A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy Hammer, February 7, 2016
1 Corinthians 11:20-29, 33-34a ESV
On a Sunday when a church was celebrating Holy Communion, people were filing down the aisle, in the manner in which we do at the 10 o’clock service here at the United Church. A little girl—for whom receiving Communion was a relatively new experience—said to the minister as she approached the chancel area, “I want some of the body, but not the blood.” (It turns out she didn’t like grape juice.)
As you may or may not know, the ways in which Christians celebrate Holy Communion, what our church has long referred to as Table Fellowship, and the beliefs that different denominations attach to the ritual, are many and varied. And yet, in spite of the different names that churches use to designate the ritual, and the different modes that churches use to celebrate Communion, and the different beliefs that different churches and denominations attach to it, the ritual of Communion may be the one thing, more than any other thing, that serves as a symbolic ritual that connects different Christians and different churches one with another. That is one reason that World Communion Sunday in October has long held a great deal of significance for me as a minister.
Yes, Holy Communion is the great Christian unifier of all who claim the name “Christian;” or it should be, at least. As a short aside, it is interesting that the words of our scripture text in 1 Corinthians may very well be the earliest written words we have on the observance of Communion, or as Paul refers to it, “the Lord’s Supper” (1 Cor. 11:20). I know we are wont to think that the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels are the first written words about the Lord’s Supper. But scholars agree that Paul’s words were actually written fifteen to twenty years earlier than were those in the gospels. Most likely, in both Paul’s letter and the gospels the words were passed on for decades via oral tradition.
At any rate, Paul gives us a bird’s eye view into the early Christian Church at Corinth and some of the issues that challenged the unity of the Corinthian congregation. Sadly, one of those issues was the way in which they were practicing the Lord’s Supper. In the early days of Christianity, the believers came together for a communal meal often called a “Love Feast,” somewhat comparable to our potluck dinners. Or it may have been that people in the Corinthian congregation brought their own supper which they ate in the presence of others, sort of like we might bring a brown bag lunch or picnic basket and all of us eat together. At the close of the meal, they would take some of the leftover bread and wine, recite the words of institution attributed to Jesus (that is, “this is my body which is broken for you . . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood”), and then pass the bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus, his death, and resurrection.
But a problem arose when some of the wealthier members brought elaborate meals to eat in front of the group, whereas poorer members brought little or nothing and were embarrassed or went hungry. The social differences were causing division in the fellowship. Also, it seems that some were gathering early and started eating and drinking wine well in advance of some other members. So by the time the last members arrived, the early arrivers were tipsy from having had so much wine! For some, the Lord’s Supper had become an excuse to party. An event that should have served as a unifier had become a divider among the members. What they were doing was causing more harm than good. And so, Paul wrote to call them to account, saying Communion should be an act and sign of unity, not division.
As you well know, sadly, the Christian Church as a whole has been divided over beliefs and practice in Holy Communion for hundreds of years. Such beliefs and practices have split congregations and denominations. And still today, beliefs and practices regarding Communion can become a number one issue that prevents some church fellowship and mergers. And many denominations and local congregations practice “closed communion,” which means unless you belong to their group, then you cannot participate and receive the elements. My friends, such ought not to be.
As you know, we practice “open Communion” here at the United Church as a sign of our unity. Communion as a unifier makes our practice of holding hands and singing the Lord’s Prayer at the conclusion of Table Fellowship at the 10 o’clock service so special.
It follows, then, that Communion is also the “great leveler;” or it should be, at least. The Communion table is on a level playing field. In other words, when coming to the table for Communion, all approach it equally. There is no place for hierarchy when gathering at the Lord’s Table. Status, wealth, rank, importance, intelligence—none of these worldly titles or attributes have any place or lead to any deference when gathering at the table. All come to the Table on equal ground, beggars, as it were, at the table of grace on the one hand, and honored guests at the table of the Master on the other hand. At this Table all distinctions have no merit and fade away.
It is not the case here as it is in many inner city churches where the wealthy who have served as the financial backbone of such big, inner city churches are joined by members of the homeless community for worship services, including the observance of Holy Communion. In such churches, those who don fur coats and expensive suits may sit or stand side by side to receive the bread and the cup with homeless persons wearing second-hand pants and jackets from Goodwill. And that is the way it should be. And that was Paul’s point precisely in writing to the believers in Corinth. The fact that class distinctions had become a divisive and hurtful issue for some members of the congregation was a reason for Paul’s consternation. “Shall I commend you in this?” Paul railed. “No, I will not” (11:22). Communion rightly observed is the great leveler.
Communion is a practice that leads to self-examination and prods us to be better men and women; or it should be, at least. Paul warned the Corinthians against eating the bread and drinking the cup unworthily. “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup,” Paul warns (11:28). Such instructions have layers of meaning and they are often misinterpreted and taken out of context. Paul is talking about one having a proper understanding of the bread and cup and what they symbolize on the one hand. So on one level, eating and drinking in a worthy manner is of a personal nature and one’s respect for and relationship with Christ. By their actions, the Corinthians were being disrespectful to Christ and the practice itself.
But on another level, eating and drinking in a worthy manner is of a communal nature and one’s relationship to the entire Christian community. And so, biblical commentator J. Paul Sampley writes, “The Corinthians are a study of those who have forgotten the communal nature of the Lord’s supper and have pursued their own interests, perhaps with their special friends, eaten their fill, gotten drunk, and treated their poorer brothers and sisters with disregard if not scorn.”1 Thus, Paul called for self-examination so that all members would discern or understand both the personal and communal nature of the Lord’s Supper that had become corrupted by the insensitive behavior of the Corinthian Church members.
Perhaps you have noticed that the ritual of Table Fellowship that we most often use here at the United Church also includes a call to self-examination of sorts and a call to work for unity, healing and wholeness, as well as a challenge to examine our lives to see if they are being given in service to others, with meaning and purpose.
The way we celebrate Communion, or Table Fellowship, here at the United Church is both unique and special, I think. We incorporate elements of the Communion ritual that are historical, universal and traditional—“The God be with you” section and “Jesus took break . . . and also took the cup” are statements that have long histories in the liturgy of the Church. But instead of focusing on Substitutionary Atonement theology, we stress joy, unity in diversity, community, love, healing and wholeness, and service to others. So Table Fellowship becomes for us more than just a ritual. It is a monthly practice that can make all of us better men and women—if we truly take to heart the words we recite. May it be so for all of us. Amen.
1J. Paul Sampley, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002. P. 939.