I Cor. 11: 17In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. 22Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not! 23For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 27Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. 29For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. 32When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world. 33So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. 34If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment. And when I come I will give further directions.
Focus verses: 29) For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.
33 So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other.
Gee, do you think Paul might be upset? He says to his Corinthian disciples, “Your meetings do more harm than good,” and Whatever it is you think you are doing whenever you get together, “it certainly is NOT the Lord’s Supper.” More like the devil’s, he implies. Does he sound angry? Well, in all of I Corinthians, this is where Paul shows himself the most emotional, the most angry and upset. Elsewhere in this same letter he also deals with matters of sexual immorality, and with some crazy teachings like, “There’s really no resurrection.” But those he addresses with pastoral patience and tenderness compared to the pain and vexation he expresses so bluntly over……..food and the communion service.
To get an idea why he’s so upset, let me tell you about two communion services I know of, one from heaven, and the other from hell. I heard of the communion service from heaven in a story by Garrison Keillor. It had to do with the national convention of a tiny denomination, The Sanctified Brethren In Christ. All 37 members of this denomination were gathered in a small rural church sanctuary. Some time, mid-morning of the second day, someone gave a sermon that introduced a startling and divisive new teaching: If eating pork was forbidden for the Israelites, then its still unclean for the Christians. I don’t agree with that, and half of the members and delegates didn’t either. But suddenly they were looking at the possibility of a church split, a rupture running right through the middle of their friendships and families that would make it impossible to ever worship, meet and eat together again. The tension meter in that sanctuary would have read off the charts. Voices rose with the anxiety level as they discussed this surprising new matter, until a word was heard that stilled the rising storm:
“Lunch is on.”
It helped that the voice was that of the very well-known and trusted Sister Evelyn, whose specialty was fried chicken, mashed potatoes with onion-flavored chicken gravy, green bean hot dish, green jello salad with marshmallows and mandarin orange slices, peach cobbler and strong, Swedish-style coffee. The smell of these foretastes of heaven wafted up from the kitchen basement to the sanctuary, stilling all the anxiety and conflict. People who had been ready to walk out on each other, or even to strangle each other, were suddenly united in urgent, earnest prayer…… as Brother Bert prayed a blessing over the meal.
As they ate Sister Evelyn’s specialties, the thought of missing out on such food and fellowship together slowly overcame their anger and distrust of each other. Hearts melted and their vision softened with every bite. Those words, “Lunch is on,” may have led to a major item of church business later that week that was never discussed nor even seen by the delegates, but which was binding nonetheless: that Sister Evelyn’s recipes would always be the menu for every gathering of The Sanctified Brethren in Christ, none of which would ever include pork, not because everyone agreed about it, but because no one wanted to split over it, and miss out on Sister Evelyn’s cooking. Secretly, some of the members of that tiny denomination now call themselves, “The Sancti-Fried Brethren of Christ.”
There we see the unifying, barrier-busting power of food, especially when eaten together. We saw it almost a year ago, in the basement of this sanctuary, when many of us had dinner here one night with about fifty Somali people connected to the mosque just down Lake Street. I’m pretty sure that later that very weekend, phone calls went from Minneapolis to Mogadishu, spreading the news that Mennonites know how to cook really good chicken, too (There weren’t many leftovers, were there, Marilyn and Ernie?). Even though neither meal was billed as a Christian communion service, even though they lacked the words of institution (“This is my body broken for you…this is my blood shed for you”), they served at least something of the purposes of the communion bread and cup from the very time that Jesus first instituted it during his last Passover meal with his disciples: to symbolize our passover from sin to salvation, and to give us a picture, in plates, smells and tastes, of the coming wedding feast of The Lamb upon his return.
By the way, Sister Evelyn’s lunch spread, and our meal with our Somali neighbors, were more like the communion service that Paul had in mind, and that the early church commonly did. Its like our Maundy Thursday Love Feasts here every year. More than just a pinch of bread and a sip of juice, the early Christian love feasts began with the communion service of bread, and ended with the communion cup of wine. But in between was essentially a potluck meal, where members brought what they could, and shared food with others. This was especially striking when you consider that these meals were about the only places and times in that society where rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, for some, even men and women, would eat together from common loaves and dishes. For some of the poorest members, it was the one place and time where you were guaranteed a meal that week.
Or at least, that’s how it was supposed to be. Which brings up the communion service from hell. Whatever the original intention, it had degenerated into a competitive display of conspicuous consumption, where the first persons who got there with the most food ate the most, and any who came late found most of it gone. The richer members of the church seemed to have eaten by themselves, from their own food, while the poorer members who came with little or nothing could only watch, to leave as hungry as when they came. By the time dinner ended with the communion cup, some members had already drunk so much wine that they were disruptive, disrespectful, or asleep. All this seems to have happened in the First Church of Corinth, several years and some church growth after Paul, the church planter, had moved on. That’s why Paul says, “Your gatherings do more harm than good.”
That’s why I think Paul reserved his heaviest verbal artillery for their communion service from hell. Because communion was supposed to look backward, to the tender, gracious, generous way that Jesus hosted his disciples and would give himself, body and blood, for the salvation of the world. It looked even beyond that, to God’s intent for Israel and the law, when Moses said, “Do not harden your heart against the poor, the orphan, the widow or the stranger among you; do not withhold help from your needy brother….There shall be no poor among you.”
It was also supposed to demonstrate something about the present, how God was making one new humanity out of Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, reconciling them and establishing their equality, dignity and inter-dependence. And it was to look ahead, to be a foretaste of the coming feast of reconciliation and reunion between God and humanity, and between all the warring tribes of humanity, in the kingdom of God, the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.
That makes the Lord’s Supper like one of those beautiful Belgian tapestries, of the late Middle Ages, those giant rugs that hung on the walls, in many colors, that often display things like hunting scenes, market days, battles, but especially great feasts. Food and feasting seem to be a favorite theme of these tapestries. We might say then that every communion service is a living tapestry of a divine feast that has come and is yet to come. But in Corinth, the divine tapestry had become a human travesty.
No wonder Paul got so much more upset about the desecration of communion, and the humiliation of the poor and needy among them, than about any other problem in the First Church of Corinth. For a Jew like him, it was like desecrating the Holy of Holies inside the Jerusalem temple, where the glory of God dwelt above the mercy seat and the ark of the covenant. In effect, for us Christians, the sharing of our bread, the cup, and all the sharing of our lives, our space, our time, our substance, our love IS our Holy of Holies, where God and his glory are most visible to the world.
Can I make its importance any more clear?
But the Corinthians can get back on track, and we can stay on track, if we remember and do two things, two verb phrases, that Paul says in this passage. I invite you to take out a pen or pencil right now and circle them where you find them in the bulletin, as today’s focus verses. One is in verse 29: “recognizing the body of the Lord.” Circle those six words.
At the Tuesday morning sermon roundtable breakfast, as we looked over this passage, our attention went immediately to this phrase, “Recognizing the body of the Lord.” What does that mean? we wondered. With that question we touched on one of the key issues of the Anabaptist Reformation that gave us our start 500 years ago, even one of the Bible verses most fiercely fought over, one for which people shed their blood and that of others. It was a controversy between those who said that we recognize the body of the Lord in the bread itself, whenever the priest said the words during Mass, “This is my body,” and thereby was understood to change the wafer into the actual body of Christ, by authority of the Pope and 1000 years of tradition. And that’s how anyone expected to receive Jesus, only through the bread that the priest handed out.
Anabaptists at the time got killed for not agreeing to that. They insisted from the start that “the body of the Lord” is the people gathered to share the bread, more so than the bread itself. That’s how Paul uses the phrase, “the body of Christ,” or “the body of the Lord” in every other setting, to refer to people. That’s how I interpret Paul’s words, “Recognizing the body of Christ,” that we see Jesus in every person sharing the bread.
Since we are, as Paul said, “Baptized by one Spirit into one body,” the body of Christ, then how can we see each other as anything but interdependent and equally important parts of the same body? If we do that, doesn’t it become all the harder to neglect and abuse and humiliate each other the way the Corinthian Christians were doing? If that person sharing bread and the cup next to us is a physical, visible manifestation of Jesus in the world, how can we treat him with anything but the honor and respect that are due to Jesus Christ himself? What does it matter if his or her politics are at odds with yours, or his mannerisms and personality get on our nerves at times, if he’s still part of the same body with ourselves? So, in the course of a love feast, not only do I save something for him or her to eat, I’m beholden to say, “Serve yourself first,” just as I would to Jesus.
Which leads to the second verb and its object, in verse 33: “Wait for each other.” Circle that phrase too, if you like. On the very face of it, it most simply means, whenever you have a love feast, wait until most of you are there, and don’t gobble everything up so that there is nothing left for anyone else, especially the latecomers and stragglers. Restrain yourself and show some common courtesy.
But the more I dug into that phrase, “Wait for each other,” the more I realized that there’s more there than meets the eye. Some scholars and translators more gifted and experienced than I prefer to translate it as something more like “Wait on each other.” Not just, “hold your horses until the seats are full,” but more actively, serve each other like you were the slaves and they were the masters, like you were the hosts and they were the honored guests, go around and dish it up to each other, ask them if they want seconds and thirds and if they say No, then ask if they want a box for leftovers. In the kingdom of God, food gives us a chance to show each other and the world how much we love and care for each other, and how little we care about the usual barriers of race, class, language, gender and background. Around the Lord’s Table, as guests of honor and hosts to each other, we set the tone for all our other relationships and interactions in the church and the world. Thus, Paul’s words, “Wait on each other,” apply to so much more than food. “Waiting on each other,” becomes a basic orientation toward God, the church, and humanity. And so we become a living tapestry of the divine feast that was, and is and is to come.
I’ll close with a Chinese parable about a man who died and was shown around heaven and hell, to see which one he would choose. In both places he saw people seated around banquet tables piled high with the same choicest foods. And next to each person was a spoon with a handle six feet long. But no one was eating. Yet.
The man told the angel, “I don’t see any difference between heaven and hell. They both look great. What gives?”
The angel replied, “Watch and see what happens when the dinner bell rings.” Which it did. At one table the man saw people trying to eat, but they kept jabbing each other in the eyes with the other end of their six-foot long spoons and interfering with each other’s eating. Their anger and frustration rose until they started deliberately jabbing and stabbing each other with their spoons, and knocking the food off each other’s spoons, which then led to food fights, then to fist fights, and then, another meal wasted, with everyone left mad and hungry.
In the other banquet hall, the man looked and saw that the diners were happily and peacefully taking turns feeding each other across the table with their long-handled spoons.
Guess which room was heaven, and which one was hell.