1 Corinthians 11:17-22
What a good job Paul wasn’t writing to us! Who does he think he is? He actually wrote to a church telling them they’re worse, rather than better when they come together, their Communion is seriously deficient, people are excluded, and they are most definitely not to be commended. Fancy receiving a letter like that!
To make sense of any of the letters in the Bible, we always need to remember that many of them were written as replies to original letters we don’t have; and to ask who wrote it, why did they write, who were they writing to, why did they write it, and how has it been hacked about since then?
How fortunate we are that Paul was writing to a church in Corinth, hundreds of years ago, totally different from us in the kind of church they were, and the context in which they lived. However, I think we’re kidding ourselves, if we think there’s nothing at all for us.
I’ve received an email from Paul to Farnham URC (if you don’t know what an email is, just think of it as a letter).
Greeting to all the saints in Farnham!
I have heard much about you all, and how hard you work for the Lord. You are busy people, and you work very hard, but do remember to also read your Bibles and to pray, as well doing things.
You will know that I wrote to your sisters and brothers in the church in Corinth many centuries ago. In their day sharing bread and wine, a proper meal, was part of their service every time they met together. They were a wide social group, and some of them were slaves. They couldn’t get away from their masters to come to church for very long, so they arrived after the others and were on the edge of the group. Some of them even found themselves outside the houses in which they were meeting, looking in through doorways. They arrived hungry, but the people who had arrived first, and were rich and well fed were eating and drinking everything, so the hungry folk on the edge of the crowd went away hungry still. What a distortion of following Christ and putting our faith into action that was!
At least you have plenty of room for everyone to fit into your church today. And you have plenty of bread and wine for everyone, and you even make sure it’s non-alcoholic wine and there is some gluten free bread, so everyone really can share the meal.
However, as an outsider looking in at what you do it all looks rather odd to me! You talk about a celebration, but none of you look very happy. I expect you’re trying to be serious, but people who don’t know you might be mistaken for thinking you were miserable at a major celebration!
You talk about a meal, but you only have tiny amounts of and bread – just a symbolic amount – is that really what all those times Jesus shared meals with people was about?
You talk about sharing one bread, but you have some little cubes of bread as well as a loaf. Is that sharing in one bread, which you talk about?
You use some very curious little glass thimbles for your wine. I bet they’re really expensive to buy and fiddly to wash up, and they’re not really sharing in one cup. Did you know that for nineteen centuries the church shared a common cup? Your spiritual ancestors who built your edifice even supplied you with four special common cups to use, although you keep three of them in a cupboard and don’t allow people to use the one does come out of the cupboard.
The other thing I’ve noticed, looking in from the outside, is that you have this Communion service every month, but if it was really special wouldn’t have it every week? Or if it was a special treat wouldn’t you have it very rarely, or on special occasions, rather than by the calendar?
Looking in from the outside, it looks odd to a stranger’s eyes, but it that helps you to meet the Lord, then that’s all to the good.
But, I need you think a little more deeply. If you gather at our Lord’s Table, and share his meal, it means being truly reconciled with each other. Those who think differently from you, those whom you don’t like are just as much a part of Christ’s body as you are. If you take communion together, isn’t our Lord challenging us to talk things over with each other? If you shut yourselves off from some, and form little groups, there’s no hope of mutual understanding.
The really exciting thing about that church I wrote to in Corinth all those years ago was that back in those days it was the one place where all the barriers were broken down. Their world was very rigidly divided along every line you could imagine, but the church was the one place where all of them could and did come together. Looking in from the outside, as a stranger, it does look like most of you are quite well dressed and I suspect not many of you worry too much about where the next meal is coming from, but do remember to make room for people who aren’t like you.
What I reminded that church in Corinth was that a true church is where the art of sharing is not forgotten. If people try to keep things to themselves and to their own circle they are not really being true to Christ, who showed us his greatest gifts, not in jealously guarding his privileges, but in giving them away.
Dear friends, do not take offence at this stranger looking in and questioning your cherished practices. I do not mean to tell you’ve got it all wrong, but to ask a few questions and ask you to think deeper than the way you’ve always done something.
My missive should arrive with you during that time of year called the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. That’s a jolly good thing, but something for 52 weeks of the year, not just one. I challenge you to consider that Christian Unity really begins with the people next to you in the pews, and God challenges you to be reconciled with each other, not just the people you like. If you don’t try that, there’s not a great deal of hope for unity between the different branches of the church, is there? So, as you share your Communion at our Lord’s Table you share one body, and yo are, each and together, a part of his body with all other followers.
Grace to you, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I remain your obedient servant, Paul the apostle.