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We ARE the Church: 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 – The Church’s Meal

The Church’s Meal

1 Corinthians 11:17-34


Two years ago, Lucy Rogers, a Democrat, and Zac Mayo, a Republican, were running for the same seat in the Vermont State House of Representatives. At the end of their debate, the two candidates for a Vermont state House seat asked the moderator for a few extra minutes – not to make last-second appeals for votes, but rather to make a little music. Lucy Rogers, grabbed her cello, while Zac Mayo picked up his guitar. They started performing “Society” by Eddie Vedder, much to the surprise of everyone in attendance. “It strikes a chord,” Mayo told CBS News. “To say to the world that this is a better way.” Rogers and Mayo agreed early on while campaigning in Lamoille County that they were going to be civil and treat each other with respect throughout the race. When Rogers asked Mayo if he wanted to play a song with her, he thought it was a fantastic idea – as did the voters who attended the debate.


We live in an incredibly divided world. We live in a deeply divided country. Tuesday night’s presidential debate is certainly evidence of that. Those who lean left are characterized as radical socialists. Those who lean right as radical fascists. For the past seven months, those who don’t want to wear masks have been ridiculing those who willingly do so, and those who are willing to wear them have been disgusted by those who aren’t. Can we at least agree here that no one WANTS to wear them. We even disagree about whether dogs or cats make better pets. Dog people think cat people are crazy. Cat people think dog people are dumb. It’s not that we have forgotten how to agree. People have always disagreed about such things, and more. It’s that we have forgotten how to disagree agreeably. We know how to go on a rant, but not how to discourse about serious, emotional issues.


This world has been divided since sin entered it. That’s what sin does – it divides. It separates. It separates us first and foremost from God, but it also separates us from each other. Political views, social status, race, culture – they all separate us. In Christ God deals with both our separation from him AND our separation from one another. In 2 Corinthians 5:19, St. Paul says that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” And in the body of Christ, the church, God establishes a people in whom the world’s divisions are to disappear.


In Galatians 3:28 Paul says “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In Christ, we as human beings separated from God and from one another are reconciled with God and with one another. We no longer seek unity in the only places the world knows in which to seek unity – surrounding ourselves only with people who share the same political and social views, or who are the same color or from the same culture, or who have the same social status or economic status as us. As followers of Christ, reconciled to God and to one another by the death and resurrection of Christ, we no longer seek to find unity in those things. We find unity in our common relationship with Christ. We are all one, not in politics or society or culture or race, but in Christ. And so we are free to express diversity in other areas.


The problem is that those human divisions have a tendency to penetrate the body of Christ, the church. We are so used to them, so accustomed to and comfortable being divided, that we bring these things with us into the body of Christ. Instead of intentionally fighting the tendency toward division, instead of resisting the impulse to divide along any number of lines, we embrace it.


The church in Corinth was struggling with division. They were embracing the human tendency to divide into us and them, the haves and the have nots. There were certainly some things Paul could commend them for, but this was not one of them. Division was visible throughout the church, but no where more so than when they gathered together to enjoy a meal and celebrate the sacrament of holy communion. Turn with me to 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.


This isn’t actually a worship service with communion, the way we would celebrate it today. It was likely something more like a love feast, in which the members of a house church would gather together after work one day and enjoy a meal together and then they would celebrate communion after the meal. It might have happened on a Saturday or Sunday evening, but there was no legal day off or weekend in the Roman empire at the time. Jews and Jewish Christians throughout the empire would have observed the sabbath as best they could, but no one else would have, including gentile Christians. The only parts of the Jewish Law Peter and James and Paul saw fit to place on gentile believers was avoiding sexual immorality and not eating meat that had been sacrificed to a false idol.


There are few things that bring us together better than food. A meal shared by friends and family around a dining table or picnic table is really an intimate thing, isn’t it? Even business lunches and dinners are usually reserved for people we know well. There’s something about eating together, sharing food, sharing a table, that brings us together. Community is formed and maintained around the table. Come to our community meal on Saturday night and sit down at a table with a plate of food and you’ll find yourself in the midst of a community of friends who know, support, and look out for one another. Walk into a busy restaurant on a Friday night, when we can do that again, and you’ll find community. Walk into a dining room in which a family is sharing a meal and you’ll find community, relationship.


So in the early church, the people of a house church would gather regularly not for worship, but to enjoy a meal together and celebrate communion together at the end. How beautiful must it have been in one of those gatherings where slaves and free persons, rich and poor, Christians of different ages, ethnicities and races, all gathered around a table to enjoy a meal together? The problem was, this wasn’t happening in Corinth. On the surface, it may have looked like it, but there were definite divisions among the people.


House churches tended to be hosted, not led, but hosted, by the more well-to-do who had larger homes in which people could gather. Several years ago, a house large enough to host a house church was uncovered at an archaeological site in the area where Corinth would have been. The dining room itself was big enough to have had a table big enough to have eight or nine diners reclining on couches. The rest of the members would have had to sit outside in the courtyard, or on the roof overlooking the courtyard.


The wealthier, higher-society members of the church would typically have had more leisure time at their disposal to find and prepare food, and the resources to bring finer food. So they would have arrived early with plenty of food. So the dining room, the best seats, the seats at the table, would have filled quickly with the more well-to-do members. And they didn’t bother to wait for anyone else to arrive. They started eating and drinking. The working class people would have had much less time after working all day and less resources to find and prepare good food. They would have arrived much later, but probably still on time, and they would have brought smaller dishes with food of lower quality. There wouldn’t have been space in the dining room by now, so they had to sit out in the courtyard. Slaves who were members of the church would have had to wait until their master granted them leave to go. They would have arrived last, probably late, with very little food. And the food brought by others was long gone. If there wasn’t room in the courtyard, they would have had to find a place to sit and eat what they could on the roof overlooking the courtyard. There was supposed to be plenty for all. Instead, some were eating and drinking too much while others were going hungry. Look at Vv. 21-22.


Paul looks at the Corinthian Church and says, “You may be gathering as a church, but in your gathering Jesus is no where to be found. Your gathering has nothing at all to do with Christ. In fact, their divided gatherings, their tendency to look down on others.  He then explains to them exactly what the sacrament of holy communion means, tells them how to celebrate communion, AND applies it as an example to guide all of their gatherings as the body of Christ. Look at Vv. 23-26.


The Lord’s Supper, the Sacrament of Holy Communion, is the fulfillment of the Passover meal. This was the meal Jesus was celebrating with his disciples when he instituted the sacrament. Jesus broke the bread. He tore it, and said that his body was about to be torn just as he tore the bread. “This torn, broken bread is my body for you. This Passover cup of salvation now represents a new covenant, a covenant of grace written in my blood, which is about to be shed for you.” This cup also harkens back to the Old Testament Cup of Suffering. The prophet Isaiah, said “Wake yourself, wake yourself, stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl, the cup of staggering.” It is Christ who, on your behalf, on my behalf, on OUR behalf, drank the full cup of God’s wrath. He drank it to the dregs. That means he drained it. He took all of it. ALL of God’s wrath was focused on Christ on the cross. And it left him staggering.


I want you to do something right now. I want you to imagine, in your mind, the worst thing you can think of that you have ever done. It might be big in this world’s eyes. It might be small compared to the wrong someone else has done. It doesn’t matter. Yes, some sin is worse than others. Murder is worse than stealing a candy bar. But even the smallest of sins is enough to separate us from God, because no sin can survive the in his searing, righteous presence. Don’t share it with anyone. No need to do that. Just hold it in your mind. Now think about this – that thing, that wrong, that sin, and every other wrong you have done, every other wrong in you, became Christ’s burden on the cross. He carried it there, for you. He faced God’s wrath for YOUR wrong there, for you. My sin became Christ’s burden. And when we come to the table of communion to take the bread and the cup, our willingness to come together as a sinful people, not divided but as one, and admit our need of Christ together, proclaims the good news of Christ’s death until he comes again. Our need, and our unity in admitting it, proclaim Christ’s death.


The central focus of our faith, and of our time together as the body of Christ, is the cross of Christ, the death of Christ. Look closely at V. 26. Did Paul believe in the incarnation of Christ? Of course he did. If Christ wasn’t born, he could not have died. Did he preach the resurrection? Yes. It was Christ’s resurrection that revealed to all his lordship over all. In death, Christ is our savior. In resurrection, he is our lord. Did he believe in the Holy Spirit? Yes, because only in the Holy Spirit is the gospel proclaimed. What about the second coming? Christ’s coming return? Yes, for it is until he comes that we proclaim in the power of the Holy Spirit the death of our savior and our lord. In the cross of Christ, his death, are contained all of the other tenets of the Christian faith. They all find their proclamation in the cross.


And the table of communion, Christ’s table, is a table of remembrance. It is also a table of unity, not of division and strife. Look at Vv. 27-29. What does it mean to receive communion in an unworthy way? We tend to focus on looking inside at the sin each one of us has committed, confessing that sin and receiving Christ’s forgiveness. And that’s fine. But remember, our context here is communal. Our context is division within the community. Our context is strife. It isn’t wrong to receive communion if you’re struggling with sin and are trying to root it out of your life, even if you are failing. It is, however, wrong to receive communion if you are contributing to division in the body of Christ and couldn’t care less. It is wrong to allow for the separation of people, all of whom Christ died for, and assume that all is well in your heart before God. Our right relationship with God is revealed in our relationships with one another, especially with those whom, apart from Christ, we would struggle to get along with because of so many differences.


Now, before we close, there’s one more thing we need to see. Look closely at V. 22. And V. 34. Paul has no problem with those who have a lot, the well-to-do, enjoying their hard earned bounty and fine things at home. This isn’t some socialist thing. But it also isn’t 100% capitalist. He refuses to allow people to go hungry while others hoard more than they need. Christ is bigger than any box we try to put him in. I believe firmly that Jesus is pro-life and wants us to fight for the rights of the unborn to live. But he is still bigger than the conservative box. I believe firmly that Jesus calls us to work for justice and fight injustice at the personal level and also the societal level, but he is still bigger than the liberal box. Jesus calls us to share what we have with those in need and to take care of one another, but he is still bigger than the socialist box. Jesus calls us to work hard to provide for our families and gives us strength, ability, and talent with which to earn a living, but he is still bigger than the capitalist box. He refuses to be confined by any box we put him in, and if we as the people of God try to define ourselves by any of those boxes, we make ourselves less than the people of God are intended to be.


The body of Christ is intended to be a reversal of “the way things are” in this world. We are a group of marginalized people saved by the relentless grace of God. The church is a band of natural enemies brought together by Christ, and we love each other for Christ’s sake.


There was a common prayer among Jews at the time of Christ. I went something like this: “God, I thank you that I am not a woman, a slave, or a gentile.” According to this prayer, a free Jewish man was the only form of humanity that was blessed by God. But there’s a great passage in Acts 16. Paul and Silas had been imprisoned for casting a demon out of a slave girl. But while they were in prison, an earthquake shook the prison until the doors came off their hinges. When the jailer saw this, he drew his sword to kill himself because he feared that the prisoners had escaped because of the earthquake and it was on his watch. But Paul called out that the prisoners were all still there, even though they could have left. The passage mentions five people specifically. Paul and Silas – Paul had been a Jewish pharisee, and may have prayed that prayer I just quoted. The slave girl who was set free of the demon was likely Greek, a gentile, and she was dirt poor. The jailer would have been Roman, and a working class person. The other person named was a woman named Lydia, who we know was Asian and very white collar. She was wealthy. A rich Asian woman. A middle-class Roman jailer. A dirt poor Greek slave girl. And a Jewish pharisee. All came together in the body of Christ.


When we come to Christ’s table to receive communion, we are to remember his torn, broken body and shed blood. But we are also to proclaim the good news of the gospel, exhibiting within ourselves, in our unity and diversity, the upside down nature, the new way of being in this world, that Christ died to bring to reality.