From middle school to the Middle East, most of us, most of the time, like to know who is more important, and how we can be that. We guess and compare and rank, and pretend we’re not doing it. But in Corinth, there was no guessing, everybody knew. There was no vagueness about people’s ranking and value – it was very clearly delineated, and everyone knew their place. They lived these distinctions and divisions right out loud, as though they were unequivocally true. Some people simply mattered more than others. Nobody disputed that.
Until this Jesus Christ message came to town. And then, in the shadow of overwhelming and intentional inequality, this little congregation forms. And in defiance of all accepted wisdom and practice, this little community weirdly welcomes in all- rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, Gentile and Jew, it says - the Spirit works in and through each person and all contribute to the whole – we need each other, and everyone here is a valuable part of the Body of Christ.
And when each one comes in, they are baptized – brought through death into new life, symbolically dying with Christ and rising into his reality of intimate connection to God and everyone else, so that it washes the grip of the old life right off of them and gives them this concrete moment to look back on and say THAT. That happened. That brought me into the real, and all these people saw it. And I don’t have to live like what’s true out there really IS true, I can live the truer truth. I am God’s beloved child. And so are they. That is who we really are.
But when the time comes to gather for worship, and host the meal – whose house do they go to?
Well, it’s only practical that they would go to the home of the wealthier member, the one with enough space for everyone, the one with the staff to make sure things are prepared and the table is set and everything is done right.
And once it’s all ready, who arrives first?
Well, naturally, those with more flexible schedules, more free time, the bosses and upper class folks with servants to tend to them, in other words, those who are not busy laboring in service to others.
So who is it that gets the best dozen or so seats, reclining at the table, and then, once there, who just happens to get a head start on the food and drink, then?
As the rest arrive, gradually filling up the other spaces, sitting and then standing where they can, filling other rooms and the courtyard, eating what is left, one might look at them and conclude that perhaps the divisions and rankings that were true out there actually are true, because they sure look true in here too.
Maybe some lives just do matter more than others.
Maybe there is no disputing that.
Now, these dear people are not overtly trying to treat some better than others, but deep inside, in well-practiced and widely-accepted ways, they have all bought into these lies, and they can’t help operating out of destructive patterns. So that by the time they get to part where they break the bread of life and share the cup of unity, this sacrament resembles the very lies and divisions that Jesus Christ sets us free from.
As serious as this is, and as MAD as Paul sounds, it makes me giggle just a little bit. Because Paul doesn’t hold back, (and I paraphrase):
Look at yourselves; do you want a prize?
I’m sorry, do YOU think you’ve been behaving as you should?
Do you know there are rumors going on about you? Guess what, at this point, I totally believe them.
Please tell me this isn’t true.
Please tell me some of you are not showing up, gorging yourselves, and then like drunken idiots, marginalizing those who come later, who have nothing to eat because you’ve decimated the table before they even arrive?
What?! Your own fridges are empty and you have to come fill up here?
Someone PLEASE tell me you are handling things better than this!
Are you kidding me right now?
Tell you what- I am going to walk you through this one more time, and then I am going to tell you that you had better sit yourself down and take a good hard look inside before you open your mouth and take that first bite.
If you EVER eat this meal, without first looking to your left and right and seeing your sisters and brothers around you, part of you, to whom you are accountable, with whom you are set free, if you ever go plowing into this table again with selfish and self-centered intentions, you are answerable for the very body and blood of Jesus Christ.
You might as well be ripping Jesus apart.
You are making baby Jesus cry.
And then Paul takes a big, deep, parental breath, and his voice gets scary calm, and quiet, and he spells out super clearly and slowly, so there is no mistaking, what exactly happens at the Lord’s Supper.
“The Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread…”
When these exact words are spoken all over the world in all different denominations when people gather to celebrate the Eucharist - we don’t typically think of them being delivered by a fuming Paul to a people who have botched it so badly that they need it carefully spelled out for them.
Paul is asking the people to stop and reflect: Is God the host of this meal? Or are we taking over and changing the rules?
How do we import our prejudices and divisive practices to the very thing God gives us to remind us over and over again that God is the one who claims us and makes us one?
An ironic thing has happened in the church through the centuries since Paul wrote this scathing, sarcastic and frustrated non-commendation of the Corinthians’ appalling behavior at the table. He might as well write us a scathing letter too.
Because in wanting to follow his directive we too have taken over from God as hosts at the table of God’s grace, and turned it into a table of judgment, that reflects our own spoken and unspoken prejudices, divisions and anxieties.
We have turned this sacred moment, when God promises to meet us, into something we withhold from others and ourselves, something we direct and legislate and hoard.
That means, in part, setting up rules about who can take it and who can’t – Kids? Non-members? People who haven’t gone to church in a while? People from other denominations? What about addicts? Divorced people? People who haven’t been to confession or haven’t been baptized?
For me, growing up, examining yourself and making sure you’re worthy before you eat the bread and drink the cup meant to pray and confess everything I could think of, anything I was holding back from God, getting as pure inside as I could, before taking my individual thimble of juice and eating my precut square of bread. In fact, I worked really hard to block out all those sitting around me, to have a just me and God moment, and striving to become good enough, ready, to take it.
But Paul is saying something entirely different. (And again, I paraphrase):
Don’t even eat until you are all there. In fact, if you think you’ll get too hungry, have a snack before you come for crying out loud.
And then examine yourself- Discern the body:
Are we all here? Side by side, together in this moment, where God will meet us?
Are we seeing one another as sister and brother?
Are we remembering, after all, whose we are? That our lives are intricately bound up with each other’s and nobody comes to this table in isolation?
Are we in any way disregarding or dismissing those Christ has bound us together with? Treating anyone as less than? Seeing our own selves as more or less deserving to be here than anyone else?
OK, then, now let’s eat. Let’s serve one another.
Let’s hold the bread and lift the cup and acknowledge that as broken as we are right now, and when we go back out that door into a broken world, we need a broken savior, who takes on all that brokenness, and by his death and resurrection, makes us whole. A savior who holds in front of us this promise, embodied right now in this imperfect and weak gathering of imperfect and weak people, and that one day we will all be one, with no division and no ranking, no separation and no selfishness.
This is not an exclusive club for the exempt and example.
This is the very body of the blessed, broken and given.
Here, at this table, there is no distinction between better or worse, more or less valued, holier or highter. Here we all come sinners in need of forgiveness, and we all come as saints participating with God in the salvation of the world.
This is Jesus’ table – and he invites all to eat.
God, who can meet us anywhere, promises to meet us at this table, and in the act of baptism, what we call “sacraments,” – times when the community gathers to share these holy actions, an imperfect and messy group of us, claiming to be more than the sum of our parts, claiming in fact to be the very Body of Jesus Christ.
And then we obey, we break that bread and drink that cup, we pour that water on each other and we witness this truth – that we belong to God, and we belong to each other.
It takes the community to do that. It takes all kinds, not just one. It takes children and old people, and people in their middle years, and it takes people who the world says are less than, and people who swallow the idea that they are better than, and it takes those who look to others like successes and those who look to others like failures, and it takes ones who are different than me to reflect my humanity back to me, and I to them, as we are the Body of Christ.
Today we get to participate in both the sacraments, because in addition to communion, we get to baptize little Robby. We will say over him that the most true thing about him is this identity and belonging: beloved child of God.
And even though he wont get what’s happening, really, here is some of what we witness.
Robby, – while we don’t know what will come in your life, we do know a few generalities:
you will suffer, you will have sorrow and pain,
you will have deep and beautiful friendships and feel love.
You will wonder who you are and be filled with doubt and darkness.
You will do things you regret and be filled with shame.
You will experience forgiveness and hope.
You will discover what makes you feel alive, make you feel like you are contributing.
You will dream and scheme.
You will let people down that you love very much.
YOU will be let down by those who love you very much.
You will do things that make you proud and satisfied.
You will see things that make you disillusioned and afraid.
And through it all – you will continue belonging to God.
And through it all – nothing will separate you from the love of God.
And through it all – you will be invited to live with a wide-open heart to others, beloved sisters and brothers.
And here, in this body of broken people, you are welcomed into the house of the honest who say:
Sin gets me too! I believe the lies and trust the fake promises. I perpetuate the divisions too, and I can be shockingly, shamefully, selfish and self-centered.
But when I come here, I have to see you. Next to me. Part of me. And that helps me remember that out there everyone else is next to me too and part of me too. And here I have to be accountable for my words and actions, and I can’t receive the body of Christ without receiving you, my sister, my bother, beloved child of God, claimed and blessed, forgiven and set free.
And so we welcome you, Robby, to this table today.
Where Jesus does soomething powerful and life-giving, when friends and strangers gather to say there is another reality and it’s the one that claims us.
We will allow ourselves to be defined and set apart by this practice of tearing up bread and eating it and passing it to each other and saying it connects us to God and fills us up for the work of God. Because it does.
From this table God sends us out into this world run not by fear but by love, bound not by apprehension and hesitation, but by trust and connection, sent with a purpose and held by something truer than the lies and division we soak in from the world around us.
We are God’s people.
(That doesn’t mean the rest of the world isn’t God’s people- let’s not import division into this!).
Being God’s people means that our very identity and calling is to live out the truth that we all belong to God and we all belong to each other, so that we can embody this reality in, with, and for the rest of the world.
Beloved, broken, blessed and given.
That is what it is to be the Body of Christ.