A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 24, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 and 2 Corinthians 12:12-27
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
Today’s sermon is going to be different from how I usually preach. You’ll notice that our liturgist didn’t read the second lesson (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). That’s because I’m going to be reading it as part of the sermon. And you’ll notice that the lesson has been printed on an insert to your bulletin. That’s so you can read along as we go. So, let’s get started.
17 Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.
Actually, I find a little bit of good news for us in this verse. The Church has always had problems. Here’s the church in Corinth, a church planted by Paul, and he has to write to them to tell them that they are not following his instructions correctly. They are an imperfect human institution.
It is quite common for me to hear from non-churched folk complaints about the church – that it’s full of hypocrites, that it’s concerned about power and prestige, that it’s scam and all they want is your money. Well, of course it’s fully of hypocrites – it’s full of people. Of course it’s an imperfect institution – it’s a human institution. But it’s also our best chance of finding the realm of God that I know of.
Apparently, the church in Corinth was really blowing it.
18 For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it.
Two thoughts here: I love Paul’s comment, “to some extent I believe it.” It’s as if Paul already knows that you don’t believe all of the church gossip you hear. There may be a grain of truth behind it, but you can’t swallow it whole.
And this passage also invites us to some self-examination about divisions in our own community. I suppose every church has divisions to some extent. I don’t think it matters what church hierarchy one has. If the priest or bishop has full power to decide everything, there will be people in the congregation who grumble about his (and it will almost certainly be “his”) decisions. If the congregation is completely autonomous and makes all it’s own decisions, people will have differences of opinions about the decisions.
This makes me think of a man named Bob, a member of a congregation I used to serve, who was very vocal at every congregational meeting. He would argue for whatever position it was that he supported, and then a vote would be taken, and then Bob (God bless him) would support whatever decision got made – even if it was one that he vehemently disagreed with. He would not let being on the losing side of a vote cause divisions for him in the church.
But, as we’ll see in a moment, the divisions Paul’s talking about here are not divisions of opinion.
19 Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine.
I think this sarcastic. I don’t think Paul literally meant, “Factions are great because they show who the ‘real’ Christians are.”
Earlier in the letter, we read that there were factions in the church. People had been taking up sides. One of the chief divisions seems to have been about leadership. Who should we follow? Who is preaching the true Word?
Here, the factions are about something else.
20 When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper.
This suggests that Paul thought the primary reason for the church to come together is for the Lord’s supper. What would you say our primary reason for coming together is? Since we don’t celebrate the Lord’s supper every week, that can’t be the reason. Yet, I think one of the reasons we come together is to be fed.
I think I’ll just let that question hang there: What is our primary reason for coming together? And I’ll add another: If Paul thought the primary reason for the church to gather each week was to celebrate the Lord’s supper, does that impact your feelings and thoughts about the frequency of our celebration of the Lord’s supper?
Apparently in Corinth, when the church gathered, it looked as if they were gathering for the Lord’s supper. A table was present. Food was present. But there were problems with how the celebrated.
21 For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. 22 What! 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!
Now we’re seeing what the factions are. The Corinthians eat a supper – it appears that this could have been a full meal – but there’s something about what’s going on that makes what happens not the Supper of the Lord.
They’re going ahead and eating on their own. Individualism at best, greed at worst, has turned the meal into something that it’s not supposed to be. At best, it’s become an act of personal, private piety. At worst, it’s become an opportunity for gluttony. Some end up hungry; some end up drunk.
Those who end up hungry are probably from the lower classes – peasants, laborers, and slaves. They may come late, after they have put in a full day’s work. They may not even be able to afford an evening meal and were relying on the church for dinner that day. Those who end up drunk are probably the leisure class who can come early and drink all day, who don’t need the food shared at the table because they have plenty at home. There is a distinct possibility that these two socio-economic groups were eating in separate rooms.
To correct the situation, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the tradition of the supper.
23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
The tradition has its roots in the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples before he was crucified. When we celebrate communion, we’re returning to Christ’s table. Jesus is the host and we are his guests.
And while it may be uncomfortable to contemplate, the shadow of sacrifice surrounds the meal, along with an air of unfathomable love. “Jesus’ sacrificial death through crucifixion is the great and scandalous mystery of Christian faith. The word ‘sacrifice’ has become synonymous with suffering and with substitution of one life for another.” I fully reject the notion that Jesus’ sacrifice was a substitute for some punishment we deserve.
There are many other ways of getting a sense of this ‘scandalous mystery’ – that would easily take another sermon. For now, let me offer one. The Latin phrase, sacrum facere literally means “to make sacred.” Jesus’ death makes human life sacred in the face of violence and injustice. This is Jesus’ proclamation at the Passover table that became his last supper with his disciples.
So, then, how are we supposed to come to this meal? How are we enter into the scandalous mystery and joyous feast?
27 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.
I believe what Paul means by an “unworthy manner” is to participate in the meal in a way that allows there to be divisions in the community. The divisions Paul refers to at the beginning of the reading are not divisions of opinion. They are divisions of class and status and community. So, Paul says,
28 Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.
This is the crux of Paul’s point for this divided community of believers. They need to discern the body when they partake of the Lord’s supper. And if we keep reading this letter, we get to what Paul means by ‘the body.’
Our first reading is from the next chapter of the letter – a familiar passage where Paul describes the church community as a body, in fact as the body. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (12:27).
When we gather around the table, Paul challenges us to discern the body. Some may interpret this to mean that we need to recognize the body in the elements of the Eucharist – in the bread. And while that may be an important aspect of communion (tune in two weeks), it is not what Paul is talking about this week. Paul is asking us to recognize that the church itself is the body of Christ, and that participation in the unity of the community belongs to the essence of the Supper.
When we allow there to be disunity at the table, Paul says that we bring down judgment on ourselves.
30 For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. 34 If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come.
“So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” We have this tradition of inviting the kids back from Sunday School to participate in communion. And there are times when I’ve found myself at the table, waiting for them to return. This is a good thing, a scriptural thing. We should wait until we are all together, until the body is whole, for only then will the communion-ity be discernable.
There are times when the children in our churches preach a sermon – without even trying. I remember a story Christina told about Maddie when Maddie was quite young. They were in a church that did not serve communion to children. Everyone was invited forward to the communion rail, but the children received a blessing from the pastor, not the communion elements. When Maddie received here blessing but not the elements, she said to her mother in a not-too-subtle four-year-old voice, “What about me?” In her own way, Maddie had discerned that the body was not whole without her inclusion.
If you’re looking for some concrete lessons from today’s reading, here are four: Communion is central to the life of the church. Communion is supposed to unify the community, to break down barriers and distinctions. The table belongs to Christ; it is he who invites and establishes the appropriate conduct. Our task is to discern the Body of Christ as we share the meal.
One very important aspect of communion is the community. So as we come to the communion table today, may we discern the body in our community. Amen.