Communion:  The Backstory—Early Church Roots

1 Cor. 11:17-34       7.14.19

It was a community meal, a tradition in Greek culture, very familiar across much of the Roman empire in the first days of the Christian church.  So the church in Corinth, made up of Greeks and not Jews, included the Lord’s Supper when they gathered for a community meal.  It reminds me of the way we have been celebrating the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples on Maundy Thursday for the last several years, gathered around tables, with a shared dinner that includes the breaking of the symbolic bread and the drinking of the symbolic cup as a part of the community meal.

It also reminds me of our pot-luck dinners, where all come together to gather around a common table, each one offering some part of the meal.  But then it doesn’t.  Because this practice in Corinth did not make room for all at the table. Some ate the best food and drank the best wine and others were left with the scraps.  It was like you agreed to bring the fried chicken for the pot-luck, arrived early, and sat down with your bucket of fried chicken to eat it with your close friends, not waiting for others to arrive and not sharing it with the larger community.  The ones on the lower end of the economic and social spectrum, the ones who had to work for a living, would have arrived after the more well to do members of the community had already reclined around the table.  The early church gatherings were in homes, likely the home of a respected member of the community who would make sure there was plenty of good eats and drink provided to the others in his or her echelon of society.  They would have filled the dining area, usually with room for about 9 or 10 people reclining in a typical home.  Then the latecomers would have to stand in the atrium and eat the leftovers, if there were any.  There did not seem to be any awareness of unfairness or mistreatment.  This was just how things were in Corinth in those days.  The rich arrived first, ate the best food and drank the best wine. Kind of like the first-class seats on an airplane.  We don’t think that is unfair because it is the system we are accustomed to—people who can afford it pay for the luxury of space and food and drink.  What really bothers me are the airlines that charge extra for some of the middle seats on the plane that have extra space.  When no one buys those seats and they sit empty on flight, the rest of us are not allowed to shift over and use those empty seats!  In Corinth, the lower income members of the community, probably those with the greatest hunger, received less to eat, and the higher income members of the community, who had plenty of food at home, enjoyed a good meal.

These dining practices do not reflect the values that Jesus taught and lived at all.  They are allowing their traditional social distinctions to determine their behavior instead of following Christ’s teachings when they gather as a community of believers.  They have turned the common meal and the remembrance of Jesus’ life and death into a symbol of disunity and inequality.  Paul is upset about it.  He will not offer any words of praise to this fledgling church in this regard.  They have made the Lord’s supper the antithesis of what Jesus exemplified with his very life.  The community is not reflecting Jesus.  So, he reminds them again of the tradition he had passed on to them, the words of institution with which we are very, very familiar. “The Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you, Do this in remembrance of me.”  In 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.”  We have taken these words to create our more formalized practice of sharing the Lord’s supper, which we long ago separated from the original community meal context.   As the years went by, the church turned the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the remembrance of the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, into a symbolic action during a service of worship, removed from any complete community meal.  I wonder if that was just a way to avoid the troubles the Corinthian Christians had been having.  No risk of unjust meal portions if you only break off a bit of bread and drink a sip of wine or juice.  Everyone gets the same opportunity.  No risk of anyone not getting enough to eat at dinner when the sacred meal is not celebrated at a full meal.

By reading someone else’s mail, this letter to a particular church in a particular place and time in history, we get a reminder for ourselves.  If they had not messed up, Paul never would have had to write them with instructions on how to keep the community meal a shared witness to Christ’s grace for all.  Paul sees them as bringing suffering on their community because of their divisiveness, their exclusiveness, their living in a silo without any authentic awareness of the needs of others.  We get to learn from their mistakes.

We get a reminder that sharing in the Lord’s Supper, no matter how much food is on the table, is always about expressing the unity of Christ’s body as a community where people of a variety of economic levels can be equal partners.  It is an opportunity for us to celebrate the act of coming together at a common meal –our connectedness–more than simply an individual act of connecting with God privately.  Here at Hunting Ridge, our practice is to wait until all have received the cup so that we can drink together, another symbol of our unity.

We get a reminder that sharing in the Lord’s Supper is always a time to remember the death of Jesus on our behalf.  It is a time for us to recognize that we needed to be reconnected to God, and only through Jesus’ being handed over to die, not by Judas only, but by God, only through his willing sacrifice for us, do we become recipients of this amazing grace.  It is a time for us to reflect on the expectation that we, in turn, are to be about offering that amazing grace to others through the generosity of our time and talent and treasure.

We get a reminder that sharing in the Lord’s Supper is a time to remember that we are summoned to care for the least of these, for it is ignoring the needs of others which causes us to eat the bread and drink the cup unworthily.    Every time we eat the bread and drink the cup, we are proclaiming Christ.  Every time we eat the bread and drink the cup, we become living testimonies to the unity Christ calls us to—no matter where our differences lie.

We get a reminder to reflect on our own table practices…we can ask ourselves, “Are we a community which is making room at the table for all?  I think that means at all of our tables—the communion table, the leadership table, the play table, the study table, the dinner table here at church and our own personal dinner tables at home.   Who have you invited for dinner recently so that you can get to know them better?  Who will you bring to the next church wide event?  Let us be intentional about keeping the door open to let our neighbor in.  Amen.

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