February 2, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
FAITH PRACTICES: COMMUNION
I Corinthians 11:17-26
The fourth in a series of five.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever had? If you’re like me, you have a few to choose from. Quite a few.
I have the advantage of having had some time to think about this, so I’ll go first. I actually talked this over with Helen. We zeroed in on a meal we enjoyed 42 years ago on Valentine’s Day.
I had finally gotten up the courage to pop the question, but she didn’t know that. She had an evening chemistry class, which she wasn’t very happy about. It seemed to spoil any Valentine’s Day plans we may have had. But I had a plan of my own.
I met her at the college and suggested she dress for a night out. I took her to McDonald’s. You think I’m kidding, but I actually pulled into the McDonald’s parking lot, parked, and shut off the engine. She stared at me with a look of annoyed bewilderment. I looked back at her and said, “What?” They were having a two for one sale on Big Macs after all.
That could have ended our evening right then but she already had accepted the fact that I was a goofball. I drove out of the McDonald’s parking lot and took her to the Red Lion, Jantzen Beach. I had a table reserved overlooking the Columbia River. We don’t remember what we ordered. We agree it was an amazing meal. We both remember the “salad captain.” He wheeled a cart over to us and prepared our salads to order right at our table. Then after dinner, sitting on our special log on the beach, with a view of the blue and lavender lights of the Red Lion reflecting on the water from the Washington side of the river, I asked Helen if she would marry me. She said “yes.”
That was a meal about love. But actually all meals are about love. Or they should be. When we share a meal, it’s not just the food. It helps if the food is good, but I don’t think the memorable meal that came to your mind was probably a meal you ate by yourself, however good the food may have been. You remember the food but mostly you remember whoever it was you shared the meal with. Meals are about love. They are about relationship. They are about connection. They are about belonging. Food has an amazing way of bringing people together.
Oscar Wilde said that after a good dinner you can forgive anybody. The truth is it takes more than just any good dinner. It takes a particular one – the one we are going to be talking about this morning and then sharing in together about twenty minutes from now. Give or take.
This is the fourth in a series of five sermons on faith practices. Communion is one of the oldest practices of the Christian church. And it relates to something much older. All through the Bible significant moments are marked with special meals.
When the birthright was passed from one generation to another, there would be a meal. When sacrifices were offered in the Temple, there would be a meal. When Passover was celebrated, there would be a meal.
And in the New Testament, also. Jesus was always eating. He’s at the home of Simon the Pharisee. They’re having a meal. He’s at the home of Mary and Martha. They’re having a meal. He invites himself to the home of that tax collector named Zacchaeus. They have a meal.
You see, something special happens when you share a meal with Jesus. Not just when you hear a sermon, or when you pray a prayer, or when you sing a hymn, but when you share a meal.
And the most significant meal Jesus ever shared was the night before he died. His disciples thought it was just the traditional Passover meal. They thought they were going to celebrate what God did back then. Little did they know that they were going to celebrate what God was about to do.
There was bread, representing his body. There was wine, representing his blood. And there were these words: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Do this. This is a faith practice. It’s not something we talk about, even though that’s what we’re doing for the next few minutes. It’s something we do.
Christians have talked about it plenty. And debated. And disagreed. But your theory about what happens in communion isn’t really all that important. What’s important is that you “do this.” We’re going to. As soon as I get done talking.
Our scripture this morning may have been confusing. Paul is writing about communion. But instead of offering a few lovely devotional thoughts, he is giving the Corinthian Christians some remedial instructions. Because he’s not happy with how they have botched this simple, sacred meal.
In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In 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. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter! (I Corinthians 11:17-22).
It’s a tough message. Last week we talked about how important worship is. But Paul is telling these people that their worship is doing more harm than good. And it has to do with communion. Let me see if we can understand what was going on that had Paul so unhappy.
They weren’t meeting in churches back then. They were meeting in homes. There would be a table. And where you sat at that table was a big deal. This came up with Jesus, too. His disciples fought over who got to sit where. And Jesus had to keep telling them not to worry about it.
Corinth was a very status conscious place. If you were considered a very important person, you would get the best seat at the table and you would get to eat and drink to your heart’s content while everyone else was starving outside, hoping to get in. If they were lucky, they got the leftovers. If they weren’t so lucky, they got nothing.
As I think of what we might compare this to in our day, I think of the college admissions scandal. The rich and famous were bribing coaches and admissions counselors to get their children into the most prestigious schools. And they were taking places that would have gone to children from less prominent families.
It’s wrong. And what was happening in Corinth was wrong. No one should get special treatment. Everyone should have a fair chance. Why? Because it’s the right way to treat people? Yeah. But why is it the right way to treat people? Because God loves everyone just the same. There is no higher. There is no lower. We are all equally beloved children of God.
And so a few verses after we stopped reading, we come to this verse: “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself” (11:29). What does it mean, “without discerning the body of the Lord”? If you’ve been here the last few weeks you know. We are the body of Christ. That’s the New Testament name for the church. It’s an “us.” It’s not a “me.” So in other words, communion is not meant to be a private, personal moment between me and God. Because it’s never just me and God. It’s always us and God. So in a few minutes, as we come to this communion table, be aware of each other. You are part of a body. Part of a community. And be aware of whatever might be infecting this body, this community, in an unhealthy way. Prejudice. Judgmentalism. Self-righteousness. Selfishness. Not enough love. Not enough grace. Not enough forgiveness.
So what do we do when we discover that we might be infected by pathogens like these? How do we get rid of them? How do we get well? We go to the doctor. The Great Physician. Jesus. He is our hope. That’s what Paul tells the Corinthians:
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In 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.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (11:23-26).
We proclaim his death. But that’s not where it ends. We proclaim his death “until he comes.” We call it the Last Supper. We should call it the First Supper. It’s the first meal that foreshadows the way it will be Christ returns to set things right. It foreshadows the way things will be. It also invites us to enter into what is possible now. In these three simple ways.
1) At this Table, there is a place for everyone. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, what you’ve believed, who you were in the past. You are welcome here. There was a place at the first communion table for Judas. He got up and left early, but Jesus wanted him there. Jesus excluded no one. This is a meal of sheer grace, total acceptance, unconditional love. That wasn’t the way it was at Corinth. That’s what set Paul off. But that’s the way it is here. There is a place at this table for you.
2) At this Table, everyone is a work in progress. If you aren’t – if you have it all together, all figured out, and you don’t have any faults or weaknesses, you are still welcome at this communion table. Because Jesus loves delusional people, too. But I’m pretty sure the Bible has it right. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The good news is that Jesus died for sinners like us.
That verse says, “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death . . . “We don’t proclaim our own goodness or self-sufficiency or that we are better than others or better than we really are. We “proclaim the Lord’s death,” because without that death we are dead in our sins.
We are all works in progress, which is a nice way to say we are all sinners. But there is forgiveness at this Table.
Remember Peter, who denied his Lord three times. Jesus forgave him. And remember how? He didn’t just say the words. He invited Peter to a meal. That fish breakfast on the shore at the Sea of Galilee. Peter and Jesus ate together. They talked. It got personal. It got specific. That’s how meals with Jesus work. You can hide in a church. You can’t hide at this Table. This is a meal for people who are broken and who know it.
3) At this Table, there is no “them.” At the very end of our passage, this is what Paul says: “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together” (11:33). The point is we are all on one level at the foot of the cross. The haves with the have-nots, the poor next to the prominent, black next to white next to brown, the uneducated with the educated, the older generation with the next generation. Not just as people who happen to go to the same church, but as people called together by the same host, as friends sharing the same table, because at this Table, there is no “them.” There is only “us. People deeply loved and deeply broken, all in need of grace.
It’s almost time. Just one more story. It’s a modern version of a very old story. The Prodigal Son. Except in this case it is a Prodigal Daughter. At the end of every prodigal story there is always a meal.
Philip Yancey tells this story in his book What’s So Amazing About Grace? A young girl in Traverse City, Michigan runs away from home. She makes it to Detroit. 250 miles. She meets an older man who is very nice to her. He gives her a ride, buys her lunch, finds a place for her to stay, gives her pills that make her feel better than she has ever felt before. He even gives her a job. She isn’t a prostitute. She is an escort. That sounds better. But it’s the same thing.
She’s underage, which means men pay a premium for her. She lives in a penthouse. She orders room service. She thinks about her parents back home once in awhile, but not very often.
After about a year of this, the signs appear that she needs to see a doctor. She tells her boss, and before she knows it she is out on the street without a penny to her name. She survives by turning tricks, but on the street they never pay much, some don’t pay at all, and whatever she gets goes to support her drug habit.
Winters are cold in Detroit. She sleeps on metal grates outside department stores. She no longer feels like a woman of the world. She feels like a little girl, lost in a cold, frightening city. She begins to whimper. Her pockets are empty. She is hungry. She needs a fix. She shivers under the newspapers piled on top of her coat.
“God, why did I leave?” she says to herself. She is sobbing. She knows that more than anything she wants to go home. Three straight phone calls, three times she gets voice mail. The third time she leaves a message. She says: “Dad, Mom, it’s me. I was wondering about maybe coming home. I’m catching a bus up your way. It’ll get there about midnight tomorrow. If you’re not there, well, I guess I’ll just stay on the bus . . . “
There are lots of stops between Detroit and Traverse City. It takes seven hours. So she has lots of time to think about the flaws in her plan. What if her parents didn’t get the message? What if they did get the message, but they want nothing to do with her? What do they do to people who have no place to go when their bus fare runs out?
The bus stops. The driver announces they have fifteen minutes. She walks down the steps. She enters the terminal. She is shaking. The first thing she notices is a huge banner that says, “Welcome home!” Then she recognizes members of her family, about 40 of them. They are wearing goofy party hats and blowing noise-makers.
Her dad steps forward and embraces her. She starts to apologize, but he interrupts her. “We don’t have time for that. You’ll be late for the party. There is a banquet waiting for you at home” (pages 49-51).
At the end of every prodigal story, there is a meal. And meals are about love. Especially this meal that awaits us now.
We come to your Table, Lord Jesus. We come not because of our goodness, but because of your grace. We come not as solitary individuals, but as your body, the church. We come not because we understand how this meal feeds us, but because we feel the hunger. We come in remembrance of what you have done, and also in anticipation of what you will do. Bless each of us and all of us as we join now in Holy Communion. We come in your name, Lord Jesus. Amen.