1 Corinthians 11:18-26
Prof. Dwight Peterson tells the story of a Sunday morning worship service in which the Scripture text of the day was from the second chapter of the Old Testament Book of Ruth. The fourth verse of the second chapter of Ruth includes these words: “The Lord be with you.” The congregation, trained as they were, immediately interrupted the reading by responding in unison “And also with you.” They had only ever heard the words, "The Lord be with you," as a liturgical call that demanded a response, which they provided.
Today’s Scripture reading also includes words that you may only have heard as part of our Communion ritual:
The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25In 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.”
It might have surprised you to learn that these words are actually from a New Testament text! When we use them in the liturgy of Holy Communion, we refer to these verses as the Words of Institution. They come from a very early oral tradition in Christianity, one that Paul learned from others and was passing on to the Christians of Corinth. The same tradition was received and shared by the Gospel writers Matthew, Mark and Luke. When you find that kind of agreement among biblical writers, you can guess that it’s authentic, that ultimately it came from Jesus himself.
When we use these words in our Communion liturgy, however, we miss the context in which they appear in the Bible. In this part of his letter, Paul is criticizing the Corinthians for the way they carry out the Lord’s Supper. They were allowing the divisions that characterized their culture to shape the way they celebrated this special, holy meal. Paul was not pleased.
It is a fascinating fact that social divisions are highlighted at meal time. Do you remember the first time you were confronted with more silverware at your place than you knew what to do with? Two forks, two knives, three spoons...a salad plate, a bread plate, a dessert plate...a glass for water, a glass for wine – that gets taken away and replaced by a different glass for wine. All you can do is hope no one notices that you have no clue which fork to pick up.
It was the same, if not more so, for the Corinthians. The Greco-Roman culture of that time was highly stratified – everyone knew their status relative to others, knew where they stood on the social ladder, and assumed that was just the way things would always be.
The early Christian church defied some of those social divisions by including persons on all rungs of the social ladder, but their differences came to head at the dinner table. In those early days, the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in the midst of a common meal, where social divisions were obvious. As happened at other meals, people higher on the social ladder received more and better food and drink. Some people got so much wine that they became drunk, while others had to be content with so little food that they remained hungry.
While this way of behaving might have been "normal" in the culture of Corinth, for Paul it is unacceptable. The Lord's Supper was intended to demonstrate the unity of the church; all were equally dependent on the grace of God. All received the saving power of Jesus’ death and resurrection, regardless of their station in secular society.
Paul was unhappy with the Corinthians for their theological ignorance and cultural cowardice. He criticizes them roundly for their discriminatory ways:
When you get together in one place, it isn’t to eat the Lord’s meal. Each of you goes ahead and eats a private meal. One person goes hungry which another is drunk. Don’t you have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you look down on God’s churches and humiliate those who have nothing? What can I say to you? Will I praise you? No, I don’t praise you in this.
But Paul was also an eminently practical church leader. He knew that trying to eradicate the rules and standards of the larger society was not a realistic plan. So he chooses instead to reinforce the meaning of the Lord’s Supper to the Corinthians and encourages them to find a way to live out their faith in the midst of a society that makes that difficult.
When you get together to eat, wait for each other. If some of you are hungry, they should eat at home. (11:33-34)
The idea that persons of different social groups couldn’t figure out how to share a meal together in church might seem absurd to us. How hard can it be to be polite to someone else around the dinner table? But the position that Paul is in – negotiating the path between religious values and cultural norms – should feel familiar. Very familiar.
The United Methodist Church has been in the news recently for exactly such a dilemma: the withdrawal of ministerial credentials from Rev. Frank Schaefer for his decision to preside at the 2007 wedding of his gay son and his refusal to recant that decision or to promise not to do it again.
If all you knew of this story was based on newspaper headlines, you might think that Rev. Schaefer was the first and only United Methodist minister to take such an action, and that the rest of us in this denomination have been living with our heads in the sand, ignorant of the enormous changes in our society around questions of sexuality and the rights of sexual minorities. Nothing is farther from the truth, of course, as this issue has been a major source of tension and division at every level of our church for several decades.
Rev. Schaefer isn’t the first to lose his credentials over this issue. And sadly, he probably won’t be the last.
My initial/primary reaction to the news reports was embarrassment –
- at having our dirty laundry splashed all over the headlines.
- at a complicated story being simplified and stereotyped.
- at my church being regarded as ignorant, unkind, close-minded, when the church people I know are thoughtful, aware, generous and open-minded.
You might wonder if it’s fair to jump from Paul’s instructions on how to conduct the sacrament of Holy Communion to what seems like a very contemporary question of the inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of our church. But if you’re part of a Gateway group, and if you’ve been reading ahead in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, you know this isn’t a jump at all. Besides using this letter to address questions about sharing the Lord’s Supper, Paul also deals with a number of other hot-topics of his day.
- Some of them seem silly and trivial to us – eating meals left over from pagan rituals or whether one’s head should be covered during worship.
- But others are surprisingly relevant, including questions of sexual morality and immorality.
- Sometimes what Paul says seems so confusing and self-contradictory that we wonder if he’s going to be any help to us at all. He very clearly says that women should be silent in church (14:34). But this whole letter is in response to a report brought to him by a church group he refers to as “Chloe’s people.” Here and in several other places it’s clear that Paul valued and encouraged the leadership of women in the church.
If Paul can’t be clear about these things, how are we supposed to do it? And he only had to negotiate between Greeks, Romans and Jews. We’ve got United Methodists from Africa and New York City, the Philippines and San Francisco, rural Mississippi and urban Minneapolis, states where same sex marriage is expressly forbidden and states where it is legal.
How do we discern the will of God? When do we agree to compromise for the sake of unity? When do we draw a line, taking a stand based on our beliefs even if it means causing even greater division in the church?
I am not going to give you one, good-for-all-time-in-all-circumstances answer to those questions. I would be highly suspicious of anyone who did try to give you that kind of answer!
But I do want to tell you what I’ve learned about you – University United Methodist Church – in relation to this issue in the last 2 1⁄2 years and especially in the time since the Frank Schaefer case hit the media.
The overwhelming majority of the conversations I’ve had (both before the case and since then) were with church members who fervently hope that the United Methodist Church will change its policies about the rights of LGBT persons to be ordained by and married in the church. They express an even stronger hope that this congregation would always include those persons as members and at all levels of leadership.
The people who have shared their thoughts with me – and I – agree with Bishop Minerva Carcano when she said, in reaction to the decision about Rev. Schaefer, “I believe that the time has come for we United Methodists to stand on the side of Jesus and declare in every good way that the United Methodist Church is wrong in its position on homosexuality. Frank Schaefer chose to stand with Jesus as he extended love and care to his gay son and his partner. We should stand with him and others who show such courage and faithfulness.”
At the same time, I’m not assuming that we are all of one mind on this issue. So I want to say this as well:
If you are struggling with this question, if you are wondering whether you can disagree and still be part of this church family, if you have a background or experiences that have led you to conclude, with official United Methodist policy, that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, please know that you belong here too. I hope and pray that when we say in our Hospitality Statement that we welcome all people, we really mean it.
As far as I can tell, no one in this congregation assumes, or even desires, that we all agree on every issue. No one is assuming that there is a painless answer to this and other moral struggles. No one is dismissing the Bible as outdated and irrelevant.
As far as I can tell, all of us are seeking to live as faithfully as we can, following our Lord Jesus as closely as we can in a changing and complex world.
Which is what Paul was trying to do as he responded to the questions and issues of his day. What we are doing here at this table, he said, has nothing to do with who is more important or more knowledgeable or more righteous. What we’re doing at this table has nothing to do with our accomplishments or our perfection or even our opinions.
What we are doing at this table is remembering Jesus’ death and proclaiming his resurrection – God’s most amazing gift of grace to the world. What we’re doing at this table is striving to live and work together as Christ’s body in the world. That doesn’t mean we all agree with each other.
In fact, this meal didn’t even originate among human beings who were of one mind or heart regarding Jesus and his gospel. Do you remember how the Words of Institution start? “On the night he was betrayed.” “On the night he was betrayed, Jesus took bread and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples.” Even the community taught and fed by Jesus himself included brokenness and sin. The Lord’s meal comes as Jesus himself did – as a gift from God to sinful human beings – then, now, always.
It is only by remembering this that we have any chance at getting through this current challenge to our church with unity and integrity. All of our questions about faith and Christian living must be approached with humility because none of us has the corner on truth or righteousness. God alone is the perfect judge.
Michelle Boorstein. “Methodist bishops offer support to pastor who lost credentials over son’s same-sex wedding.” The Washington Post. Published December 21, 2013. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/methodist-bishops-offer-support-to-pastor-who-lost- credentials-over-sons-same-sex-wedding/2013/12/21/9acaf1e6-6a77-11e3-a0b9- 249bbb34602c_story.html
Laurie Goodstein. “Defrocking of Minister Widens Split Over Gays. The New York Times. Published: December 19, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/20/us/methodist-pastor- defrocked-over-gay-marriage-service.html?_r=0
Dwight Peterson , “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.” Posted April 9, 2009. WorkingPreacher.org.
Susan Hedahl. “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.” Posted April 5, 2012. WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1164
Janet H. Hunt, “On Meals and Memories: Some Thoughts for Maundy Thursday .” Posted March 25, 2012. DancingWithTheWord.com. http://words.dancingwiththeword.com/2012/03/on-meals-and-memories-some-thoughts-for.html