The Transcendent Table (1 Corinthians 11:17-29)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, April 3, 2011 - 4th Sunday of Lent
4th Sunday in Church-wide Emphasis on Culture Making
The Corinthians Church got it wrong when they served the Lord’s Supper. Their blunders are to our benefit. If they had not messed up Communion so badly, Paul would not have needed to address it in his letter to them. First Corinthians 10-11 is the only writing from Paul that we have on this topic. Scholars might have guessed that in Paul’s churches they did not take the bread and cup. But, the Corinthians did serve communion and they did so wrongly, without proper regard for God or for the congregation. Thus Paul addressed their mistake and we have his teaching.
I mention that because I have met many people who approach the Lord’s Supper with a limited perspective and the misunderstanding is rooted in 1st Corinthians 11:27-29. These verses feed our evangelical American tendency to see things from an individualistic perspective.
27Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. 28Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.
Hearing this, we think communion is about God and me; it’s individualistic. I have confess my personal sins. What’s happening around me is of secondary importance. In my quiet meditation, I block out all distraction, especially the other people in the room. That thinking is flawed. We do need to have the individual relationship with God. But, that individual relationship is not independent from the relationships we have with people. In fact, 1st Corinthians 11 is based on how we relate to each other as we take the bread and cup in remembrance of the death of Jesus.
The Corinthian churches met in homes. There were no church buildings. The only people who owned homes big enough for community worship were the wealthy. Their dining rooms could accommodate 8-10 people and another 40 or so could gather in what was called the atrium.
Who got to sit in the dining room? The host and the host’s friends who were also wealthy. The poor and the slave congregated the atrium. In the dining room, there was a lavish feast. Those reclining there had their fill of rich foods. The outer crowd probably arrived later, when they finished work. They got to eat the leftovers. If no food was left over – too bad.
This set up was socially acceptable in Corinthian society. Of course the wealthy eat and the poor may eat or may not. Ancient writers consistently show that this was the norm. And this is what Paul attacks when he says, “I hear there are divisions … in this, I do not commend you.”
Paul expected the church to be different than the world. Let that sink in. People in Christ should behave differently toward one another than those not in Christ. Their taking of the bread and cup was not a religious ritual in as it is for us. It was part of a dinner, a time together.
In our church’s practice of the Lord’s Supper, we have tried to recapture that communal experience. Though we aren’t doing it today, most of the time, when we take the Lord’s Supper, we stay after worship and eat together. We sit at round tables, where the youngest and the oldest, the richest and the poorest each have an equal seat. Each and every one of is dead in sin, but saved by grace. We’re reminded in Communion that Christ died on the cross for the sins of the world, for my sins, for yours. In 1st Corinthians 11, the Lord’s Supper is an experience shared by people who should be equals in Christ.
Paul loved that they got together and had fellowship. He hated how they did it, in a way that left the poorer members literally hungry and ashamed. As important as individual piety is, Paul was addressing the relationships of people in the church to one another.
What does Communion assume about world? Communion assumes that people are divided and what keeps them apart is sin and sin can only be overcome by Jesus. In Ephesians 3 we see a racial divide – Jews and Gentiles have trouble coming together. A couple of divisions come up in the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, which is in John chapter 4. Gender – Jesus a man broke with convention and spoke with a woman. And religion – Jesus a Jew, spoke with a Samaritan. In 1st Corinthians, socio-economic status divides; the wealthy minority in the Corinthian Church had trouble welcoming and honoring the low-income minority.
The worst part about divisions is they happen in the church. I knew a woman from Costa Rica who wanted to cook the Wednesday dinners. Elderly white ladies, we don’t know what kind of food they eat, as if Hispanics are from Mars. She doesn’t know how to find things in our kitchen, as if the Hispanic members of the church were of a different status than white members. The comments were made so she could hear them. Finally, she quit. She wanted to serve God, but she was interrogated and treated like a child.
Divisions are ugly, sinful, and deadly. Jesus died to cover the sin of our failure to worship God and our failure to love one another. The only lasting hope we have of overcoming what divides us is that come together in Christ. The Lord’s Supper assumes the world is divided.
What does the Lord’s Supper assume about the way the world should be? First Corinthians 10:16-17:
16The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? 17Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
We who are many are one body – the Lord’s Supper assumes we should be united. The only possibility that we will be is if we are forgiven of filled with the Spirit of Christ. Only in Christ can we love one another in a way that will forever break down the walls that divide us.
The story I told about the Costa Rican woman being run out of the church kitchen by a couple of older white ladies happened about 13 years ago. It would not play out that way in that church today. That church has learned how to trust all of the members, regardless of background. In the second decade of the 21st century, more and more churches are ethnically diverse and eager to welcome people from all over. However, Christians argue about theology. The Calvinists and the proponents of Free-Will have trouble finding common ground. That is one of many divisions within. In American society, politics is divisive. The more one is a certain political or philosophical dogma, the less he can hear others. Beyond our country’s borders, economic imperialism divides people. So does the disproportionate distribution of resources. So does religion. Catholics and Orthodox, Christians and Muslims and other groups have trouble being friends, being neighbors.
Jesus came for all people, and in the broken communion bread, we see his body broken for all people. In the wine, we see his blood shed that all people might drink and have eternal life with him and with each other. My favorite Bible verse is Revelation 7:9. John is in Heaven, seeing eternity, and this is what he tells us.
9After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.
That verse addresses the coming together of people from different races and nationalities. It’s clearly implied that this gathering cannot be counted and includes the rich and the poor, the young and the old. They come together to worship Jesus. Communion assumes we should be united.
What does Communion as a practice that marks a specific culture make possible? The Lord’s Supper table is a meeting place. In identifying what Communion assumes about the way the world should by, I read from the previous chapter Paul’s words about the cup and the bread. He says, because there is one bread we who are many are one body.
Two points stand out in that statement. First, the bread represents Jesus’ broken body, his suffering for the sins of the world. Only Jesus can take the sin debt on himself. Only Jesus can suffer on a sinner’s behalf. For you. For me. There is no other salvation. There is no other hope. Jesus is the one bread, and salvation comes from Him and through him. Eternal life is lived in him, with His Holy Spirit in us.
Second, when we come to him, we are part of the body of Christ, no matter where we came from. In Corinth Roman traders come from the West; Asian travelers from the east; and the native Corinthians were Greeks. Slaves slaves would have come from Africa, the Northern Germanic areas, and Israel and Arabia. Corinth was an international city. Paul’s phrase “we who are many” was expansive then and is 100 times more so in the 21st century.
We who are many are one body and Jesus makes is possible. We have in common that we are each sinners who fall short of God’s grace and are saved when we trust in Jesus. The communion table is the meeting place because no matter who are, where we’ve come from, or what we’ve done, we bring our sins to the table. We receive forgiveness there. And we look to one another as a community founded on Christ at the table. Jesus is the host who has invited each one of us. What does the Lord’s Supper make possible? It is possible for all people to come together, be forgiven, loved, and made new, and to be a community with one another. The communion table is a meeting place.
What does Communion make impossible? It is impossible for a church that truly remembers the death of Christ to conform to the culture around it. Remember in first century Corinth it was socially acceptable for wealthy people to host dinner parties where favored guests were treated like kings and poorer guests were treated like dogs. The practice in the Corinthian churches was the norm in Corinthian society. But Paul rejected such practice for the church of Jesus Christ. In the church, it was expected that they would behave in way completely opposite of the social norms of their day.
What practices in our culture are perfectly acceptable, but completely wrong for followers of Jesus Christ? One example that comes to mind for me is the practice of favorable treatment for people with a lot of money. Extremely rich individuals get better service and more options at the bank when they put a lot of money. They are gold card customers with Visa and MasterCard. They sit in club seats at the football game and box seats at the symphony. They buy first class seats on airplanes.
Communion makes such preferential treatment utterly impossible in the church. We are all in this together, worshipping Jesus together. If you put 1 dollar in the collection or $100,000, it makes no difference. There are no first class seats here you are part of this community for the same reason I am. We are both sinners. We need Jesus. He loved each of us enough to die for us. What we have in Christ is not something we buy or earn, but a gift of grace we receive when we turn to Him in faith.
We would be just like the world if we gave special treatment to people who could buy it. Communion forces us to be a counterculture community.
What new culture is created by the Lord’s Supper? The transcendent table. A few weeks ago, I ended by saying the new culture created by the church is a transformational community. To be transformed is to go through irreversible change. In the church, we are born again, made new in Christ.
Transformation is change. Transcendence means exceeding or surpassing in degree or excellence; in theology it means having continuous existence outside the created world. Both definitions apply to the Lord’s Supper table where people from all backgrounds meet and hold to their uniqueness and at the same time celebrate one another as they come together in Christ. This family, surpasses all others because it is a community of grace that is dependant on God. This community exists beyond today and into the eternal kingdom of God that was prepared before the creation of the world.
All those lofty words may not go through our minds when we chew the bread and drink the juice. So we remember. Jesus died for us. We are united in Him. We are forgiven. We come to the table as a group, a family, a church. We don’t take communion alone, but together. And, we will be together beyond this life because the Jesus who died rose, and invites us to join Him in resurrection. The table is transcendent and together we make up the community that forms around it.
As we take the Lord’s Supper today, I pray that we remember we are forgiven, and that we remember one another. Sharing communion is a response to God’s love and we reflect his love onto each other, and, carry His love out into a hurting world. Jesus died for people who have not yet turned to Him. He’s sending us to share the Gospel because all are welcome at the table.