1 Corinthians 11:17-26, 33-34
Church Happens … When We Gather at the Table
Today we’re concluding our worship theme “Church Can Happen Anywhere.” We’ve been studying 1 Corinthians, both in worship and in Bible Study (which, by the way, will continue, and we’d still love to have you join us in it!), and learning some lessons from Paul and the early church. We started by talking about how we are all important parts of the body of Christ – and though we are many, we are one in Christ Jesus. We were reminded that church isn’t something we can do alone. It can happen anywhere – but only together, only with each other, only when we remember that we need each other. We talked about the passion that Paul had for sharing the good news of Jesus, a passion that let him cross boundaries and borders, getting to really know people, in order to better offer them the gift in Jesus that he’d experienced. Paul called the Corinthians – and calls us – to pour our whole selves in to the task of sharing the gospel – ready to bring church everywhere and anywhere. We talked love. Church can happen anywhere, unless we try to be church without love. Love and action go hand in hand, as we build each other up. We challenged ourselves to increase our ability to love one another by practicing some of the action words Paul used. And now, in a way, we find ourselves back at the beginning. We’re talking about the Body of Christ again. Specifically, Paul is writing to the Corinthians about how they celebrate together in the Lord’s Supper. And so as this particular worship theme comes to a conclusion, it seems only right that we hear Paul’s teachings about communion on a day we celebrate World Communion Sunday.
World Communion Sunday was started by a Presbyterian pastor named Hugh Thomson Kerr nearly 80 years ago. He wanted there to be a way to celebrate Christian unity and encourage our ecumenical relationships, our relationships across different Christian traditions. He wanted something that would celebrate our interconnectedness. After all, there is so much more as brothers and sisters in Christ that brings us together, centers us, grounds us, than there is that divides us. What better way to symbolize our unity than at the communion table, where we recognize that there is only one body of Christ, even though there is such a wonderfully diverse collection of members that make up that one body?
I have found that celebrating the sacraments – baptism and communion – is one of the greatest blessings of ministry. There is nothing that compares with the blessing of baptizing someone, and there is such intimacy in saying, “this is the body of Christ broken for you. This is the cup of Christ, poured out for you.” In The United Methodist Church, holy communion and baptism are the two sacraments we celebrate, gifts from God to the church, gifts Jesus called us to practice, gifts through which we can experience God’s grace, gifts that help us deepen our sense of belonging in Christ’s church. Sharing in Holy Communion, then, is an essential part of what it means for us to be church.
Children have some of the best communion theology I’ve heard. They’re smart. They listen. They participate. They learn as they share with us in the sacrament. At my childhood church in Westernville, my grandmother baked all the loaves of bread for our communion services. Often, on Communion Sundays, she would bake me and my brothers our own little loaves of bread to have. Once, Todd, my youngest brother, when he was about 4, was eating his bread in the backseat of the car on the way home from church. And he’s eating the bread, and all of a sudden says, “I’ve got the bones of Jesus back here!” He knew what it was about.
I think of a family at the church I served in New Jersey. They had a little boy named Tristan, and the parents just didn’t want him to take communion yet. They thought he was too young. And Tristan would come up with his father during communion and instead of bread and juice, I would give him a blessing. But he was visibly disappointed every time. And finally, one time, when he came forward, he looked up at his dad with pleading eyes, begging, without words, to be allowed to have communion. And his dad looked a bit resigned and nodded his permission. And Tristan gave an excited “Yes!” and a fist pump, and received communion for the first time with a face lit with joy. He knew what it was about. I’ve already had lots of children here in Gouverneur ask for seconds at communion. “I want another piece” is not an uncommon statement. And I’ll give you a second piece if you want it. After all, communion is supposed to be a meal, a feast, right? These kids know what it’s really all about. Do we?
Paul was concerned that the new church at Corinth was completely missing the point of the communion meal, and he writes to correct them in some of his strongest words in 1 Corinthians. Remember, I shared with you a few weeks ago that early communities of Jesus followers 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. And the church at Corinth met at the home of a rich man named Gaius. Worship time happened over the course of a meal. Worship was a feast – a full meal shared together, like our worship service and Fellowship Feast all rolled into one. 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, were the primary, central acts of worship.
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 differences. 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. 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. We are one body in Christ Jesus. We are part of each other if we are part of Jesus. And we can’t be part of Jesus if we won’t be part of one another, part of every other person in the body of Christ.
On this World Communion Sunday, as we think about what sharing in this meal means to us, 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 or bullying or divisions, 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 one who is Other. There’s only all of us. What if we remembered? I know I need to remember.
Today, when I say the prayer of consecration as we celebrate communion, I’ll say, “Make [the bread and cup] be for us the body and blood of Christ so that we may be for the world the body of Christ.” We, the church, we are the only body of Christ in the world. Christ is alive among us, always, but we are the body of Christ on this earth. So we come to the table, ready to renew our commitment to embody Christ in the world as fully as we can. Seek each day to see with the eyes of Christ, so that when we encounter others, we look with the same compassion with which Christ looks. We are the hands of Jesus, reaching out to all the people to whom Jesus reached out: the unclean, the unwanted, the untouchable, the unloved, the unaccepted – our hands must take theirs. We are the feet of the body, and our feet must take us where Jesus’ feet took him. Among people who didn’t look like him or worship like him or practice the traditions he practiced. Into homes that no one else would enter. Into places where illness and disease left little hope.
We – broken, on our own, but together, Christ’s body – we are the body of Christ in the world. Teresa of Avila, a nun who lived in the fifteenth centuries, wrote this poem that has become one of my favorites:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
When we gather at the table, and when we are sent forth from it, into the world, we are the body of Christ. Amen.