Fifth Sunday After Epiphany
5 February 2012
St. John United Church of Christ
St. Clair, MO
Based on 1 Corinthians 11: 17-34
By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell
Can you imagine a church ever being in conflict? And in conflict over something as essential as communion? Whether you can or not, this morning’s passage from St. Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth is about just that. Paul reprimands members of the community there for ‘eating unworthily.’ Before exploring what that means, first I want to take a look at holy communion itself.
Where does the sacrament of communion, also referred to as Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper come from? In mainline Protestant tradition, the United Church of Christ has two sacraments: baptism and communion. These are our sacraments, we say, because Jesus Christ instituted them in his earthly life. We spent the past three Sundays considering baptism, and now come to communion. Most often, we talk of communion as coming from the Last Supper – as we read in the gospels and in our Corinthians reading – as Jesus said to “do this in remembrance of me.” While in holy communion we do re-member the Last Supper, we also remember the innumerable mighty acts of God throughout the life of creation, the crucifixion and death of our Lord, and celebrate his resurrection and ascension, and anticipate his coming again in victory. Communion is not merely a recitation of the script of the Last Supper, nor is it play-acting with the minister pretending to be Jesus. In actuality, the Last Supper itself was a ritual Jewish meal. Near the close of his earthly life, Jesus had a ritual Jewish meal with his disciples. The gospels according to Sts. Matthew, Mark and Luke say that it was a Passover meal, while John and Paul have no reference to Passover. It is believed that during the meal he said the prayer over the bread and cup known as the Quiddush, and after the meal said the Birkat ha-Mazon, a Jewish prayer of thanksgiving from which part of the communion liturgy is thought to have descended. According to Enrico Mazza in The Celebration of the Eucharist, this prayer of thanksgiving was said “whenever there is a meal, provided it consist in something more than a medium-size olive.”(p. 15) This prayer first blesses God, remembers God’s goodness, and asks for God’s continued mercies. In the Didache, a first-century document of early Christians, the early rite of the Eucharist included a rite of the cup with a blessing, rite of the bread with blessing, the meal, and a Christianized thanksgiving prayer. From the beginning of the practice of communion, it included a full meal for the nourishment of the whole gathered Christian community. This would eventually be eliminated as the Church grew and became more institutionalized, being replaced instead with a ritual meal. In sum, the Last Supper came out of the tradition of ritual Jewish meals, and our own practice of communion has developed from there.
So what is happening with the Corinthians and their practice of communion? St. Paul writes to the Corinthians that “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. 21For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. 22What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!” It is a harsh – but deserved critique. The Church at Corinth, we can deduct from Paul’s letter, included persons across the social spectrum, both rich and poor. But for this common meal, the rich do not share what they have brought, but go on and eat as if having a private meal – some drinking enough to become drunk. All this happens while the poor receive little and are treated with disregard. And this is at the Lord’s Table.
St. Paul in essence charges the Corinthians with eating and drinking unworthily because they do not realize what they are doing in the Eucharist. We find from this passage that there are divisions within the church. Such division is a wound to the Body of Christ, and to eat and drink of the Lord’s Supper as if it is one’s solitary meal to be hoarded from the poor is to eat and drink unworthily. The Corinthians did not realize (or simply ignored) that the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of unity. According to Mazza, “In the Eucharistic liturgy, unity becomes a reality because the faithful share in the one bread which in turn is a communion in the body of Christ.” (p.84) Yet the Corinthians did not practice such unity by some eating before the others and letting some go hungry. To allow such division keeps the Body of Christ divided and ignores the unifying aspect of the sacrament. For St. Paul, the solution is not difficult: “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat a t home, so that when you come together it will not be for your condemnation.” According to Dwight Peterson of Eastern University, “Instead of turning the Lord’s Supper into an occasion to exhibit social distinctions, the Corinthians needed to be reminded of what the Eucharist is for: remembering Jesus and proclaiming his death until he comes. They ought to partake in the Lord’s Supper in a way that demonstrates their unity rather than their divisions.”
Why is this important? Why was it such a big deal to St. Paul? The intentionality with which we approach communion is important because it is the most central act of the Christian community. It is the most central act, not of the individual, but of the community together. We cannot be Christians alone – this is why representing unity in communion is so important. After all the very word communion should remind us of our common union, our common bond together as Christians. That is why it is such a disgrace to have divisions present at Christ’s Table.
Because we believe as Christians that Christ is present in all times and places, we can say that Christ is really present in communion and at the Table. This is not saying that we believe that the bread and wine become the very flesh and blood of Christ, but we do make memory of the flesh and blood of Christ with the symbols of bread and wine. Rather, Christ is spiritually, mystically, and really present in holycommunion. John Williamson Nevin, one of the great theologians of our United Church of Christ heritage, from the German Reformed tradition, explained that it is a spiritual presence “because Christ’s body is in heaven” but remains with us spiritually; it is real because “Christ is truly made present to the believer in the sacrament through the work of the Holy Spirit” and in receiving the meal, we “commune with the glorified person of Christ whose life…
flows into” us; and it is mystical because through the Spirit, “the medium of the presence of Christ in the Church,” Christ dwells in those who believe, receiving grace by faith. For Nevin, we don’t just sympathize with Jesus on the cross, but experience Christ real and present at the table, by the power of the Holy Spirit which unites across time and space.
It is because Christ is present to us in communion in this very unique and vital way that we must attend to our practice of it with care. Because Christ is present and because this sacrament is a sacrament of unity that is intended to further our bond as the Body of Christ, it matters how we come to the Table, how we practice communion matters. Again that is why the way the Corinthians disregarded the poor among them is such a grievous sin to St. Paul. When we disregard, dishonor, and disrespect each other it is a wound to the Body of Christ. If we come to the Table with hatred or malice or prejudice on our hearts, particularly if that is directed toward others – if we come with that mindset, we disgrace the sacrament. We confess during worship so we can lay down those things. We need to lay down those things that divide us. Divisions do not belong in communion. Christ came to unite us, “that they may all be one.” That was Christ’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane and it is the motto of the United Church of Christ. Christ came that we may be one with God, but also one with each other. Holy Communion is a sacrament of unity, celebrating our comm-unity, our common union with God and one another as the Body of Christ here on earth. Bringing divisions to this sacrament disregards its importance. To disregard or disrespect another person and to come to the Table with no remorse is to disregard and disrespect Christ. This is what so angered St. Paul with the Corinthians, that he would say to them, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. 28Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves. 30For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. 32But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.” For Paul, eating unworthily is less about breaking the law than breaking our bond as Christians. Eating unworthily is neglecting our unity, and valuing our own individual interests over the interests of the whole Body. Eating unworthily is hoarding the bread and wine away from the marginalized and forgetting that those we see as marginalized were and are some of Christ’s closest companions.
Eating unworthily is letting our man-made divisions get in the way of our God-made unity in the Body of Christ. So how do we eat worthily? How can we honor the presence of Christ and the unity of the sacrament of communion? If we all drink from one cup and eat from one loaf, how do we honor that unity? For the Corinthians, Paul just told those who were hungry to eat beforehand so they didn’t prevent the poor from receiving the meal as well. I really don’t think it’s that much more difficult for us. Christ broke through society’s boundaries and barriers, so we shouldn’t be erecting them in the Church! When we’re tempted to erect them, we would do well to remember what Paul said later in Corinthians: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good… For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit… the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.” When we care for one another and honor each other, we can eat worthily and not to our own judgment. Since divisions do not belong in a sacrament designed for unity – we need to confess them to God and to each other, not with anger and vitriol and yelling, but with listening and understanding. We may not come to easy agreements, but we are fully equipped by God to see and honor and respect one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, equally members of Christ’s Body, and faithful members of the Church. A wise woman told me this week that we need to put our mail in the right mailbox – meaning we don’t take our issues to other people who have nothing to do with our conflicts and triangulate, but we go to the people with whom we have conflict and work it out together in Christian charity, being gracious with one another. We have to lay down our conflicts and divisions in order to eat worthily. If we can’t resolve our issues before coming to the table, we need to at the very least suspend them in order to live into our unity as Christ’s Body. Just as we could not walk if one foot refused to associate with the other, we cannot be the Body without all the members of it working together for the Kingdom of God.
The Table is a welcome table. God has spread it for us, for all of us. Whatever conflicts, whatever issues, whatever concerns, whatever prejudices we come with, we need to be able to lay those aside in order to be able to recognize Christ present with us, and Christ’s presence in others. If we can’t do this, communion becomes a meal for exclusion for others, and ceases to be a sacrament. So we must remember that welcome and that Christ came for each of us and will return for each of us – despite our own agendas and fears of who may sit at the table with us. It is God’s table, and we have no right to build a fence around it. So let us eat worthily, and honor, respect, and regard each other with dignity and concord, so that we may truly honor, respect, and regard the feast of God, the table of welcome, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the most holy communion of God.
+To God be the Glory. Amen.