By Rev. Chris Jorgensen
October 6, 2019
Scripture: 1 Cor 11:17-28
I have to admit. I kind of love it when Paul gets fiery. This apostle Paul, who wrote this letter to the church in Corinth, is angry in today’s reading. He is ticked off. And I kind of love it. Because Paul’s anger comes out when there’s something he’s really passionate about, something that really matters to him. When he’s angry, it shows that he thinks this issue is at the very heart of what being a Christian, a follower of Jesus, is all about. And what’s he angry about this week? The Lord’s Supper.
Now, we’ve talked about the church at Corinth before. Paul’s letter to them is more than a wee bit critical at points, often because of the divisions he sees in the community. Here Paul is specifically torqued off about what is happening when the Corinthians meet to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, what we commonly call communion.
See, in the Corinthian community, the Lord’s Supper was celebrated as part of a full meal. What has been happening there is that some people have been arriving early to the meal, and instead of waiting for everyone to show up and partake together, those who arrive early eat all good food. They drink all the wine, and they leave none for those who arrive later.
Well, Paul really lets the Corinthians have it about this. He writes, “What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in?…What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter, I do NOT commend you.” (1 Corinthians 11:22)
These folks at Corinth are being selfish. They are not concerned with including everyone. They have made the Lord’s Supper a meal NOT for the building up of the community but for their personal pleasure. And because of this…Paul says they are eating the bread and drinking from the cup in an unworthy manner.
So he tells them: “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” (1 Corinthians 11:28). He then goes on to say in verse 29, “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” Now I’m not a scholar of ancient Greek, but I think a totally accurate 21st-century English translation of this would be: Check yourself before you wreck yourself.
So what if we checked ourselves? Do we, in this time and in this place, need to ask the same questions of ourselves that Paul told the Corinthians to think about? In other words, two millenia after Paul, are we worthy to eat the bread and drink the cup?
We had a great conversation about this in the Exploring Membership class last week. I’m not going to tell you who said what since I didn’t ask anyone if I could share their thoughts. But I will tell you that I was so grateful to hear people’s different perspectives on what being prepared for the Lord’s Supper, for communion, means to them. It was a great, deep, lively conversation about our Methodist tradition of having an open communion table.
Now, if you go to Hanscom Park United Methodist Church regularly, I know you know what an open table is. You all hear me say every week that everyone is welcome at this table. In fact, I know you know the answers to these questions:
Do you have to be a member of this church to come to the table? No.
Do you have to be a certain age to come to the table? Nope.
But you have to at least be a member of some Christian church, right?
NO! (That was a trick question.)
We have an open table. 100%. If you are here, you are welcome.
But. And. Just because the table is open does not mean that we are prepared to come to the table. Paul talks about it in terms of being worthy. This text from Paul tells us that while the table is open, there are some requirements of us before we come. But it’s not a set of rules that I determine or The United Methodist Church determines. It requires self-examination. Just like verse 28 says, “Examine yourselves.”
I grew up believing that I needed to examine myself. In fact, I believed that something in me had to be fixed before I went to the communion table. When I was growing up, I was taught that I had to confess, if not in an actual sacrament of confession to a literal priest, at least in prayer just between me and God. I had to name all the sins I had committed before I went to communion.
This resulted in my young mind kind of going through the Ten Commandments and seeing if any of those applied. I think not “honoring my mother and father” got a lot of play. Also the bearing false witness thing…even though I was an extremely compliant child, and I’m one of the most honest people I know. Let me tell you when you’re a 3rd grader, it’s hard to hit those Ten-Commandment-level sins.
Now do not get me wrong. I think confession is important. I think it is vitally important to be honest with yourself and with God about where you have fallen short. And if talking with someone like a pastor or a priest helps you to genuinely reckon with those times, then I think you should do that. In fact, not only do I think you should confess and ask forgiveness, I think you should take concrete actions to heal any relationship or fix any hurt that happened because of what you have done or left undone. Definitely. I’m for doing that.
But a general confession is not what Paul is talking about in this particular scripture. He gives us this instruction in the midst of a very specific situation. A situation where those who are there first, where those who are the insiders with the privilege, eat all the food and drink all the wine, and they don’t care about making room for others.
Paul says, you must examine yourself and “discern” or “recognize” the body. Paul means two things by this. These are the two ways Paul talks about the Body of Christ. First, you must recognize the presence of Christ that is in this meal. “This is my body, given for you.” In the Methodist church, we talk about the “real presence” of Christ when we gather at the table and take the bread and the cup.
And second, you also must recognize the body of Christ which is the whole people of God.
Self-examination before communion is not just some generic listing of sins. It is self-examination about discerning or recognizing the Body of Christ. We have to desire to encounter the real presence of Christ in this meal, and we have to desire that there will be enough room at this table for every person who wants to come.
And that can be hard. Because making room for new people with new traditions and preferences and opinions is sometimes a challenge. But we have to recognize the body! And so we have to examine ourselves and ask some hard questions like:
- Who is missing at our table?
- Are we hoarding this communion table for ourselves?
- Are we okay that some people are never invited to the table? How can we share this table with others if we don’t invite them?
- Are we worried some new folks at this table might challenge what we think or believe? That they might say something or do something to make us uncomfortable?
- Is there some part of us, deep down, that kind of likes things just how they are and is afraid of what might happen when we invite new people into our community and into our lives?
- That is afraid we might have to give something up…like our favorite pew, like our parking space, like our position of power…if too many people show up?
It’s okay to feel that way sometimes. We all have this problem to greater or lesser degree. We get comfortable – just how we are. Maybe we think, “Oh we’ve grown a little bit as a congregation, but that parking lot is getting a little crowded. Maybe we’ve grown enough.”
That’s fine if you feel that way. That’s human. But we have to recognize the body. The Body of Christ is as big and diverse and beautiful as all of humanity. So we have to be ready and willing to welcome everyone to this table – even if it means some kind of loss for us. And that’s hard.
But there is the good news. Many times, maybe most times, we cannot, by our own power, put our own needs aside in order to make room at this table for every other person. We can’t do it by our own will.
But God can do it.
And you know what? God can do it, at and through this very table. God can transform that fear, that resistance, that hardness of heart. John Wesley called the Lord’s Supper a “Converting Ordinance.” That means that someone who has never fully recognized or received the love and presence of God can encounter it at this table. That means we can be changed here – just by coming forward with our hands and hearts open.
Between that spot where you are sitting and the spot right at the front of this church where you receive the bread and the cup, God can change you…and that fear you carry of getting less because there are more people at this table? God can transform that fear into joy. Joy because there are more people!
Because no matter how many more people come, you receive this gift. You get to be part of the Body. You get to partake at this table that is for everyone. You get to feast on the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation. It is a holy mystery that the more people who come to this table, the more abundant is God’s love, and the closer we get to the kingdom of heaven.
Thanks be to God.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION & DISCUSSION
1) What does being prepared to receive communion mean to you? How do you prepare yourself to come to the table?
2) When you think about the communion table at Hanscom Park church (or the church to which you belong if different)…who is missing at our table? How can we make our table and our community a place where those people will feel truly and deeply welcome?
3) What are you afraid you might lose if more and different people started coming to Hanscom Park (or your local) church?
4) What are you willing to give up so that more and more people will feel welcome in our church and at our communion table?