1 Corinthians 11:17-34 (The Message)
17-19 Regarding this next item, I’m not at all pleased. I am getting the picture that when you meet together it brings out your worst side instead of your best! First, I get this report on your divisiveness, competing with and criticizing each other. I’m reluctant to believe it, but there it is. The best that can be said for it is that the testing process will bring truth into the open and confirm it.
20-22 And then I find that you bring your divisions to worship—you come together, and instead of eating the Lord’s Supper, you bring in a lot of food from the outside and make pigs of yourselves. Some are left out, and go home hungry. Others have to be carried out, too drunk to walk. I can’t believe it! Don’t you have your own homes to eat and drink in? Why would you stoop to desecrating God’s church? Why would you actually shame God’s poor? I never would have believed you would stoop to this. And I’m not going to stand by and say nothing.
23-26 Let me go over with you again exactly what goes on in the Lord’s Supper and why it is so centrally important. I received my instructions from the Master himself and passed them on to you. The Master, Jesus, on the night of his betrayal, took bread. Having given thanks, he broke it and said,
This is my body, broken for you.
Do this to remember me.
After supper, he did the same thing with the cup:
This cup is my blood, my new covenant with you.
Each time you drink this cup, remember me.
What you must solemnly realize is that every time you eat this bread and every time you drink this cup, you reenact in your words and actions the death of the Master. You will be drawn back to this meal again and again until the Master returns. You must never let familiarity breed contempt.
27-28 Anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Master irreverently is like part of the crowd that jeered and spit on him at his death. Is that the kind of “remembrance” you want to be part of? Examine your motives, test your heart, come to this meal in holy awe.
29-32 If you give no thought (or worse, don’t care) about the broken body of the Master when you eat and drink, you’re running the risk of serious consequences. That’s why so many of you even now are listless and sick, and others have gone to an early grave. If we get this straight now, we won’t have to be straightened out later on. Better to be confronted by the Master now than to face a fiery confrontation later.
33-34 So, my friends, when you come together to the Lord’s Table, be reverent and courteous with one another. If you’re so hungry that you can’t wait to be served, go home and get a sandwich. But by no means risk turning this Meal into an eating and drinking binge or a family squabble. It is a spiritual meal—a love feast.
*Hymn - You Satisfy the Hungry Heart (UMH 629)
During the rest of the season of Lent, we’re taking some time to explore prayer - and how prayer is one of the core practices of the Christian life. In Jesus’ day, prayer was experienced in many forms and contexts - from the family Sabbath prayers to daily prayer in the synagogues to times of corporate worship to the regular rhythm of prayer and ritual at the Temple.
Many of these practices have changed and evolved, but prayer in the Christian life is best understood when we think about Jesus and his context. His teachings and proclamations about the kingdom of God are rooted in the richness of a people at prayer. According to Marcia McFee, “The teaching of Jesus makes little sense and lacks power abstracted from the practices of prayer and community life in which they were articulated. Attempting to follow Jesus today, to be his disciple, living out the baptismal covenant, likewise becomes almost incoherent without a lively, rich set of practices of prayer in many forms and formats of community (family, small group, congregation, personal).
And so together, during Lent, we’ll be spending time re-grounding ourselves in these practices of prayer as we prepare ourselves for the season of Easter ahead -- reorienting ourselves as a church community as a people following Jesus in making real God’s kingdom here on earth.
We start with perhaps the most common of prayers - one that most everyone is familiar with -- that of saying grace.
We didn’t always say grace in my family growing up. My first memories of praying before a meal were actually at the house of a friend from church; I had gone over to her house after worship and when their family sat down to lunch, they all held hands a prayed together to thank God for the food. I thought this was a pretty neat tradition, so I told my parents about it when we got home and asked if we could do it too. At least - this is what I remember of how we started saying grace together as a family - my parents have a different version of events. In any case, when we sat down to dinner together, it was a different family member’s “turn” each night - meaning that we got to pick which prayer we said or sung as we held hands around the table. A big favorite of ours was singing the Doxology - but not to the traditional tune - but to Hernando’s Hideaway or to the William Tell Overture.
We’d then end with a “Friendship squeeze” with one person squeezing the hand of the person next to them and having that passed around the circle - twice - and then we’d be ready to eat.
When Ben and I started dating, his family would sometimes sing “Be Present at our Table, Lord” as their grace. Sometimes, the duty fell to whoever was the hungriest and wanted to eat!
When we started doing grace as a family with Michael before our meals, he pretty quickly picked up on the ritual. Before he started speaking, he’d hold his hands out to each of us and then point to all the people around the table when we asked what he was thankful for. Now he enthusiastically points to all the items on his plate and says “mommy”, “daddy” and “the woof-woof” before raising his arms with a flourish at the end when we say “Amen.”
Saying Grace is all about thanking God for the blessings that we have, remembering God as the source of our being, and reminding ourselves to be grateful. But in the Christian tradition, it is only one of the prayers we say around a table -- the other prayer is the Great Thanksgiving, the one that places us in the midst of God’s salvation story. Our scripture passage for this morning refers to the early church’s practice of The Great Thanksgiving, also known as the Eucharist or Communion or the Lord’s Supper.
In those days, the Lord’s Supper wasn’t taking a tiny piece of bread and dipping it into a bit of grape juice. It wasn’t tacked on to the end of a worship gathering, as an extra or addendum to the service. Rather, it was a full on meal - a feast - and it was the whole point of getting together.
So Paul’s harsh words to the Corinthian church about the divisions around the Lord’s Supper is a big deal. What was happening is that not everyone was able to participate equally in this meal. In order to understand why, we need to know a bit about the culture of Corinth. Greco-Roman culture was highly stratified, and you always knew your social position relative to others -- where you stood in the pecking order - who was above you and who was below you. This spilled over into all areas of life -- practically all social interaction was shaped by this hierarchy of status. The church in Corinth had members of all different social statuses - both high - with its powers and wealth and privileges - and low. How these different cross-sections of social status mixed was a constant challenge for the Christian Church in Corinth.
One of the more shocking ways this stratification showed up in the culture of the time was around meals. For instance, if a host had guests for dinner, it was common for guests of high status to be served more and better food and drink than others, and for guests of lower status to be served less food and drink of poorer quality. Differences in status resulted in differences in treatment. This was just accepted as the way the world worked; people may not have been happy about the arrangement, but no one really questioned it - it was just the way it was.
So when this was happening during the practice of the Lord’s Supper, Paul is rightfully angry, and takes them to task for what is happening because of the way that the Lord’s Supper was intended to be a remembrance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, an invitation to be a part of the larger story of God’s redeeming power here on earth. Instead, we had a meal where different people were receiving different amounts and qualities of food based on their background - and some were so drunk they had to be carried out while others went hungry.
This is what Paul is talking about when referring to participating in this meal with reverence - other translations use the word “worthiness”. He’s asking the Corinthians to examine their motivations in participating in this feast -- is it to demonstrate and further highlight the social divisions that existed within the church? Or is it to participate in the greater story of the new covenant Jesus came to make, to show the unity in the body of Christ, and to witness to the new way of life that there is to be found in Jesus Christ? For Paul, of course, there’s only one right answer, and to use the Lord’s Supper to be just another feast was to sin against Jesus.
Now, our practice of Communion is vastly different from that of the early Church - it’s not a lavish feast, but pared down to the essential symbols of bread and cup. There’s no barrier to participation in this meal - in the United Methodist tradition, there’s nothing to prevent anyone from sharing in Communion - no theological litmus test, no requirements for membership or baptism - merely a simple desire to take the bread and cup. And yet, I wonder if we all have our own set of hangups around the Table that we need to work on together.
When we pray through the prayer of the Great Thanksgiving - when we recount God’s history with the God’s people, remember God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ, and invoke the Holy Spirit’s presence in the bread and the cup, we become part of the Great Story of God’s relationship with the world - from the very creation of the universe to Jesus’s ministry to the hope of the kingdom that is present yet always coming and that great banquet that awaits us all. We take our place with all those who dined with Jesus - with all who shared in this meal before us - and all who will one day eat the bread and drink the cup. In this prayer, we proclaim the radical message of love, grace, and justice that Jesus came to share with all humanity. In this prayer, we reenact the heart of our faith - that we remember Jesus - we remember his body broken - and our brokenness -- and his love poured out in the new covenant - and our love shared with a hurting world.
And isn’t this something to celebrate?
This isn’t a solemn procession - this is a joyful feast! This isn’t about tiny pieces of bread dipped delicately into grape juice, but about great big hunks of bread dunked and dripping - taking in fistfuls of love and grace with every bite.
I love watching children come up to receive communion, because in many ways they get it more than we do. I remember one girl in particular when we were serving in Haverhill - and we celebrated communion every week - who would always come up and ask for a big piece of bread. The kids would sit up in the front row and wait for Communion - and when we prayed the Great Thanksgiving, we had their attention. They understood that what we were doing was something deep and meaningful and joyful and beautiful - They wanted to help serve and they wanted to be a part of what was going on.
The Great Thanksgiving - it’s like the grace we say before meals - it’s about thanking God - thanking God for bringing us into the story; it’s about remembering - remembering Jesus as the one who is with us whenever we eat together; it’s about reminding ourselves - reminding ourselves who we are as the body of Christ, broken and poured out for the world.
But it’s also about joy - about celebration - about our place in God’s kingdom as God’s beloved children. It’s - as Paul puts it - a spiritual meal—a love feast.
And so as we come to the table later this morning, let’s keep that in mind. When we pray through the Great Thanksgiving together - place yourself in the story of God’s redeeming love. When we examine ourselves coming up to receive, let us consider the state of our hearts. Let us come forward with joy and thanksgiving - for we gather with friends and neighbors around the table of grace - where all are welcomed and none are turned away - where we celebrate and feast together - and where we remember Jesus and his love for us. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.