Pentecost XII (O. T. 21); August 27, 2017
I Corinthians 11:17-34
When Kathleen and I travel, we always try to go to worship on Sunday, the Lord's Day. When we were in Hilton Head two weeks ago, we went to the First Presbyterian Church and had a wonderful experience. We feel most engaged in a community experience of God when we are at a Presbyterian Church where the liturgy makes sense, the preaching is good, and the people sing the hymns as though they mean them. Hilton Head First Presbyterian had all three. On top of that, they had folks who expressed genuine gladness that we were there.
But sometimes, when we're in a place where we don't know the church or when we don't feel like taking a risk, we'll find an Episcopal church. We prefer to go to a Presbyterian Church, but sometimes you end up with a challenging experience. In an Episcopal Church you have no guarantee that the preaching will be good, although it often is, and you have no guarantee that the people will sing the hymns as though they mean them. But you are guaranteed that you will be offered the Body and Blood of Christ.
The Christian Church in Corinth had a lot of issues; one of them was their abuse of the Lord's Supper. We can be grateful that they were abusive of the Lord's Supper, or we would never have known Paul's thoughts on the matter. Most of what he writes is pretty straightforward, isn't it? When I read it, you probably didn't have too many issues with understanding what he was getting at, except maybe at two places.
When Paul suggested that their abuse of the Lord's Supper was the reason so many of them got sick and died, you may have asked, "What's up with that?" Yeah, so did I. I frankly find it very hard to accept that failing to practice the Sacrament properly is fatal, so I suspect Paul was going out on a limb and then cutting it off while he was still sitting on it. Let's just say that in Paul's mind, proper celebration of the Lord's Supper is serious business. I'm good with that.
The other thing that you might have tripped over was when he said that all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves (v. 29). You might scratch your head and ask, "What does that mean?" Well, I'm not going to talk about the judgment - that's where he suggests that failing to discern the body might strike you dead - but let's consider what it means to discern the body when we participate in the Lord's Supper. And I've got some stories to tell you.
Given the major abuses Paul describes in Corinth, I think one meaning is obvious: if you think communion is between you and Jesus, then you are abusing the Lord's Supper and are eating and drinking judgment against yourself. It's not personal; it's communal. You can't take communion and forget that you are part of a body, the body of Christ all around you. What was the major abuse Paul complained about? That the Christians in Corinth would get together for their holy supper, and all the well-off people had way too much to eat and drink and then the working poor showed up and there was nothing left for them. Oh, maybe you didn't know: this ritual in which we take just a tiny morsel of bread and a sip of wine - well, it should be wine, not grape juice - anyway that ritual meal is not what they did in Corinth. They had dinner together and celebrated the ritual as part of it. Well, that's what they did in theory; in practice the well-off ate and drank heartily and the poor got the leftovers.
The Lord's Supper isn't just about you and it isn't even about you and Jesus; it's about us and about us and Jesus. We are the body of Christ and if you fail to pay attention to the fact that you are part of a community of believers with our gifts and quirks and possibilities and hangups then you eat and drink judgment on yourself. Discern the body.
The Church I attended when I was in college was a wonderful, progressive Congregational Church. We had three services every Sunday: there was a beautiful traditional Congregational service in the Sanctuary (I sang in the choir), a real laid-back round-table sort of service in the lounge, and a communion service in the Chapel. That was when I learned how important the Lord's Supper is and when I got accustomed to communion every Sunday. I miss that, by the way, and everyone who has ever been accustomed to communion with the body of Christ every Sunday has told me they miss it when they don't have it anymore.
Anyway, one Sunday at the communion service our Pastor was giving the invitation to the Table when one of the members called out, "Is it possible to feel unworthy to take communion?" Park was shaken to be interrupted, but he recovered and answered wisely, "I think we're all unworthy." I don't remember whether she took communion that day or not, but I remember his answer. We come to the Table because we are part of the Body and Christ invites us, not because we are worthy.
My old friend Daneen told me another communion story that I remember. She was a Lutheran and very active in her church. As often happens, she and another woman who was also very active had a serious breach… misunderstanding… okay, they were fighting. Anyway, they fought until they quit speaking to each other. I don't remember what they had fought about. But on a Sunday, when it was time for the communion, Daneen walked up the center aisle to receive the bread and the wine. She was wrapped into her own thoughts, not discerning the body. Then as she got to the front and it was her turn, she did look around, and saw that right next to her was her adversary. The two women looked at each other, started weeping, took communion and then went off and were reconciled to each other.
Discern the body; we are the body. That's one thing Paul means. But I think he means the other thing, the one you may have thought of: discern Jesus' body and blood in the bread and the wine. To come to the communion is to come to Jesus Christ, to want to have dinner with him, to know that this is an occasion of solemn joy: deeply holy and at the same time as ordinary as toast and jelly. So the communion is indeed about Jesus; but it isn't about you or me alone and Jesus. We come together to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Yeah, that's weird, and I'm not going into the theology of it. I want to tell some more stories. I wish I remembered the name of the woman at Holy Angels Church who is the hero of this story. I'll call her Teresa, but I don't think that's her name. I should remember, because she gave me a beautiful Bible in Spanish when we moved away from that town. I started going to Holy Angels Church for a weekday Mass because the priest and I were friends and because I was really missing my weekly communion. Since my Presbyterian churches had communion only once a month, I went weekly to a Catholic Church for Mass.
Anyway, I remember that we were taking the communion, going up the aisle to where Father Harry was giving us the bread and a Eucharistic minister gave us the wine. Teresa was the last person in line. Just before she communed, Father Harry ran out of bread. Now, what might you or I do? Quietly sit down and shrug our shoulders? Oh, well, there's always next week. Maybe gripe about poor planning. I have a vivid memory of Teresa - or whatever her name was - standing alone in the front of that church, patiently waiting, while Father Harry went and got the key to the Tabernacle, unlocked it, got out some consecrated hosts, and gave Teresa communion. She had come to church to commune with her Lord, by gum, and so she waited patiently for the priest to serve her as she needed.
And this story: a dream Kathleen had many years ago. She knows that when I preach a sermon on communion I am likely to tell this story. She dreamed she was in a church where we were having communion and were serving at the front. People came up the center aisle, where the elder tore off a piece of bread and handed it to you. Kathleen got to the front, held out her hand, and the elder tore off a piece. She looked at it, then looked at the elder and said, "I want more. I want more of Jesus Christ."
I want more; I want more of Jesus Christ and I want more of you. Communion together with Jesus Christ: that is what it means to discern the body. It is solemn because we hold in our hands the power that created the stars and the starfish; it is a joy because God offers it to us freely, however unworthy we are.
Once I took communion to Margaret in the Alzheimer's unit of our local Presbyterian home. She had been the first woman ordained as an elder in that church and she had been a force of nature. I didn't know her then; I knew her only as a lady with Alzheimer's, a lady who seemed to think that I had gone to college with her husband (who was forty years my senior). But once I took her communion and I started to say those words that we read from I Corinthians: "I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed…" and right about there Margaret started to say the words with me. She said all the Words of Institution with me, right to the end.
She was truly an elder of the Church; she knew the Church's practices and she knew the Church's words deep in her gut. As other memories were leaving her, she still had that one: This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood, shed for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
I don't know how well Margaret discerned the body or much of anything, but in that moment she taught me something vital. I discerned the body. I held the body of Christ in my hand; and I was looking at the body of Christ in the bed in front of me.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master