Summit Presbyterian Church
March 24, 2016
Several years ago a minister came before the New York City Presbytery to be examined for a call. (For those of you who aren’t up on Presbyterian polity, when an ordained minister - also called a Teaching Elder - is called to a position in a different Presbytery, the new Presbytery is required to question him or her on their faith and then vote on whether to let them take the job). Her statement of faith was a perfectly fine Presbyterian statement, except for the paragraph on Holy Communion. She had neglected to say anything about the special nature of the bread and wine or the presence of Christ in the sacrament. It sounded suspiciously Baptist. In Baptist understanding, communion is a time to remember the last supper and the sacrifice of Christ, but the bread and wine are strictly symbols, and in no way embody the presence of Christ, let alone turn into his body and blood. (And if you’re thinking, uh oh, I may be a Baptist when it comes to communion, don’t worry, most of us are, even those of us who are Roman Catholic — but that’s another discussion). Anyhow, a couple of senior ministers from the big churches stood up and questioned her. She didn’t seem to understand where they were coming from — it’s hard when you’re up there - so she didn’t respond in a way that satisfied them. Other ministers tried to give her the answer by asking how was Christ present in communion (by the way, just in case you’re ever examined before Presbytery, you should say that in the Lord’s Supper we encounter the “real presence of Christ”). Anyhow, this back and forth went on for some time before the examination was arrested. She was admitted, but by a narrow vote.
Now, I agree it’s important for Presbyterian ministers to understand the Reformed theology of communion — at least kind of — so the questions weren’t inappropriate. And although I imagine she found the experience traumatic, it wasn’t like we burned her at the stake, which is what Christians used to do with folks who didn’t preach the correct doctrine on this issue. But it’s worth noting that in our scripture this evening, or in any of Paul’s letters, he has no interest in the exact nature of the elements, or in the metaphysical way in which Christ is present. Paul has bigger fish to fry.
Paul’s concerned about the way Corinthians treat each other when they come together for the Lord’s supper. Reading between the lines, and knowing what we do about the customs of that time, this is what scholars think those early suppers were like. The communion meal would be held in the home of a wealthier member. His friends, members of his social class, would be invited to come first, and would enjoy plenty of good food at a table in an inner room. Others — slaves, servants and folks of modest means — would come later, after they had finished their duties at home. They would be relegated to the outer rooms, and not served dinner. Probably everyone then came together for a ritual with bread and wine, but by then some would be stuffed, others would be hungry. A few may had too much wine to know what was happening, we can imagine it was all a bit disheveled. It would be humiliating for the poor and the hungry as they stood near their social betters. In this matter, said Paul, I do not commend you.
Paul reminds them what was handed on: that the Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed, began with thanks, — even as he faced death. He then gave himself fully, without reservation, to his friends, as he broke the bread and poured the wine. There was no plates piled high with food while others were passed over. No hoarding, no shaming, no good seats and bad seats — all were gathered at the Passover table, even the one who was to betray him. The meal and all that followed was love poured out. Jesus was fully aware of what lay ahead, and still was the host. That’s the meal they’re to remember, and that’s the love they’re to reflect.
So later in the letter, after stern warnings against eating the bread or drinking the cup in an unworthy manner, Paul gives some practical advice: when you come together, wait for one another. If you’re too hungry to wait, eat at home, rather than in front of your sister or brother who has none. Social distinctions have no place at the table.
We can take it a step further. Just as we’re to reflect the broad and deep love of Christ at the table, we’re invited to extend that table to the world. So that one day no one will go hungry while another is full. So that one day no one will be humiliated for having nothing while others engage in excess. So that we can eat the bread and drink the wine without our theological differences getting in the way of coming together and treating each other with respect and kindness. So that one day all peoples may give thanks together: for the abundance of creation, for the blessing of God’s love, for the gift of God’s grace that we know through the real presence of Christ who is with us in our eating and our drinking, on this Holy Night and always.