Practicing Communion

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
October 2, 2016
World Communion Sunday

1 Corinthians 11: 17-26 (CEB)
Now I don’t praise you as I give the following instruction because when you meet together, it does more harm than good. 18First of all, when you meet together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and I partly believe it. 19It’s necessary that there are groups among you, to make it clear who is genuine. 20So when you get together in one place, it isn’t to eat the Lord’s meal. 21Each of you goes ahead and eats a private meal. One person goes hungry while another is drunk. 22Don’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.

23I received a tradition from the Lord, which I also handed on to you: on the night on which he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread. 24After giving thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this to remember me.” 25He did the same thing with the cup, after they had eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Every time you drink it, do this to remember me.” 26Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you broadcast the death of the Lord until he comes.

If these words sound familiar to you, they should. The liturgy we use each time we share in communion is drawn directly from the words Paul writes here; the earliest record we have of the regular practice of communion in the Christian church. But what I want us to consider today is the way that Paul frames his mention of the Lord’s Supper as he writes to the Corinthian church. Listen again to what Paul says early on in this passage, “I hear that there are divisions among you….” I hear that there are divisions among you. Divisions. Could it be that Paul’s observation of the Corinthian church is true of our world today as well? Do you hear of divisions? When you look around you, do you see divisions? I certainly do, and it seems like we are becoming more divided all the time.

You know, thousands, and even hundreds of years ago, families lived together as units. So a small community might be made up of a handful of extended families, and a household would consist of several generations living together under one roof. But with the industrial revolution, a changing economy, and the advent of expanded communications capabilities, families don’t live like this anymore. A household usually only consists of parents and children, and the extended family is likely scattered across thousands of miles, living in various communities, and maybe even different countries. We are divided by geography, but those geographical divisions might also contribute to other divisions—there’s not much pressure to reconcile differences when you rarely see your mother or brother anyway. So often, families will let wounds fester and grow, not making any real effort to heal divisions.

Then look at our nation. I don’t think any of us would disagree that our country is locked in a growing gridlock that shows no signs of letting up. Ken is passionate about politics and always has been. And though he admits that it is depressing, he can’t seem to break away from political news, especially in an election year. So a few years ago, Ken was scouring the news one night and he found an article exploring electoral votes in the 20th century presidential elections. It was really fascinating to see how in the mid-1900s, the presidential elections were almost always electoral landslides, with the winner taking all but a small handful of the states. Then in the late 70s and early 80s that started to change, the pinnacle of our division was most evident in the 2000 election, when one candidate won the electoral votes, while another won the popular vote. And though there can only be so much division on an electoral map, we have seen how division can grow even still. I don’t know if it’s the expansion of the 24-hour news channels that are analyzing and commenting on every aspect of national politics, or if it’s the advent of social media and the ability to express strong opinions from behind the relative safety and anonymity of a keyboard and monitor, but we have lost all signs of civil discourse, and our only gain has been more division. Unfortunately, I think this political division has spilled over into our communities, neighborhoods, churches, and even families, not to mention our world. The places we could once count on for unity and camaraderie are rapidly deteriorating as divisions swell.

So let’s go back for a minute and consider what Paul is getting at when he brings up the division among the Corinthians. Corinth was a bustling city at the crossroads of several major trade routes. It was a prosperous city, but like all cities then and today, there were the rich, the working class, the poor, and in Paul’s age—slaves. The new converts to Christianity in Corinth came from all walks of life and every economic tier, but rather than gathering as one for worship, they kept their distinctions, even on the occasion of the Lord’s Supper. You see, at that time, when Christians observed the Lord’s Supper, they actually gathered in homes and shared an entire meal. So in Corinth, when this meal was shared, the rich were eating and drinking lavishly, while the poor were going hungry. They were divided.

So Paul writes his first letter to the Corinthians to address these divisions in their community, and in the passage we heard this morning, Paul gets to the heart of his plea for unity. He says in essence, “Look, you know this tradition of the Lord’s Supper that we taught you…it’s not just something we made up. It came straight from the Lord.” And if you sort of read between the lines, what you hear Paul saying is, “You have to observe this meal just the way we taught you, the way the Lord taught us.” Then, in case they have forgotten, Paul reiterates the tradition of the Lord’s Supper. “On the night on which he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread. After giving thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this to remember me.’ He did the same thing with the cup, after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Every time you drink it, do this to remember me.’”

Now, you might wonder what this has to do with the problem of division in the Corinthian community, or anywhere else for that matter, so let’s focus on that for a minute. You see, the Lord’s Table is the great equalizer. On the night he was betrayed, when Jesus gathered the disciples for a meal, there were around that table once rich tax collectors and ordinary fishermen. Before the meal even began, Jesus knew that two of the people sitting there would sin against him; one by betraying him, and one by denying him. Still, Jesus served them all equally. He knelt and washed their feet; he broke the bread for and shared the cup with each one of them. Their economic status did not matter. Their religious past did not matter. Their weaknesses and failings did not matter. The color of their skin did not matter. Their political leanings did not matter. Their country of origin did not matter. This meal was for each of them, equally. All that may have divided or distinguished them in the world outside that Upper Room was of no significance in Christ’s presence. And that’s why this meal is so important even today, particularly concerning divisions.

You see, when Christ broke the bread and poured the wine, he said “remember” to the disciples. The word we translate as “remember” is from the Greek word, anamnesis, which is a sort of remembering through action. So let me try and explain what that means. If someone asks you if you remember your high school graduation, what you will probably do is recall it. You’ll talk about how a few hundred of you and your peers sat together in a large room, surrounded by parents, friends, and family. You will recall how you were all wearing caps and gowns, and how someone spoke before you each walked across the stage, one by one, to receive your diploma. But if you “remember” in the way that the word anamnesis intends, then you would actually reenact your high school graduation to some degree. You would actually put on a cap and gown. You might walk across the stage and receive a rolled piece of paper as you did when you graduated. It’s not just a recall, it’s a reenactment, a re-living.

So every time we share in the Lord’s Supper, we are not just recalling, we are actually reliving the original Last Supper. So we come to this Table as equals in the eyes of the Lord, and we come reenacting so that we remember Christ’s sacrifice for each of us—no matter who we are or what we’ve done. That’s why Paul says, “Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you broadcast the death of the Lord until he comes.” Christ’s sacrificial death was for all people, and his resurrection declared an end to all divisions—an end to everything that separates us from God, and an end to all the worldly divisions we humans have created.

Now, I want you to hang with me for just a minute, because if this isn’t already complicated enough, I’m going to take it just one step further. Because as Christians, what we believe is that Christ has called us to a particular way of life that should be lived every single day. So as disciples, we are missing the mark if we just show up for worship on Sunday morning but don’t shine Christ’s light the other six days of the week. In the same way, remembering the Lord’s Supper only once a month when we reenact it in worship is missing the mark. This is something we should be living every single day. Are you following me? Even when we are not partaking of communion in the church, we should be practicing communion in the world. We should be living as if there are no divisions. And where there are divisions, we should be working to tear down the walls that divide!

We Christians are not doing enough to break down the divisions that exist in our world today. We are not doing enough to practice communion and work toward the sort of unity embodied at the Lord’s Table. And here’s what I know: if it is true of Christians in general, then it is true of each of us individually.

So as you come to this table today, don’t just remember, but reenact. The unity that you experience in this meal today, take that out into the world and live it there, too. We are a divided people, but in Christ, we all are one. And we should be living as one every day.

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