Worship: The Sacraments

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

First Corinthians 11:17-34

May 3, 2015

 

This week, as we continue to look at how worship helps us reflect Jesus’ face to the world, we’re considering the sacraments and specifically, communion.  As Protestants, we have two sacraments: baptism and communion also known as the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper.   The sacraments are holy ordinances, instituted by Christ which are outward and visible signs of what Christ has done for us, internally and spiritually.[1] Before Christ, the Jewish people had two such sacraments or rites: circumcision and the Passover.[2]  One is the initiation into the community, the other is an on-going reminder of what God has done.  Baptism and communion form the same functions.

The sacraments, taken together with the Word, read and proclaimed, are the two main ways in which we experience God in worship.  We speak of the word and the sacrament.  Both are important.

You see this in our sanctuary with the pulpit representing the Word, the table reminding us of communion and the font as a reminder of baptism.  In baptism, we signify our being adopted into the Christian family, at the table we are nourished by Christ and reminded that we are a part of his family in which he is at the head.  And at the pulpit, we learn about God’s Word.  We come to learn and experience Christ so that we might take his word out into the world and live accordingly.   We come and experience and then go out to reflect Christ’s face to the world.

Today’s sermon is from First Corinthians, where Paul chides those in Corinth for their manners at the Lord’s Table.  Read 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

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I have this vision of a communion service in first century Corinth.  Everyone brings their own food as they gathered on the day of resurrection, the first day of the week.  After singing a few hymns and listening to a sermon or maybe reading a letter from Paul or Apollos or another teacher, they share in the Lord’s Supper.  But unlike our Communion Service, they had a regular meal consisting of all the major food groups and more liquid refreshments than necessary.  And everyone brings their own food and they gather around picnic baskets in various parts of the hall.

Over in corner to our right are the Smuckers.  The pastor joins them, feeling feels privileged to have been invited!  The Smuckers live in the big house, up on the hill, overlooking the Aeagan Sea, where they observe a wonderful sunrise every morning and in the afternoon, when the sun is hot, are treated to nice off-shore breezes.  They subscribe to Bon Appetite and other magazines of fine dining and have come well-prepared for the communion meal.  Lamb chops: after first marinating them in wine, olive oil, rosemary and garlic, a servant has grilled them to perfection.  In their basket are bowls of German potato salad, fresh bread, Asparagus slathered with butter.  And their wine isn’t that cheap Greek junk; it’s imported from the south of Gaul (a land we know as France).  They’ve come with a fancy table cloth, use linen napkins and crystal goblets and set up a layout that looks like a picture from the magazine.  And I almost forgot: they’ve got dessert waiting…  Pecan pie (with Georgia pecans!  It doesn’t quite go with the lamp chops and fine wine, but it tastes so good.  Besides who’s watching calories?  Rumor has it that the communion meal is free from such worries.

Over on the left hand side of the hall is an average family, the Garrisons.  They live in a modest house and are eating hot dogs today.  Since this is a special occasion, they’re not just any old dog; these are thick and juicy Ball Park Franks, served up on a steamed bum and with sauerkraut and fancy mustard.  After all, this ain’t no ordinary lunch.  This is the Lord’s Supper.  For drinks, there’s a pitcher of iced tea and a couple of bottles of Sweetwater IPA.  A bag of chips, a jar of pickles, and a tin of brownies complete their meal.

Now, in the back of the hall are the poor members of the congregation.  They all live down in the market district, where the smell of fish penetrates everything including their clothes.  Their homes aren’t much, generally just a shack.  And they don’t have much to eat.  Someone brought a bit of bread the Smuckers had given to the food pantry a few days earlier. They scrape off the mold before they divide it up.  Someone else has brought fish, yesterday’s catch that didn’t sell in the market.  For greens, there is a dandelion salad garnished with raw leeks they’ve dug up in the hills.  The leeks help cover up the smell of fish.  For a drink, there are a few Mason jars of lukewarm water.

These people don’t feel like they belong, but they’ve heard stories about Jesus and his love of all people, including the poor and the sinner. They believe in Jesus; he gives them hope! But they can’t help but feel that others in church are looking down on them…

Now, I’m not sure if this was exactly how communion was celebrated.  It’s my take based on my interpretation of Paul’s letter.  Another commentator suggests they served a common meal, but because they started early in the evening, before the poor got off work, those whose lives were more leisurely ate all the food while those who labored for others for a living got the crumbs at the end and went home hungry.[3]  Either way, however the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in Corinth, when word reached Paul, he was incensed.  This is a meal that is to bring believers together, not to separate us.

If you’ve read First Corinthians, you’ll know Paul has a temper.  In this letter, we see him upset with the Corinthians for tolerating horrific sins and for disorderly worship.  Paul’s reaction here isn’t anything new.  He’s not going to tolerate the Corinthians making a mockery out of the Lord’s Supper.

Paul places the most important point in the middle of his argument: the Institution of the Lord’s Supper.[4]  This section starts with Paul’s criticism of the Corinthians: some eat their fill while others go hungry… some leave thirsty while other stagger home drunk.  Then, after reciting the words of institution, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the seriousness of the meal and the responsibility required of those who partake of communion, warning them that to take communion recklessly could be dangerous to their health.

It appears as if Paul has dual ideas for the use of the word “body.”  The primary use of this word in communion reminds us of its Christological meaning.  The bread is the body of Christ which reminds us that Christ offered up his body as atonement for our sin.  Therefore, this meal is not something to be taken lightly as it reminds us of our only hope in life and death.  So we come to the table seriously contemplating to whom we belong.

But for Paul, the term body also applies to the church (the body of Christ).  In the next chapter, Paul goes into more detail about this aspect of the body, but in the communion service, the reference to the body can also be relational.  After all, Jesus took the bread, which he linked to his body and shared it with the disciples.  Kenneth Bailey in his work on First Corinthians recalls a traditional Middle Eastern custom used to express friendship, where the host would take bread and dip it and give it to his guest saying “Eat this for my sake.”[5]  See the parallel?

Today, Christians around the world eat at this table.  Not only are we to be fortified by “Christ’s body broken for us,” we’re also to be united in Christ’s body in the world.  Therefore, as Paul points out, this celebration is too important to mock it as some had done in Corinth.  Instead, this table is a sign of unity of all who follow Christ.

We could blame the Corinthians for causing communion to change from a joyous feast to the ritualized sharing of crumbs and thimble-sized glasses of juice or wine.   Alasdair Heron, a Scottish theologian who wrote a major work on the Lord’s Supper noted that Paul’s treatment of the abuses at Corinth lead to the separation that became well-established by the 2nd Century, between agape or fellowship meals (like what we had on Christmas Eve) and the more symbolic celebration of the Lord’s Supper.[6]  Both meals, I think, are important.  When we break bread together, we come together to share not only our food but also our presence.  We are a part of the body of Christ, and we can’t be cut off from one another unless we want to be cut off from the body that gives us life.[7]

When we come to this table, we come as equals and we come needy.  What is provided here in our midst can’t be supplied from our pantries at home.  We come because Jesus calls us and he feeds us.  Without him, we would be nothing.  With him, we have life, life eternal.   So examine yourselves, confess your sin and failings to God (for he already knows them) and then come and celebrate with an open heart.  And afterwards, having been spiritually fed by our Lord, go out in his name to feed others whether it be with food or by your time or with your encouragement.  Leave here asking yourselves how you might reflect Jesus’ face to the world during the upcoming week.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Presbyterian Church, USA, “Westminster Larger Catechism”, Book of Confession, 7.272-273, Questions 162, 163.

[2] Presbyterian Church, USA, “The Scots Confession,” Book of Confession, 3.21, Chapter XX1

[3] Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP 2011), 318-319, 322.

[4] Paul, throughout Corinthians, uses this rhetorical method of sandwiching his more important point in the middle of his argument.  See Bailey, 316.

[5] Bailey 320.

[6] Alasdair I. C. Heron, Table and Tradition: Toward an Ecumenical Understanding of the Eucharist (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), 39-40.

[7] John 15:5.


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