by Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey, Parish Associate
1 Corinthians 11.17-34
April 5, 2012
They didn’t celebrate communion in the Greek city of Corinth like we do today. For one thing, they always came to church in the evening, and the worship service was like a supper we have from time to time in parish hall. Everybody brought their own crock-pot full of a soup or stew, or a picnic basket filled with fruit or bread or cheese. Everybody, that is, who could afford to buy and cook food, brought it. For the church at Corinth contained both people who had money to use and people who did not. Both people who had leisure time and could come at the regular supper time and people whose jobs forced them to come later. Both people who were free citizens and people who were slaves. The people who were forced to work long hours for little or no pay could not get to church on time. They were always late.
You might ask how the Corinthian congregation came to have in it such a wide variety of people: rich and poor, slave and free, the “upstairs” people who had lots of time and the “downstairs” people, those who were always at the beck and call of someone else. Well, the Corinthian church had such a variety due to Paul’s way of being a minister.
Paul did not spend every day as a minister seeing people in a church office or visiting the hospitals or calling on homebound or meeting with community leaders. The Corinthian congregation could not afford that kind of a minister. Paul had to take on a day-job to earn money to cover his expenses. That day-job was tent-making, and Paul used his skills as a tent-maker to support himself and his work.
Everybody needed the skills and products of the tent-maker, so Paul would come into contact with many people from all walks of life as they came through the tent-maker’s shop. It was there, as a tent-maker, that Paul made contacts with rich and poor, slave and free, salaried and hourly wage earner. As Paul talked with them, he was able to issue the invitation to come to the Christian church he was leading in the evening. And so, that’s how rich and poor, slave and free, those who worked nine-to-five and those who punched the clock came to make up the congregation.
This congregation would gather on a Sunday evening for worship around a pot-luck supper. And this supper of whatever people brought became the time and the place to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, our Holy Communion. Now here’s how it was supposed to work. Everyone had to wait until all arrived and found a seat. Everyone: rich and poor, slave and free, those who worked nine-to-five and those who punched the clock, the “upstairs” and the “downstairs” folk. Then a loaf of bread would be broken and thanks spoken to God. But right at that moment the minister would also add these words, “Jesus said, ‘This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” After that, the supper would begin with everybody getting a share in what was brought. When all had eaten enough, then the minister would lift up a cup and say, “Jesus said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” They began with the first part of the Lord’s Supper, then ate a pot-luck supper, then finished with the last half of the Lord’s Supper. The worship continued with singing, prophesying, and speaking in tongues. And so, feeding upon the Body of Christ and feeding as the Body of Christ were folded seamlessly into each other.
Now that’s how it is supposed to have been. Trouble was, things were terrible. People were simply ugly to each other. There was class warfare inside the Corinthian Christian community. The rich people, the free people, those who worked nine-to-five—they could get to church on time, and they would begin right on time to eat. They would begin with Jesus’ words, “This is my body broken for you.” and would promptly dive in to what they had brought. By the time the poor people, the slaves, and those who punched the clock got there, all the food would have been eaten, all the wine would have been drunk, all the places at the table would have been taken, and they would be forced to sit on the outside, tired, unfed, humiliated, watching fellow Christians behave in drunken ways.
These “Johnny’s come lately” had neither time nor money to prepare their own food to contribute. In fact, some of them may have prepared the very food for their masters to take to find that it was all eaten before they got there. The folk who arrived late were counting on the patience and generosity of others who lived in more fortunate circumstances than they. After all, Paul had told them that counting on the patience and generosity of others was what living as part of the body of Christ was all about. They were sadly disappointed to find only crumbs and spilled wine left on the table. And to be looked down upon through the bleary eyes of drunks.
Now I have been to ancient Corinth, and I have seen the house that is reputed to have been the location of the Corinthian church. It is a modest home affording but a crowded space for a gathering such as this. If the “downstairs” folk were lucky, they might arrive, all out of breath, to stand outside the main dining room just in time to hear the minister say—to hear but not to see—to hear the minister say, “Jesus said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” They would get there for half a sacrament and go home un-fed, unwanted, and shut-out. In the congregation at Corinth they practiced class warfare at communion.
And this is why Jesus died on the cross and established this meal as a memorial of his death? And is this what Jesus means when he says, “This is my body broken for you.”? And is this what Jesus means when he says, “This cup is the new covenant, the new arrangement between humanity and God and among humanity itself, the new community with God and humans, in my blood.”? Does Jesus mean for us to take his sacrifice for us and to be so out for ourselves, for our personal walk with the Lord, for our personal salvation and comfort, for our very own intense spiritual experience, that we blindly see ourselves separate from the rest of the world, not having to adjust our own behavior to take into consideration the lives of others who are different than we are?
Now we can appreciate the full thunder of Paul’s anger at the Corinthians.
What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink it? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?…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. Examine yourselves…For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died….But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
This sacrament comes to us in a package stamped “Handle with Care.”
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” sings the spiritual. “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”
- God entered into the pain and poverty of the world to remake us from the inside-out through the power of suffering, unconditional love! Such a God who loves us so much ought to make you tremble, tremble.
- The penalty of God’s verdict on our gross selfishness and greed is death! Because God loves us so much, God took upon God’s self that penalty. Such a God ought to make you tremble, tremble.
This sacrament makes plain before you the cost God shelled out in love to create a new covenant. The holiness of God’s new covenant is rooted in the blood and gore of God’s Son.
Consequently, God will do whatever it takes to preserve God’s new covenant so that it blesses the poor as equally as is does the rich, the slave as much as it does the free, the wage-roll as much as it does the salaried. And when it comes to the Lord’s Supper, God insists that we do something as simple as waiting on each other, feeding each other, including each other.
“Here, O our Lord, we see You face to face,” so begins a familiar communion hymn. “Here would we touch and handle things unseen,”—but Handle With Care. Don’t live as a pig and pretend to call it communion.
I once heard the Anglican liturgical theologian Massey Shepherd relate a story of an Episcopal congregation in California who in the early days of the civil rights struggle decided that while blacks would be welcome at the communion rail, they would not be invited to the coffee hour. Massey Shepherd commented, “They were not welcomed at the sacrament that really mattered.” When we practice class warfare in the church, God’s judgment says, “Shape up! Shape up to the sacrament! Be the Body of Christ broken and poured out for the world.”
Are we in the West the ones who are eating before all the rest and thinking of ourselves as so religious? Is our religiosity actually the source of judgment upon us? In the light of the judgment that is attached to this sacrament, perhaps our famous “American paradox” becomes more understandable—the richest, most powerful, most religious nation suffering from higher rates of poverty, infant mortality, homicide and HIV infection, and from greater income inequality, than other advanced democracies.[i] Listen to the pain of our own citizens; listen to your own pain. This sacrament tells us that Jesus is in our pain to comfort, to console, to heal. But he is also saying to us in our pain, “Shape up. Shape up to be the body that I died for.”
Discerning the body. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper comes in a package stamped, “Handle with care.” Here are the expectations that come with discerning the body.
- That body was also broken for poorer Christians whose needs cannot be ignored by richer.
- That broken body was Christ’s self-denial for the benefit of others which we are to imitate.
- Eating and drinking in remembrance of Christ’s death obliges us to die with Christ to our sinful selves so that we can be set free to love others actively.
[i] cf. David Broder, “Another take on the union’s state,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, January 22, 2003, p. 21B. See also Paul Krugman, “Envy or priorities?” on the same page.