By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Britt and I were assigned to a cooperative parish for our first church assignment out of seminary. As Lent and Easter rolled around, we were excited about leading worship. One evening, during a planning meeting, we made a remark about communion on Easter morning. The zealous response blew us away. “Communion on Easter,” a gentleman exclaimed in an angry voice. “Communion is about Jesus’ death. It’s sad and somber. And we don’t want people sad on Easter.” He was dead serious.
And it is true that communion recalls Jesus’ final meal with his disciples. But is that really all that communion is about? It may interest you to know that likely the oldest existing written instruction regarding communion is not our gospels, but the passage I read this morning from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth. In it, Paul references Jesus’ final meal with his disciples. But if you were in worship a couple weeks ago, you might recall me preaching a sermon in which I talked about the relationship of content and context. And the Lord’s Supper – as it is recounted in our gospels and in Corinthians – does not take place in a vacuum. It has a much broader context: the context of what it was like to break bread in the ancient world.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus says that he has eagerly desired to celebrate his final Passover meal with his disciples. In fact, throughout the gospels, Jesus seems to love eating with his friends. And, truth be told, some of those friends were pretty sketchy. Jesus loved to party. He admits that others criticize him as a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”[i] His overall eagerness to eat and celebrate with dubious folks earned him quite the reputation. In fact, some bible scholars have said it was Jesus’ dining habits that got him killed. You see, table fellowship in our gospels and throughout the early church was about community – diverse, sometimes downright offensive community.
And that gospel message was a tough sell in places like first-century Corinth, where dinner parties were broadly used to reinforce the social pecking order. In ancient Corinth, it was the norm for a banquet to take place during which the wealthy and socially significant ate food of a greater quality and quantity than others at the very same banquet who were of a lower social stature. Most of us can recall having to sit at the kid’s table at holiday meals. But at least we knew we’d outgrow that.
It’s important for us to be aware that, just as we’ll do this morning, in the early Church, Holy Communion was part of a meal. Within just a few minutes of our celebrating holy communion this morning, we’ll be sitting around on this lawn continuing to celebrate as we eat quiche and cupcakes. And this melding together of meal and sacrament created a real challenge in the ancient world. As I’ve said, in that culture, banquets were generally a socially segregated experience whereas communion was about integration, unity and fellowship. It’s a tough problem for Paul to address. Yet, he’s not about to avoid addressing it – in part, because he was Paul who never ran from a fight; but, also, because it was so important. And we can see why in verse 26, where Paul writes, “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” In other words, the way in which we eat – the way in which we worship and fellowship together, the way we do life together – becomes a proclamation of the gospel: who Jesus is and what he did for us and with us. How we commune, worship, fellowship, do community together presents a pattern for how the disciples of Jesus live together in community in that time between Jesus’ death and his final coming at the end of time. The way we live together preaches Jesus. And the heart of this gospel message can be found in another of Paul’s letters to the Philippians, in an early Church hymn Paul quotes about Jesus’ willingness to empty himself, to take on human form (and a peasant at that) and to embrace the most humiliating death for our benefit. Friends: Jesus’ willingness to surrender his place in the cosmic pecking order is what saves us. His willingness to embrace a brutal, humiliating death leads to resurrection and to him being proclaimed Lord of all.
So, with all our flaws and faults, we are welcomed into the presence of God because Jesus’ death creates a new social dynamic, a new social experience. We need not feel shame because Jesus stepped into a place of incredible shame on our behalf. In 1st century Palestine, crucifixion was the most shameful way to die. And that place of shame led to Jesus’ glory. His death creates a new social dynamic. Jesus completely transforms our relationship with God and with each other. His actions to remove shame and social divisions is what allows us – in fact, compels us – to celebrate. And so, when we celebrate Holy Communion, we’re not just sad about Jesus dying. We rejoice because through his death – and through all the meals he ever ate – Jesus broke down the walls of shame and judgment and division.
This morning is an important day for us at Trinity. We’ve all been longing to get back to normal – to eat with others and just hang out, devoid of masks and fear. But today is something more than that. During COVID, we added people to our membership rolls without properly celebrating the blessing of their presence. We added people to our staff without properly celebrating their spiritual gifts and their commitment. We’ve baptized without a big celebration that our family is growing.
Now, I know this morning was a lot of work – and I want to give a shout out to the folks who helped set up and get it all organized. It can be inconvenient to drag chairs out on the lawn and put up tents or set up everything in the GREAT Room, to sign people up to bring side dishes. It’s a lot of extra work that goes into our fellowship events. But they aren’t just meals or special events. They are a form of gospel proclamation. When we eat together; when we share common food and common space, when we share conversation and fellowship that transcends our social, economic, and cultural differences, we become a living proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We demonstrate the good news of Jesus; that it doesn’t matter how much money you have, if you live in a big family with kids and a dog or are single in a studio apartment, whether you have a prominent position in our community or struggle to make ends meet. When we come together – on this lawn, in our sanctuary, in the GREAT and fellowship hall – none of those differences matter. We become one body of people, the Body of Christ: eating the same thing, in the same place, sharing in the same table talk… just like Jesus (and Paul) intended. It doesn’t really matter how many things about us might be different. What matters is the one thing we share in common: Jesus.
[i] Matthew 11:19.
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