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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Bless. Break. Give. (1 Corinthians 11:17-29)


Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment on themselves.

A little girl went to mass with her mother every Sunday. She held her mother’s hand as the mother went forward to receive Communion. One day, the little girl asked, “Mommy, what does the priest say when he gives you Communion?” Imagine the little girl’s shock, years later, to find out the priest doesn’t say, “Be quiet until you get back to your seat.”

Today is World Communion Sunday. Since 1936, the first Sunday in October has been designated as a time for churches of all denominations and in all nations to celebrate Communion. We do this as a way of reminding ourselves, in a real and tangible way, that the Lord’s table is a place where we forge a connection with all others who call upon Jesus as Lord, including those who have died, and those who have yet to be born. Communion is a place where we celebrate our oneness, our participation in the body of Christ, our unity with Christ and with other members of his body.

I love to go out to eat, be invited to someone’s home, have people in my home, or even just grab a cup of coffee, because at the table, something wonderful always happens. May we pray.

Divisions at Communion

In today’s text, Paul is writing to the struggling church at Corinth. It is a church wracked by divisions, factions, politics and power plays, a church where countless agendas fight with each other for leading roles and end up upstaging the Gospel of Christ. Christians are to be maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, and yet he learns that they are exalting themselves instead of Christ.

For Paul, the salad really hits the fan in how the church at Corinth conducts itself at the Lord’s table. Communion is a place where grace is offered, where the playing field is leveled, where unity is made real, where divisions cease. And yet, for this particular church, rather than divisions being healed at the table, they are magnified all the more.

In those days, celebrations of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, Holy Communion were not limited to a liturgical meal of bread and wine that took place during a designated time of worship. You will recall that when Jesus first instituted what we know as the Lord’s Supper, he did so in the context of a family meal – the Passover meal. Likewise, celebrations of Holy Communion took place within the context of a meal that was shared among the whole family of faith – Methodists didn’t invent covered-dish potluck suppers – they’ve been around for a long time!

The repeated miracle of the potluck supper is this: no one person makes any huge quantity of food, yet when put together, it becomes a feast, and you watch person after person come through the line with their plate heaped with food – the combined caloric count of which I certainly don’t want to know – and even after everyone has gone through and taken their fill, and seconds and thirds, and there is still as much food left as everyone has already eaten. We share freely with each other, some people make a little more, some people make a little less, some people bring nothing at all, yet no one goes away hungry.

It is in this spirit of sharing and generosity that the Lord’s Supper was authentically celebrated – a community meal where there is always plenty to go around, and no one goes away hungry. The meal itself was a sign of the abundant grace made real in that meal – there’s always plenty of grace to go around, and no one goes away empty.

Now, imagine some warden standing near the table as the dishes are brought in, taking careful inventory of the quantity of food each person brings, and then as they go through the line, making sure that they take no more than they brought. With this being the case, people begin to bring less and less, eventually they stop sharing altogether and everyone just brown bags their own meal. Those with means pig out, while those without go hungry. A few stop coming altogether. Somewhere along the way, the grace-filled sacramental meal of sharing in Christ became a middle school cafeteria.

I’ve heard a quote attributed to a wide variety of people: Mahatma Ghandi, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Pope John Paul II, Bill Federer, and Warren Buffet. It says, “A society’s greatness is measured in how it treats its weakest members.”

Likewise, a church’s greatness is measured not in the size of its membership, building, or budget, not by how it treats its biggest donors or longest-tenured members. According to Jesus in Matthew 25, it’s measured by how it treats the poor, the infirmed, the hungry, the stranger, the foreigner, the outcast. A church’s greatness is measured by how it treats children, those who are new in their faith, those who are outside its faith. The values of God’s kingdom call for a reversal of the values of this world – putting down the mighty from their thrones and exalting those of low degree (Luke 1:52), opposing the proud and giving grace to the humble (James 4:6), taking the seat of lowest honor for ourselves (Luke 14:7-14), and the parts of the body that we think are less honorable, we treat with special honor (1 Corinthians 12:23).

A meal of the kingdom

From the beginning, God has been taking the values of the world and turning them upside down, and we call this new upside-down kingdom the kingdom of God. And Holy Communion is a meal of the kingdom – where God calls us to feast on grace, strengthening us for the journey of following Jesus, equipping us to live the upside-down values of God’s kingdom in a world where those values make no sense.

Our place at the Lord’s table is not on the basis of our wealth or worldly standing, our self-importance, our rank and serial number. In today’s text, Paul got miffed at the Corinthian church because they brought division to the Lord’s table, and so Holy Communion – intended to be a unifying experience of God’s grace – became yet one more example of the divisions and fractured nature of their community.

Jesus, the head of the body, the host of the meal, looks around at the fractured congregation, and says, “This is my body, broken by you.”

At the Lord’s table, title and rank don’t matter. It is a meal of God’s grace, and so we come, each of us, simply as children of God. It is a meal hosted by Christ, and so we come, each of us, as brothers and sisters of Christ and therefore, brothers and sisters of each other. It is the meal of the body of Christ, and so we come, each of us, because we are the members of the body of Christ.

Jesus said “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). I need four volunteers to help illustrate what Jesus was getting at. Each of these people are a member of the body of Christ. When we come to Holy Communion together, we come to re-member Jesus. And so, if these four people link arms, which is symbolic of the way we are joined to Christ and each other in Holy Communion, we “re-member” the body of Christ – we are taking individual “members” and re-membering them; think of the word “remember” as the opposite of “dismember,” we are literally getting the body of Christ back together.

A frequent celebration

Jesus promised to be present in this sacramental meal. He promised his presence would be discernable among us every time we celebrate Communion. He promised to give us grace, and this grace would draw us closer to God and closer to other members of the body of Christ.

These are great benefits that Jesus promised to us every time we celebrate Communion. Because of these great gifts, we should celebrate Communion frequently. Now, I have heard people say, “If we have Communion too much, it won’t be as special,” and this has been used in many churches as an excuse for infrequent communion, and offered by many churchgoers as the reason they do not receive Communion. But friends, there’s no such thing as “too much” Communion; it’s special not because it is a rare treat, but because Jesus is really present, because he meets with us, because he gives us grace. These are the things that make Communion special, and these are the reasons we should celebrate it frequently.

An unworthy manner?

Paul chastises the church for partaking of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. I have heard all sorts of really bad teaching about this, often to the point of making people feel so bad about themselves that they are terrified to receive Communion. Here’s what Paul actually says: “All who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves” (1 Corinthians 11:29).

When the bread is handed to you, you will hear the words, “Body of Christ, given for you.” And yes, those words mean the body of Jesus, to be sure, but also the body of believers. All of us. Rick Lischer, in his book Open Secrets, tells us his journeys in his first pastoral assignment. He says, “Paul warned his readers in Corinth to “discern the body,” which means to see Jesus’ body in a new way. Not as a miracle of physics occurring in the elements, but as a miracle of community in which atoms of solitude are re-created into new families and friends. Christianity is a body religion. I had only begun to discern it.

I took such pleasure in lifting the chalice . . . Because, when the light was filtering through our art-glass windows or flooding through the open doors in back, I could just see the whole congregation reflected in the silver cup. And in the congregation, the whole church.”

Paul calls us to discern the body, recognizing the communal nature of Communion – our inherent connectedness with all Christians of every time and every place. We are part of the one body of Christ. Discerning the body involves a constant process of asking God to widen our circle of who we discern as part of the body of Christ – beyond ourselves, beyond our church, beyond our personal preferences, beyond our denomination, beyond our politics, beyond our race, beyond our nation, beyond our time.

We discern the body when we give ourselves to that which builds up rather than tears down, that which unifies rather than divides, that which heals rather than hurts, that which renews rather than destroys. When we discern the body, we receive worthily.

Blessed, Broken, and Given

In Communion, Jesus took bread, which he said represented his body, and he blessed it. The bread represents his body, and we are members of his body, which means God intends to bless us. Anyone here want to be blessed? Anyone here want God to bless them? I think we all want God to bless us – and what I want you to notice is that blessing comes first – without having to earn it or deserve it, without having to prove that we need it, without anything on our part, God just has already blessed us, is blessing us, and will continue to bless us because that’s who God is. Whether or not we ask for it, whether or not we recognize it, we are blessed.

But blessing is not a destination. It’s not a goal. It’s a starting point. Because after Jesus blessed the bread, his body, he broke it, and he gave it. And so, blessed members of the body of Christ, it is intended that we will be broken and given. Whatever it is that God has blessed us with, we are called to use those things to bless others. To whom much is given, shall much be required. With great privilege comes great responsibility.

Jesus gives us the gift of Communion, and in it, a pattern of blessing, breaking, and giving. We give ourselves in the same way to the world. As we say about the bread and wine in the Communion liturgy, “Make them be for us the body of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ.” The call, for we who find ourselves blessed, is to allow ourselves to be broken and given, not for our own purposes, but so that Christ may revealed through us.

Here’s what I’ve found. Having been blessed by God, and then giving myself to be broken and given by God, leads to further blessing. And from there, the cycle begins all over again – blessing, breaking, giving, blessing, breaking, giving. It has led me to the realization that I am not my own, but God’s. It has led to me the realization that I am not, first and foremost, an individual, but a member of something larger than me. It has led to the realization that I am connected, through Christ, to brothers and sisters the world over, and every time we come to this table, it’s like a great big family reunion.

In Holy Communion, Christ is present and giving away grace, empowering and equipping us to live the sort of lives that constantly reflect God’s love. The body of Christ is blessed, broken, and given; we are blessed, broken, and given. That is our call.

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