if we remembered?