Sermon from June 1st, 2014, a Communion Sunday. The text for the sermon was 1 Corinthians 11:17-33.
Fellowship at the Table in Corinth
I don’t know if any of y’all ever watched the Office back when it was on, but I used to really like it. It does a wonderful job of finding humor in the mundane, awkward, often petty ways that we interact with each other every day. And one of my favorite episodes is called “The Dinner Party.” The boss of the office, Michael, desperately wants to be part of the in-crowd, and hosts a dinner with his girlfriend Jan, who treats everyone, including Michael, with mild to extreme condescension. But the party is a disaster. Michael has tricked most of the guests into coming in the first place, a couple of uninvited guests show up, and the dinner is terribly planned. After all the guests have arrived and have been given the tour, hostess Jan says, “I’ll go start dinner, it just needs to roast in the oven for about three hours.”
Throughout the evening, the host and hostess make not-so-subtle digs at each other, which escalates into a full-fledged fight by the end of the night. Each of the characters is selfish and petty just at the moment it would be most disastrous for everyone else. It ends up being the most awkward and uncomfortable dinner party you can ever imagine.
Have any of you ever been at a dinner party like this? Where people are selfish or don’t really like each other, or two attendees were trying to keep a lid on an argument but they can’t help themselves from airing their dirty laundry in front of everyone? I know I have.
And showed up at one of the Christian assemblies in Corinth, that’s exactly the kind of thing that you would see. There was all sorts of trouble around the table at Corinth. The Corinthians were divided. There was a lot of infighting and factionalism. Paul even had to write to tell them to stop suing each other in court and work out their differences in forgiveness and love.
And when it came time to eat, some were getting their fill, and others were going hungry at the table of the Lord Jesus Christ. The wealthier ones who didn’t have to work were showing up early and eating all of the food before other folks could get off of work to come to the table. In other words there were all sorts of problems at their dinner table.
In chapter 11, Paul gives the Corinthians a piece of his mind. He’s ashamed of them for the way they’ve been acting at the table. He tells them that they aren’t just here to eat a meal, they’re here to share a meal. It’s as much about the person sitting next to you as it is about the plate in front of you. These early Christian gatherings weren’t just people getting together for dinner and a little conversation. They were experiments in creating a new world order, living out the practical realities of the Kingdom of God. But the Corinthians were turning that new way of living right back into the old way of living.
These early Christian assemblies were doing things that no one did in the Greco-Roman world. They were letting everybody in. They weren’t treating people based on their status in the world, they were treating people based on their status in God’s eyes. And they were trying to serve each other instead of trying to serve themselves.
Big feasts and meals were how everybody did anything in Jesus’ day. But they were very ritualized things. First, only the important people were invited, because getting the right people to come to your parties was how you became an important person. And then, everyone who came was seated in order of importance, from the left side of the door all the way around the room. And they fed people in order of importance, which meant that if you were low status, most of the good food (and all of the meat) was gone by the time it got to you.
But Christians had turned that system on its head. Remember Jesus’ parable about the man who hosts a banquet and nobody comes? He sends his servants out in the street and picks up anyone and everyone who will come, instead of the rich important people who were invited? In Christian assemblies, everyone was invited. Anyone could come and join in the feast.
And remember when Jesus said you should sit down at a low place at the table instead of a high one, so the host would bring you up in front of everyone else rather than shaming you? Social status didn’t matter at these early Christian gatherings. That’s what Paul wrote about in Galatians “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Women weren’t supposed to be guests at banquets at all, but in Christian banquets they were leaders. Nobody of wealth and privilege would sit next to a slave at a traditional Greco-Roman meal. But when Christians broke bread together, the person next to you might just be a slave. That slave might also be your bishop.
And when they came together, they came together to be nourished so that they could go out and serve others. It isn’t a coincidence that at the same meal where Jesus instituted the Lord’s supper, he sat down and washed their feet, and told them that if they wanted to be leaders, they must become servants.
Rejecting society’s emphasis on status, being a diverse body that was one in Christ, and going out to serve one another, that was what Christianity was all about.
That is what church should be like. Because if we believe that those early Christians had any idea what Jesus is talking about (and I think they do, because they’re the ones who started writing it down in the first place), then we’re part of the same social experiment. Can we create a world in here that’s different from the world out there? And if we can, can we take what we’ve created in here out with us when we go forth?
I think we can. I think when we come together to join in the Lord’s Supper, we’re doing more than just having a light snack before lunchtime. I think we’re sharing more than just a small piece of bread and a little bit of grape juice. I think we’re doing something special. I think we’re participating in a meal that has changed lives for thousands of years. We’re being shaped and molded into a tradition of love, hope, and dignity. And I think that even after all these years, we’re still trying to do what the Corinthians were trying to do. It’s as ambitious as it is simple, and as impossible as it is daring. We’re just trying to have a nice meal together. We’re trying to join together in love and respect, where each person is loved and valued for who they are and each person is nourished with what they need. And then we’ll take what we have shared at the table, and go out and save the world.