The Sunday Sermon: Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 5, 2017
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
All for One
Pray with me … and listen for the Word of God. Read 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 … the Word of the Lord …
These past three weeks, we’ve been exploring this early Corinthian church to find out what was bothering Paul. Divisions, in a nut shell, having more to do, I’ve suggested, with worldly politics and power than with theological or Christological disagreements. Last week we noted that this community is not “One for All” in their discernment of Jesus, their profession of faith, and their understanding of the cross. That division finds its most treacherous expression for Paul at the common table. Neither is this community “All for One.”
Now, I know that I’ve preached on the context of the “Corinthian Communion” on at least one occasion about six or seven years ago, but my guess is that not many of us remember the broader circumstances in which the “Words of Institution” that are so familiar to us were originally spoken. We hear them month after month and imagine the perfect community gathered around a communion table like ours, patiently and prayerfully awaiting the ritual that reminds them who they are and where they are in God’s story. Not so … there is trouble in Corinth, we know that already, divisions that extend even to this most sacred of rituals
The language that Paul uses before the “words of institution” are chosen to shock the community reading and sharing his words. Paul finds nothing at all commendable about their practice. Their coming together for worship should be a good thing. They know the traditions of the supper and they are observing it but, Paul begins, “I do not commend you! You come together not for the better, but for the worse! Yours is not the supper of the Lord!”
Now, in our churches today, the Lord’s Supper is a morsel of bread and a sip or two of “the fruit of the vine” as a ritual memorial and participation in the Lord’s, or the Last, supper. In the first century however, this ritual took place within the context of a full meal. One of the members of the community, the early “church,” with a large enough house would host the larger dinner in which the Lord’s Supper is observed. Now, some persons were free and able to come early. The “freedom” to do so probably broke down along economic lines, if you were well off you could leave work early if you had to work at all. And having arrived before most of the others, these few began eating and drinking, probably eating and the drinking the choicest food and wine set out. When the others arrive (Paul describes them in verse twenty-two as “those who have nothing”), they find tipsy co-worshippers and leftover food at best! The basic and most powerful meaning of the “Lord’s” supper that Paul has taught, namely that the life of faith is a life of community, has been minimized and even lost altogether. Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you! 11:22
In the verses we are so familiar with, Paul makes it clear that “the Lord” himself is his source for “proper” procedure and purpose. Here’s how you’re supposed to this thing, and why … from Jesus himself: I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you … “do this” in “remembrance.” The charge we hear to “remember” every time we gather together here actually goes back way before Jesus himself, having its roots in Israel’s very first Passover meal.
And as we “remember,” we proclaim. For as often as we (do these things), we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again. We proclaim the story of God in Christ.11:26 When those who gather in his name, when those who gather at this common table, live fully the new life in Christ, their faith makes itself known, the living of their faith manifests itself to others and makes an impact on them, changes their own way of living, transforms their lives. When we live fully our new life in Christ we don’t need to say anything. Our very lives are our testimony, our proclamation. Paul believes that taking part in the supper is itself “proclamation.” Whenever you “do these things,” Paul concludes, you “proclaim …” But …
The Lord’s Supper, the central symbol of Christianity’s divine responsibility for a shared earth, the central proclamation of Christianity’s liberated and sanctified life, was fractured badly at Corinth. We’ve been discussing how it’s broken even here, how we are divided. That’s a deeper problem than we may realize. In the verses just after our “words of Institution” Paul is pretty unforgiving: those who are participating in this meal in any other way than Paul lays it out will be judged. There are consequences for the unworthy manner in which any community practices this meal. Coming to this table “divided” is not the way to arrive.
If you’ve thought about this judgment at all – how you, we, are judged in coming to this table (or into any practice in our communal lives) divided – then you probably imagine some ethereal “afterlife” or “next life” judgment. We can pray for forgiveness next week and don’t really have to deal with here and now. But we may more accurately imagine our judgment over arriving at this table “divided” to be one that we experience much more immediately in the loneliness and isolation we may feel as individuals in this community and in the discord and dissension within the church itself. When we don’t’ take this “communion” seriously that’s our “judgment:” Loneliness and isolation as individuals; discord and dissension as a community.
The meal in Corinth was fractured. What about here in Pewee Valley?! With the world pounding on the doors of our sanctuary without ceasing – and it is … pounding even now. It’s out there, in 24-hour news cycles and constant social media submissions – probably buzzing into your phones even now and us anxious to know “what is it this time? What’s next?” – With the world pounding even on the doors of our sanctuaries, we would do well to heed the cautions of Paul and examine ourselves, individually and as the whole of Christ as we prepare to receive our common meal.
We as Christians have an obligation to know where we stand. In verse 28, Paul admonishes us to “examine yourselves, and only then” come to the table. Without self-examination and self-assessment, we too easily lose track of where we really are in our lives of faith. Your life of faith is a journey, a progression, a transformation, from new birth (every time it happens!) to maturity in the one we call Christ. We’re not all at the same point, but we are on the same journey. We need to keep up-to-date with ourselves because we will be able to bear other’s burdens only according to the measure of our own faith. If we are feeling less than trusting, then we will be less than trustworthy. If we are not feeling hopeful, then we can’t offer hope. On the other hand, if we are full of joy, then those we journey with cannot help but be filled themselves. If we are experiencing the grace of God in our own lives, then we will offer that grace to others in our lives together. The table set before us is the ideal place for self-assessment to happen.
And this table is the ideal place for this communal discernment to happen. There is no doubt that communion is personal, it is the most intimate sharing of oneself with God in Christ that we have. But as personal as this meal is, it is not private. This “communion” always includes the whole body of gathered believers. As we share, we must discern our relationships with everyone in this room. (You don’t need to look around, but take a moment to “feel” the presence of the others here with you. It’s a powerful thing.)
The Corinthians are a study of those who have forgotten the communal nature of the Lord’s supper. They have let the outside world color the way they commune with each other in Christ. And as troubling as that is as we look back over the years that have passed since Paul wrote to them, it’s fascinating to consider that had they not been making such a charade of the supper, Paul would never have written to them about it, and we may never have known the tradition that was given to him that he passes on to us. Their division smoothes the progress of our unity …
As you prepare to receive this morning … assess yourself. As we prepare to participate this morning, let us discern our relationships with one another … that we may be “All for One.”
Let us prepare to come together at the table to feed one another and to be fed. Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / February 5, 2017