Sara Miles in her book, “Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion,” tells a remarkable story. Sara was 46 when she first entered a church and took communion for the first time. She described her life as “thoroughly secular,” and was, for the most part appalled by religion. “However, ” she writes, “Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagine.”
This act of eating and passing the elements compelled Sara to find new ways of sharing her experience. So she started a food pantry and gave away fruits and vegetables and cereal from that church, indeed from the same altar where she had her first communion. She organized pantries all over her city which provided hundreds and hundreds of meals to hungry families.
She writes, “Mine is a personal story of an unexpected and terribly inconvenient Christian conversion, told by a very unlikely convert: a blue-state, secular intellectual; a lesbian; a left wing journalist with a habit of skepticism.” She is still all those things and she loves Jesus.
Sara intuitively gets what Paul was trying to share with the Christians of Corinth so long ago.
Unfortunately, in Corinth, Paul sees something less than the unity that is expected at the table of Jesus Christ. There are divisions among the believers, and these divisions are being made manifest – they’re being lived out – at the communion table.
Now there are some details that you need to understand before we get too far ahead of ourselves.
- Corinth was Paul’s first church in Greece founded in the early 50’s – this is not even 20 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. There are no separate church buildings, yet – the early Christians met in houses.
We don’t know much about the focus of early gospel preaching – it probably wasn’t about Jesus’ teachings or virgin birth or any of that. More likely, it was the reality that the Christ who died has been raised and we experienced it. And in verse 23, Paul kind of gives out what he preached and what was foundational:
“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed (or a better translation is “handed over” for there is no mention of Judas here and the Greek is the same word used for “handed on” ) took a loaf of bread.”
This is really early tradition. This brings us back into the middle of the first century of the Christian era. The sacrament of the Lord’s supper was the central act of Christian identity.
What was so compelling about Christianity in the first century was its apparent abolition of any distinctions based on status, or rank or wealth. Truly “slaves” could lead churches and women were in positions of authority. I know that there are some verses in Paul that would suggest otherwise, but the preponderance of the evidence shows clearly that the message of Jesus Christ in fact turned over the social status quo. Christianity was a radical re-ordering the social order of that time.
The strains of a new way of looking at the world, the tensions of acting in a whole new way led to confusion.
In Corinth the wealthy patrons would “host” the gathering. The host and probably the Christians who shared the host’s status and rank would recline at the main table in the dining room (“triclinium”) and the lower status members would gather in the space outside. So you have this inner sanctum of privilege. It was just the way it was and always has been – it was the expected way.
Apparently everyone would bring their food and wine and eat – the communion liturgy was part of that common meal – but some had food and some did not – BYOC (Bring your own communion.) But Paul found this appalling (pun intended!) What Paul believed was central to the Gospel was that there was NO distinction between people and everyone had full access. There was no inner and outer group, there was no “haves” and the “have nots;” there was no “us” and “them“; the age old divisions based on income, social status, rank, race, occupation, privilege, power – were gone.
I hope you are sharing my agitation. In our nation, in our communities, in this church where are the distinctions and divisions that we take for granted? We don’t mean to do it anymore than the Corinthians necessarily meant to do it. I have, the Session has, we all have the best intentions – of that I am sure – but Paul’s words to the Corinthians agitate me to ask the questions: where, among us, are the divisions that shouldn’t be there? Where are the inner sanctuaries that only a few have access? To whom do we give privilege and status; leaving others out? It is not to condemn, Paul wants to instruct. But there is no hierarchy in God’s kingdom – the organizational model for the church is all circle, with Christ at the center.
That marvelous poem “Outwitted” by Edwin Markham comes to mind:
He drew a circle that shut me out–
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
The Gospel of Jesus Christ outwits us all.
I am going to push us a bit today: I don’t see many if any with what we would commonly and mistakenly label “disabilities.” How come? I forget almost every Sunday to announce that we have really good hearing aids and large print bulletins.
In the meeting the other week when over 50 of you came to debrief about the Pepper Pike incident with Demo and Reni, I was struck deeply by a comment of one of our members who expressed (and I paraphrase because I didn’t write down the exact comment – so I hope I do it justice) “As an African American member it is not always easy to know where I fit in.” That is the way I remember it. It feels uncomfortable to bring it up – but that is powerful. I preach inclusion all the time; we think of ourselves as a diverse church. But in the loving agitation of Jesus Christ brought to us through the words of Paul there is nothing that should be swept under the table – no reason to be defensive – I am just trying to be faithful to Paul. So in 2011 we will have conversations about race here so we can better follow Jesus Christ.
It is a constant issue within these walls as the number of people seeking food and financial assistance increases. We are so blessed that Lynda Bernays is so willing to be hospitable. I can lock my door and write my sermon. Lynda’s door is always open. And yes, perhaps we need to think of a more organized way – but I am challenged to consider if hospitality to the poor is not more important than my clerical needs. What would we do if many of these individuals started really coming to church on Sunday?
I am glad that Robin Craig is planning a special advent service for those who find the Yule Tide season difficult – we don’t mean to but in our cheeriness we can actually keep people from coming in to the center.
Daryl Musick’s art show – “An Artist’s Journey through Schizophrenia” – which you can see upstairs in our chapel until November 28th – is fantastically important. Daryl has helped move us towards enlarging the circle. Folks who live with mental illness are usually NOT those who recline in the inner sanctum. Daryl’s story and his art have forced us to extend the dining area (so to speak) – we do it gladly – it isn’t always a fight – we need knowledge and experience.
We always should be in the process of examination – we need to discern the body.
Paul’s words: “For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died,” sound very judgmental. But it is true – our strength and health and liveliness as a community are tied to our distinct-less understanding of the kingdom. In Corinth those who went hungry were more susceptible to illness and early death. God knows it is the same in the Cleveland community and throughout our nation. Undernourished bodies don’t do well. Hungry kids don’t learn well.
People who are divorced always carry the burden of judgment whether it is really there or not. People who are overweight always feel like outsiders too in this culture of uber-skinny.
Those brave few who are gay and lesbian and who remain in the church that doesn’t accept them – not allowed access. Really, is it the spirit of Christ that would keep leaders like Sara Miles from the table of leadership? Sara is living the gospel truth of extending the table.
The divisions that we put up between friends who disagree politically and theologically cause great tension sometimes among us. I suspect it isn’t easy for Republicans and more conservative Christians to listen to me sometimes.
This is the beauty of the sacrament of the Last Supper – it is rather odd that I am preaching on it and we are not doing it this morning – next Sunday, however we will share the communion meal – all who come to the table are welcome – there is no litmus test. It is precisely at the table where ALL distinctions cease. There is no condemnation, only the passing of the elements. No one is gorging and no one is getting drunk (you can’t with grape juice!) We do that so there will be no distinction between those who are alcoholics and those who aren’t.
Yes, I know – boundaries and distinction can be healthy and helpful. Yes, there are certain things that unite us and distinguish us from non-Christians – there are certain ways of living that are healthier than others and we seek to find a grounded way – absolutely there are sins that we must name: anything to do with self-righteousness, anything to do with judgment, anything to do with divisions caused by status, rank, wealth, or any other barrier – In Jesus Christ the barrier has come crashing down. “Here comes everybody!”
Jesus Christ gave his blood and his body to show us that no political authority could separate God’s children. Jesus Christ died to show that sin doesn’t even get to divide and conquer any longer. Jesus Christ shows at the table that there is no distinction that makes any kind of sense; everyone has total access.
Paul writes: “If we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord we will be disciplined.” Indeed, if we fail to take advantage of judging ourselves, God’s spirit will continue to refine and agitate like a washing machine agitates the clothes to get the dirt out. God’s spirit is relentless – simply won’t give up on us… so it behooves me, behooves you, behooves us – to be honest, to speak our truth in love and not to judge one another other than through the lenses of being a beloved child of God.
So let’s examine ourselves and be ready for the coming of the Lord – let’s hold each other accountable – and see what happens.
Because we have total access…
and so should everyone else.