Tuesday, May 26th
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 the 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 against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come.
–I Corinthians 11:17-34
One of the things that I think we have missed most during this pandemic is the loss of family gatherings. Easter, Mother’s Day, graduations, and other events during this time have traditionally been occasions for folks to come together and over a shared meal reminisce about being family. The early church did that as a survival technique, coming together for nourishment – physical and spiritual. The primary component at these gatherings was the Lord’s Supper, also known as communion or eucharist. It was a time of remembering what matters most. It was first mentioned in the writings of the Christian community by Paul who, ironically enough, wasn’t even present when Jesus instituted this meal of memory. Therefore, Paul’s recounting was remarkable, because he was either sharing the practice of the meal that had become the hallmark in Christian gatherings, or this was one of those mystical encounters that he had with the Risen Christ. After all, he said that he had “received it from the Lord.”
Paul had founded the church in this thriving metropolis of Corinth, the epitome of a Roman city with its abundant temples and shrines to various gods. (Modern excavation has documented shrines to Apollo, Asclepius, Aphrodite, Demeter, Poseidon, Isis and Serapis, the Great Mother, Artemis, and Helios, among others.) We learned earlier that Corinth was located on a narrow strip of land between the Adriatic Sea and the Aegean Sea, and Corinthian merchants amassed great wealth charging vast sums of money to transfer ships’ cargo overland from one sea to another. Scholars estimate that there were 400,000 slaves in Corinth at the time of Paul’s visit. The slaves were the human underpinning for industry, the temple brothel systems, and the luxurious lifestyle of the Roman citizens. It was to this wide cultural and societal disparity that Paul wrote.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is perhaps the most representative of all of his letters to the churches. It combines an intimacy with the members as well as instructive theology. Along with his traveling companions, Silas and Timothy, Paul created a most vibrant Christian community. It was here that he became acquainted with a couple who became valued colleagues in the faith – Priscilla and Aquila. Paul had a close relationship with this congregation, so much so, that after he left they wrote him letters about the problems in the church. Paul’s response is a marvelous description of what life was like in a first-century church. The church generally met in private homes of those wealthy enough to provide for the meetings. Normally, those with higher status received better seating and food indoors, with slaves and those of lower rank sitting outdoors in an adjoining atrium. In this portion of his letter, Paul points out that they’re continuing to enjoy their social/class distinctions in the church, which was the opposite of being “one body in Christ.” The letter is also vintage Pauline in that the people of Corinth were asking for practical solutions to their problems, and Paul responds in a theological way. His instruction for communion is a good example of that.
I particularly enjoy Eugene Peterson’s description of Corinth in his preliminary remarks to the letter in his marvelous translation of Scripture, The Message: When people become Christians, they don’t at the same moment become nice. This always comes as something of a surprise. Conversion to Christ and His ways doesn’t automatically furnish a person with impeccable manners and suitable morals. The people of Corinth had a reputation in the ancient world as an unruly, hard-drinking, sexually promiscuous bunch of people. When Paul arrived with the Good News of Jesus Christ and many of them became believers in Jesus, they brought their reputations with them right into the church. Paul spent a year and a half with them as their pastor, going over the Good News in detail, showing them how to live out this new life of salvation and holiness as a community of believers. Then he went on his way to other towns and churches. Sometime later Paul received a report from one of the Corinthian families that in his absence things had more or less fallen apart. He also received a letter from Corinth asking for help. Factions had developed, morals were in disrepair, worship had degenerated into a selfish grabbing for the supernatural. It was the kind of thing that might have been expected from Corinthians! Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is a classic of pastoral response: affectionate, firm, clear and unswerving in the conviction that God among them, revealed in Jesus and present in His Holy Spirit, continued to be the central issue in their lives, regardless of how much of a mess they made of things. Paul doesn’t disown them as brother and sister Christians, doesn’t throw them out because of their bad behavior, and doesn’t fly into a tirade of their irresponsible ways. He takes it all more or less in stride, but also takes them by the hand and reminds them once again about how God’s love should teach them how to love each other appropriately.
Paul, in an ingenious way, took on the factionalizing problems that were taking place in Corinth and reminded the believers of who and whose they truly were. Fred Craddock tells of a time when he learned that. He had been asked to deliver a series of lectures in Winnipeg, Canada. As he prepared to go, he had asked his host what he needed to bring. The host replied, “It’s really nice right now. Fall is pleasant here. Travel light.” Dr. Craddock did. He was to be there for the weekend, and after his Friday night lecture he returned to his cabin when the sky began to spit snowflakes. His host said, “Don’t worry. That happens occasionally. No big deal.” The next morning Craddock woke up and couldn’t get his door open because of the snow — two or three feet of it. His host called apologetically and said, “The snow surprised all of us. Everything is shut down. No snow plows. No service. Nothing. We won’t be able to have the lectures today. In fact, I won’t even be able to get to you for breakfast. If you can get out there is a diner at the bus station. Go to the corner and turn right.” Fred said that he was chagrined by it all, worried that he might not get out of Winnipeg until the spring thaw. And he was angry because he hadn’t brought proper clothing. His walk to the bus station cooled him off. In fact, he was freezing because of his light clothing. Inside he was simmering, wondering when he was going to get home. He found the bus station, and the diner was what you might expect . . . gray and grimy. He pushed his way in and couldn’t spot an empty table anywhere. Some people in a booth saw his plight and said, “Come on over here. We can squeeze another one in.” Fred did, not knowing a soul. The owner of the diner came over in an apron that hadn’t been washed in a while, greasy, grimy, filthy. Dr. Craddock asked for a menu and the owner said, “We have soup.” And Craddock said, “Soup. Soup for breakfast. Great.” The man brought him a bowl of soup, gray soup. Fred said that he could only imagine the color of a gray mouse. He didn’t eat the soup but curled his fingers around the bowl for warmth. In a few moments the door opened and everyone said, “Close the door, it’s cold.” A woman came in. She was fortyish and had no hat and a thin coat. She pushed the door closed and stood there, shaking the snow from her hair. The booth next to Fred’s squeezed together and said, “You can come over here.” She did. The greasy-aproned waiter came over and asked, “What do you want to eat?” She said, “Just a glass of water.” “What do you want to eat?” You can’t have just a glass of water. If you want to stay in here, you’ll need to buy something. If not, out you go.” The woman’s eyes gave her away. She looked down and got ready to leave. As she stood to leave, so did her table, and every table with her. Everyone in the diner got up to move. Craddock said he really didn’t think about it, but when his table began to get up, so did he. The owner looked around, and then he said, “Soup’s on the house for you.” And everyone sat back down. Fred asked the people at his table, “Who is she?” Collectively, they shrugged their shoulders and said, “We don’t know, but if she’s not welcome here, ain’t nobody welcome.” Everyone turned to their soup and all you could hear was the clicking of the spoons on the bowls. Dr. Craddock said that when everyone had been re-seated, he took his bowl of soup and tasted it. Not bad. In fact, he noted that he had tasted something like this before. Yep, he said, that gray soup tasted a lot like bread and wine.
I look forward to the time when we can all come together and share a meal. In the meantime, I’m going to celebrate communion in a virtual way and remember Jesus, who made the table a place of grace. And I’ll remember you, too, as the expression of grace you are. Please pass the bread and the wine this direction . . .
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
What are your favorite memories of times around the family table? …around church tables? Give thanks for times together.
Anglican priest John Stott wrote: “It is my conviction that our heavenly Father says the same to us every day. ‘My dear child, you must always remember who you are.’” How do we acknowledge that in the daily saying of grace and in the Lord’s Supper?
Consider the ways in which the celebration of communion guides us: backward (in remembrance), forward (in future hope), inward ( in self-examination), outward (to the world), and beyond (to divine mystery). Give thanks for those gifts.
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Denise Levertov’s “Primary Wonder”
Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insolvable . . . jostle for my attention . . .
a host of diversions, my courtiers. . . .
And then once more the quiet mystery is present to me,
the throng’s clamor recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord, Creator, Hallowed One,
You still, hour by hour, sustain it.