I Corinthians 15:1-10
First Lesson: I Corinthians 1:1-9
Children’s story: Acts 9:1-22
Sunday, January 24, 2016
You might remember that little church in Corinth. We talked about them a couple of weeks ago. They were a very diverse mixture of wealthy business men and wealthy business women, and their families AND the slaves and free servants who lived with them.
They were a small church. They were a few people who met for worship every week in the home of Titius Justis. They were the only Christians for miles and miles around. Paul had been their pastor in the years 52 and 53 for about eighteen months, but after that they hadn’t had any kind of a regular pastor. They had nobody to ask their questions of: about who Jesus was and what he had done and how a Christian Church was supposed to believe and behave. There was a Jewish synagogue very nearby but they had Rabbis and they kept all the Jewish holidays and all the Jewish laws and of course they didn’t know Jesus, so they were no help when it came to knowing how Christians should behave and in fact they made trouble for that small Christian Church.
So you remember that about five years after Pastor Paul left, in about 57, the folks in that little church in Corinth wrote a letter to him, asking him a lot of their questions, and three trusted men of the church hand-carried it to him in over in Ephesus. And apparently brought the answer back - the letter we have in front of us.
It’s a beautiful letter. It’s warm and loving from beginning to end. Paul’s love for them shines out of every word. It’s a very personal letter. He talks about coming to them soon and what his itinerary will be on the way to them, and how he doesn’t want his visit to be painful to them. He writes in the first person and calls them “my beloved.” He calls them, “My brothers,” and I’m sure he also means the sisters as well. He talks about what he said and did when he was with them. He apparently has their letter in front of them as he writes and he answers their questions point by point in order. And he signs his letter, “My love be with you in Christ Jesus.”
He gives them the core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Which certainly they weren’t hearing from any of the Jews in the synagogue. He lays out for them again the heart of our Christian faith – that Jesus died, that he was buried, but that he was raised on the third day after his death – which apparently some of them were having trouble believing. So he lists for them all the people who saw Jesus alive after his death: Peter, and the other twelve disciples, and James, the brother of Jesus, and then five hundred people, most of whom were still living and could be called as witnesses to that event.
And then Paul says, Jesus appeared to me, also. I met Jesus also. Which is the story that we told the children a few minutes ago. And he reminds them how he hated Jesus and how he had hated all those who loved Jesus. He would write letters to the Jewish priests and Rabbis in places like Damascus, for instance, and they would report to him if any of the members of their synagogue were beginning to believe in Jesus. And he would go and find them in their hiding places and round them up and handcuff them and haul them off to jail. And he reminds them of how very energetic he was about all that. He gave his days and his nights and in fact his whole life to terrorizing people who loved Jesus.
Now you remember who Paul was. He was a model Jew if there ever was one. He was from an upper class family – an elite family, in fact. He had the equivalent of a Harvard Law degree and a PhD in Theology and had studied under maybe the most brilliant Jewish theologian of the time – Gamaliel. He came from a highly religious family and he could trace his religious background in Judaism back to the very best.
So here’s the picture: one day we have Paul traveling all up and down two countries, searching out people who believed in Jesus and hauling them away to jail to be tortured. Collaborating with the leaders in the Jewish Synagogues. And the next thing we hear about Paul is that he is hauled into court himself, and forced to testify. He’s in prison himself, in chains, and being beaten and whipped and left for dead. Because he was now preaching and teaching about Jesus himself in so many places. Mostly put there in prison by the leaders in the Jewish Synagogues. And he gave his days and his nights and his whole life to telling others about Jesus.
And what brought about this drastic turnaround in his life? He had met Jesus. One day on his way to torture and terrorize people who loved Jesus, he had met Jesus himself. Jesus spoke to him, clearly, in words he could not misunderstand. And once Paul had met Jesus, he took Jesus with him everywhere he went – to small and large cities all over Greece and Turkey and Syria. Wherever he went through that Mediterranean region, he told people about Jesus for the very first time in their lives. He built relationships, and started up brand new churches and wrote letters and made tents and testified in court about Jesus, and sat in cold, damp prison cells and healed people who were disabled and rescued little girls from slavery and preached sermons and had conversations with the most unlikely people. All because he had met Jesus. And he brought Jesus with him wherever he went.
Today is a beautiful day in the life of North Kent Presbyterian Church. We have participated with a dear man of this church in his baptism and we have welcomed Ron and Deb and Kathi, publically, into membership in this church. And maybe you are remembering the day when you stood, maybe in this church, or maybe in some other church someplace and you announced, also, that you loved Jesus and you promised to be his disciple and serve him. Some of you have even told me that you have heard Jesus speak to you, in your ear, in English. In words you could not misunderstand.
So here’s hat that looks like. Once we have made those promises. Once we understand that we are followers of Jesus in the most basic kind of way. Here’s what that looks like.
We wake up on the morning and while our head is still on the pillow, we think over the day ahead of us. We think over what we’ll be doing and the people we’ll be seeing and the tasks in front of us. We picture our classroom, or our cubicle or our office at work, or the bank, or grocery store we’ll be going to, or the restaurant where we’ll be having lunch with a friend, or the spot where we’ll be playing disc golf or the roads we’ll be driving and the rooms of our home. And we think about the people we’ll be seeing and what their circumstances are, as we know them, and what their needs might be. And we’ll plan what we can say and how we can behave to meet the needs of the people whom we will see that day. And how we will bring Jesus to them. Because we are the hands and feet and arms and legs and mind and voice of Jesus in this world. While our head is still on the pillow we think of all that.
And then we’ll step into the shower, and the water will wash us clean from the top of our heads to the bottoms of our feet and we’ll remember and relive our baptisms. As the water comes flowing down on us, we’ll remember our baptisms all over again. And we’ll be reminded how a few drops of water in our baptisms have washed us clean in God’s sight. And how God has named and claimed us in our baptisms. And we’ll step into the world clean - washed clean before God, and ready to take Jesus with us wherever we go that day.
So we’ll take care of our families. We’ll do mundane, loving, little chores for our families. And some of us will drop off food and at the North Kent Community Center. Or we’ll write generous checks to this church for the work we do for God here. Or some of us will plan the lesson that we’re going to teach our Sunday School children, or the lesson for the adult Bible studies we’ll be attending. Or some of us will be visiting some of our dear shut ins. Or helping people trouble-shoot their computers. Or teaching in a classroom. Or serving on a committee in this community. Or helping people learn to walk again. Or shoveling snow. Or having important and unimportant conversations with a neighbor. Or going to the hospital with a family member. Or taking out the recycling. And at least one of us will be spending the next several days writing a sermon in her head, and finally on paper. And she’ll also be doing the laundry and cleaning the toilet. And all through the day, and at night when our weary bodies are too tired for anything else – we will sit in front of God in silence and pray.
Many years ago my Uncle John and Aunt Sylvia were missionaries in what was then called Ceylon. (now Sri Lanka) Uncle John was a huge man – in every way, well over six feet tall, probably close to three hundred pounds, and I swear he never stopped talking and exuding positive energy. They would come back to Grand Rapids with their family for brief periods and when they did that they lived not far from us. One day I stopped in at their home and Uncle John was very quiet. We chatted for a short time about nothing much in particular and then I got up to leave. He said to me, “Paula, I was wondering who would bring Jesus to me today, and it was you. Thank you.”
So that in the end, everything we do, we do for God. Because we are followers of Jesus. Because we have met him on the road and he has changed our lives. Because we are learning every day, all over again, what it means that we have given our days and our nights and our whole lives to Jesus.
II Timothy 2:8-15
First Lesson: II Corinthians 11:21-29
Children’s story: Genesis 37:1-28
We are continuing our short series of letters written to small churches and today we have been reading from both II Timothy and II Corinthians.
So here’s the story before the story. If we had read the very first verses of the second letter to Timothy, as it’s called, we would have read very clearly that it was written by Paul, to the man whom he calls his “beloved child,” Timothy. So it does appear that the well-known apostle Paul wrote this letter to a dear colleague named Timothy. And that may be the case. But the very smart people whom I always consult about things like this give us another, more likely picture. They tell us that these words in II Timothy were probably written in the very first years of the second century, maybe about 100 or 110. But we know that Paul died in prison, about the year 68, in Rome, under the Emperor Nero whom you have heard so much about – that wicked Roman Emperor who hated Christians and did so much to torture and kill them. So in all likelihood this letter was written about forty or fifty years after his death, and Paul didn’t really write it. Instead, it was probably written by some leader in the Christian Church in the second century who had known Paul and wrote in his name. We’ve talked about that before – how common that was in those years for an unknown person to write in the name of a famous person. It is possible, even, that this unknown person took fragments of letters that Paul had written, maybe even letters he had written to his dear friend Timothy and cut and pasted pieces of those letters into the form that we have in our Bibles today. That seems the most likely possibility. That what we have read today was written many years after Paul’s death, by somebody who quoted from his other letters.
But the story of the book of II Corinthians which we also read this morning is quite different. Pretty much all the smart people we consult say that indeed, Paul did write that letter himself. So when we read about all the times he had been in prison, and all the times he had been beaten and shipwrecked and floating in the ocean for a day and night, and in danger from robbers and all the other dangers he tells us about – and often near death - that really is Paul, writing to us about his own experiences. And you remember that many of the people who were reading this letter in the first century and also the second – many of those people were also living through imprisonment and torture and facing death. Under Nero and Emperor Domitian and to some extent Emperor Trajan who followed him.
Now I have never been in prison as an inmate and I don’t think that any of you have, either. Though I have visited in jails more times that I ever wanted to. And I have sat in court to support dear parishioners more times than I want to remember. I have never been chained up in my own home, and I’ve never been in handcuffs, and I doubt that any of you have, either.
Our author for today does know about that, though. He talks about being chained like a criminal, though he was innocent. But, he says, “The word of God is not chained.” And then he goes on to talk about the mystery of how we can be chained but free. Or in prison but liberated. Or handcuffed but able to move freely. Or beaten down but not defeated.
So I have been spending some time these last couple of weeks thinking to myself how we are captive but free. Or how we are in prison, but can be liberated.
Some of us are held captive by what somebody told us many years ago. That we’re not good enough or smart enough or capable enough. Or not handsome enough. Or pretty enough. Or we do things poorly. Or we don’t speak well. Something somebody said to us a long time ago that wasn’t true then and certainly isn’t true now. But those words have followed us all our lives and caged us in. Kept us back from being our best. Surely kept us from being the free and beautiful and lively person whom God created us to be.
Or sometimes we are overcome by guilt. No matter how we try, no matter what good intentions we have, we cannot seem to do the good that we long to do. Every evening we play back the tape of the day and it’s full of the wrong things done and said and the right things not done and said. And the memories of all those failures pile up in our lives and immobilize us. And we are stuck. We might as well be in chains.
Or sadness overwhelms us. Deep, deep sadness. Too many people we know are ill – mentally or physically. Too many we love are dying. Too many people are poor, and too many people in our families are making bad choice and too many people are caught up in alcoholism or drugs or eating disorders. Or we’ve had a string of “bad luck” that we can’t get past. The downward spiral continues without a let up or any kind of change in the right direction and there seems to be no hope or happiness anywhere. The days are always cold and gray and it’s been a long time since we felt any joy. And it feels like we’re in a deep, dark prison.
Or sometimes we are simply too busy. We are frazzled and stressed because nobody could possibly do all we try to do in one day. We become really good time at time management and really good at multi-tasking, and we get up early and work well into the night sometimes. But we are still stressed and anxious and very tired. We don’t know how to say “no.” Or we don’t know how to do what is rightfully ours to do, and let the rest go. We’re in such a state that we can’t do much of anything. And what we do, we do poorly. We feel trapped.
And this afternoon or later today you can pray and ponder all this, and recall how you are chained. Or trapped. Or in prison. Or handcuffed.
And then our author – in chains, you remember, writes to people who have every likelihood of being in chains themselves and in handcuffs and in prison. And he quotes a hymn they probably sang in worship every Sunday, and he says, “If we die with Jesus we will live with him. If we persevere with him we will also reign with him. If we lose faith, he is faithful still.”
Now I do not say this lightly. Some people do say it lightly, I know, and don’t trust them. You know that I do not say this lightly. But there is this: That when we are at our very worst, we call out to Jesus. We invite Jesus into our insecurity and self-doubt. And guilt. Or our sadness, or our unhealthy attitudes or relationships. Or our endless stress. We invite Jesus into all that with us. We tell him, as well as we can, how overwhelmed we feel and how we can’t get those ugly words and thoughts out of our minds. And we give that sadness and that guilt to him. Sometimes we even physically pull the pain and the stress out of our own hearts and hand it him. Or we take the heavy pack off our backs and lay it at his feet. Or we open up our minds and let all those muddled, jumbled, frantic thoughts fly right into his hands.
And then we are free. Then we are no longer bogged down. Then we are no longer tired or frightened or sad. Nothing has magically changed about our circumstances, and our lives are still our lives. But Jesus has taken our load and we feel a deep relief. Our circumstances do not control us. Our stress cannot get the best of us. Our anger cannot have the last word in us. Even though we may be enmeshed in unhealthy relationships, there is a tiny corner of our hearts that is free. Even though we still have too much to do we have relaxed into the warmth and love of God. Even though there may be deep sadness in our lives, there is a flicker of relief. Because of the comforting power of Jesus with us.
Or maybe you will take the example of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. We read his creed just a moment ago. He has lived through a lifetime of pain and evil and discrimination. He has struggled with brutality and the endless, senseless killings of the black citizens of South Africa. Through it all he has remained steadfastly non-violent and unbelievably forgiving of the murderers. And he writes for all of us “Goodness is stronger that evil, love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, victory is ours, through him who loved us.”
This morning we are here in Michigan in the twenty-first century. We have heard the story of a young teenager named Joseph who lived over 3,000 years ago and we are sitting in his company. His brothers hated him and meant to do him evil, but God turned the evil into good.
We have read the song of a young peasant girl named Mary who lived 2,000 years ago and we are sitting in her company. She sang about the power of God against those who threatened to crush her.
We are sitting in the company of a small Christian Church in some unnamed place in Turkey or Greece 1900 years ago. They are reading a letter from a man who’s in prison in chains, and they could have every expectation that the same thing would happen to them. They sit in their worship service in somebody’s home and sing of the faithfulness of God to them.
We are sitting in the company of the wounded, bruised church of South Africa and their Bishop Tutu in the twenty-first century. They have experienced about all the evil and brutality a human can suffer and they sing that goodness is stronger than evil and they sing of the victory they claim in Jesus.
So take Paul who lived in the first century. Take Desmond Tutu who is living in the 21st century. Sing their triumphant songs with them. I do not know how to say it better.
And I simply ask you to experience that freedom for yourself.
I Timothy 6:3-10 – Second Lesson
Children’s story: John 12:1-8
First Lesson Luke 12:13-31
So picture this. You are a Jew living in Greece, let’s say and you’re a member of a very small Christian church – so small that it meets in peoples’ homes. The church is made up of a few large extended families and all the people who are somehow connected to those families – including slaves and free servants. There might be about fifty people in all. Your church was started about twenty years ago, let’s say, by a visiting pastor who came through your city and stayed for about a month. He’s no longer with you, and since then you haven’t had a regular pastor, though there have been some who have come and stayed for a few weeks or so at a time. Your little church is the only Christian church in your city and the few of you who meet together are the only people in your city who believe in Jesus. You’ve never met Jesus, of course. But you’ve heard stories about him and you have come to believe in him because of what your pastor and others have said. The nearest Christian church, if you are very lucky, is about twenty-five miles away, walking, over very bad roads. Most are much farther away. So you’re pretty much isolated.
What you do have is letters from Christian pastors that have been circulating around to all the Christian churches, and these you treasure. When pastors would write a letter to your church, you would read it carefully and copy it and cherish it and pretty much memorize it. And when anybody from your little church was going on business to a city where there was another Christian church, you take that letter along and share it with them. So that they can read it and copy it and cherish it and pretty much memorize it. So in that way, copies of many letters from several Christian pastors are being accumulated in small churches all throughout Greece and Turkey. (And eventually they’ll end up in our Bible.) A few of them have actually been written by Paul, who was a much loved and much respected pastor. And others have been written by people who knew him well, writing in his name. Which was a very common practice in those days. So you have all these letters.
But. You still have a lot of questions. You have lots of questions about Jesus and what he did and what it meant that he died. The other people in your city worship the goddess Athena, or Hermes, or Dionysius. There are some other Jews in your city, but they have rabbis and they worship in the synagogue. So they’re no help when it comes to knowing anything at all about Jesus, or about how the church is supposed to function or what elders are supposed to do, or what deacons are supposed to do – or any number of questions like that. And one person in your group has one idea and another has another idea of how it should be. We talked about some of that last week.
So there’s a lot of fighting in your little group as you struggle to answer these questions about Jesus and about the Christian church with nobody much there in person much to guide you.
And besides that, people are coming from outside your church, mostly Jews from in the local synagogue. They are trying to stir up trouble for all of you. Because you remember how that was. When people immigrated to your city from their homes and countries all around the Mediterranean Sea, they naturally clustered with others from their home country. The Italians from Rome clustered with other Romans and kept their Roman customs and their Roman gods. The people from Turkey settled near other Turks and spoke Turkish and ate Turkish food and celebrated Turkish holidays and worshipped their gods with each other. And the same with the Syrians and the Egyptians. And the Jews settled near each other also and kept their Jewish laws and traditions and worshipped together in the synagogue. And you may remember that it was Paul’s custom that whenever he came to a new city, he would discover where the other Jews were meeting and would attend their synagogue. And out of courtesy to a guest, they would invite him to speak, and that’s when the trouble started. Because he would start talking about Jesus, whom they had never heard of, and didn’t want to hear of, and before very long at all, the leaders in the synagogue had run Paul of town – literally running for his life, sometimes even escaping from jail. But a few of you in that synagogue believed what Paul had to say, and you formed a small Christian Church in the one or two weeks that Paul was with you. And once Paul was out of town, safely, the leaders in the synagogue came to harass the members of your brand new church and sometimes they tortured you and put you in jail.
And then this letter comes to you. It’s in the name of Paul, written first to another pastor named Timothy. And it gives all sorts of instructions about how to be the church. Who should be elders and deacons and pastors and what they should do. How to take care of widows who have nobody to support them in the days before Social Security and pensions. How slaves should relate to their masters. How husbands and wives should relate to each other. This letter talks about prayer. And preaching. And who Jesus was. For several pages this letter goes on. The letter warns against all sorts of people out there who will try to cause trouble for the church with their false ideas, and their conniving, scheming ways. Which you have certainly experienced there in your little church.
And then the letter says, “Don’t be like those people. They are conceited and they don’t know what they’re talking about and they love to fight. They quibble about this and that picky little thing. They are envious and suspicious. They have dirty little minds and they have no idea what is true. Don’t be like them. Run for your life from all of that.”
Instead, says the letter writer, “be loyal to God. Be faithful to Jesus. Be truthful. Be kind. Be gentle and full of patience. Go after what is good and pure and loving. And be content with what you have.” The writer says, “We came into this world naked and we’ll leave this world naked. So if you have enough to eat and enough to drink, be happy with that. Don’t set your mind on wild dreams that you can’t achieve and don’t be tempted by schemes to get rich quick. He says, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” He also said, “Godliness with contentment is great gain.”
I’ve been thinking this past week what all that might mean for us. And let me be very clear about this: God does not want us to be stupid about our money. Or careless. Or make bad decisions about our money. Or fail to think ahead wisely.
But there does come a time when we say, “I have enough. I have enough food. I have enough clothing. I have enough put away for my retirement. I have enough in savings. I have a large enough house. I have a good enough car. I have enough toys in my garage or my den. I have given enough very expensive gifts.” There comes a time when we say, “I have enough. I don’t need any more and I don’t want any more, and I’m not going to go chasing after any more.”
About fifteen years ago now my parents moved into a retirement condo. My mother has always been an excellent financial planner, and they had a house full of stuff and a barn full of stuff and at least one farm sized tractor and two cars and whatever else they had collected over a life time. They downsized well. I know this. I helped them move. And over the years my mother has given away a great many other things that she treasured and that seemed important to her life. Most recently she has moved into one room in the nursing section of the Holland Home. Once again she has given way a great many clothes and a great many household items and a lot of furniture – some of it very beautiful - that she won’t need now. I know this. I’m the one who brought it all away to good places.
These days my mom is in a wheelchair all the time and dependent on others to help her for a great deal. She has far less stuff than she’s ever had in her life and she’s very hard of hearing and she’s not traveling any more. Her life seems very small. But on Thanksgiving Day we had a meal together, and my mother prayed the most beautiful most heart-felt, most honest, trusting prayer I have ever heard. It came bubbling up straight from her soul into God’s heart. I will always cherish that.
Mom celebrated her 95th birthday a week ago today and we brought cake and ice cream. She sat in her wheelchair among what little is left of a lifetime of her lovely possessions. And she looked at my brothers and me and she said, “I feel so rich, surrounded by all my children.”
And one of these days before long, my mother’s soul will go to God. She’ll leave behind a few clothes, and her bed and her chest of drawers and her plants and the pictures of all of us and her soul will go singing to God. Uncumbered by what she doesn’t need.
My mother has taught me a great deal in her life – in words and by example. And I’m still learning from her. I am seeing for myself what this letter tells us: that “Godliness with contentment is great gain.”
First Lesson: Luke 22:14-23
Second Lesson: I Corinthians 11:17-33
Children’s story: Luke 24:13-35
So here’s the story before the story. Here’s the story about the little Christian church in Corinth in Greece. Paul was there for about eighteen months in about the year 50. So in other words, that was about twenty years after Jesus’ death and very early in Paul’s ministry and all of his travels throughout the Mediterranean region. At the time Paul was in Corinth it was a city of about 100,000 people and among the largest and most important city in the Roman Empire. It was also a city of immigrants. Folks from all over the countries of the Mediterranean world had come to Corinth – from Italy, Syria, Egypt, and were doing business there. Paul had lived in Corinth with a married couple named Priscilla and Aquila. They had a tent making business and since Paul also had the skills of that trade, he joined them in the work and lived with them. Eventually he formed a very small church that met in the home of a man named Titius Justus.
Now let me tell you about this church. Titius Justus and his family were members, which would have included any of his extended family and also the slaves in his household and any former slaves and tradespeople whom the family may have employed who lived with them. Other men and their families were also a part of this small church in Titius Justus’ home: Stephanus, Fortunatus, Achaicus. And a man named Crispus and also Gaius. There were also some strong, very independent, successful business women: one of whom was named Chloe. Now we can’t be sure and we have to try to read between the lines here, but there was some sort of controversy swirling around Chloe in that church. And along with all these people whom I have named were their families and their slaves. So we presume that Titius Justus’ home was large, to be able to accommodate all those worshippers, but we also presume that the church was quite small – small enough so that all the members could fit into one house.
So you’re getting the picture here: that the congregation is a great mixture of wealthy people from the upper classes – influential Romans living in Corinth – and women of high status, and also trades people and slaves and former slaves.
And here’s the rest of the picture. Paul was with them as their pastor for only about eighteen months and then he moved on to start up other churches in other places, leaving these brand new Christians to fend for themselves. But remember: none of them had ever known Jesus, AND none of them had ever known anybody who had known Jesus, AND they had never seen another Christian Church before, and of course a Christian Church was quite different from the Jewish synagogue in Corinth, which they had seen. Because by the way, the synagogue was right next door to Titius Justus’ home and Crispus had been a leader in that synagogue. AND there weren’t any older people to tell them “This is how we’ve always done it.” Because they had never done it before. AND this was a group of strong minded, wealthy, successful people who were very used to managing their own businesses and doing things quite nicely exactly as they saw fit. They are not used to collaborating or sharing leadership or power. Now some of them wanted to stick with the old Jewish traditions: about what kinds of meat they could and could not eat. And others in that little church thought that only fools would pay attention to such restrictions. And some of them thought that women should wear head scarves in worship and others are refusing to do that. And so on. So they were making things up as they went along, and fighting and arguing among themselves as they did it. And even going so far as to sue each other in court.
And finally they sent a delegation of three men, the ones whose names I have just mentioned, and they went off to Paul to who was over in Ephesus at the time with Priscilla and Aquila. And in a letter to him they asked a bunch of questions about how to do things. And apparently the three messengers waited there in Ephesus for Paul’s reply and then carried it back with them. The first letter - at least the first letter that has been preserved for us - to the church in Corinth. We call it “First Corinthians.”
And in the verses we have just read, Paul scolds them for the way they are celebrating Holy Communion. Because here’s what they were doing. They were having large potluck meals in the dining room of Titius Justus’ house. Some people brought a lot, and some people brought very little food. Some came hungry because apparently there wasn’t much to eat at home and they stuffed themselves on their one good meal for the day. Some wandered down the buffet table checking out the various meats and fruits and breads and choosing their favorite dishes. Some got drunk. Some started to eat before the rest arrived. It was a regular free for all.
And Paul said, “This is the body and blood of Jesus we’re talking about. This is the remembrance of Jesus’ death. This is not a time to stuff your stomachs. This is not a social occasion. This is not a place to eat your fill of dainty delicacies, and the sacrament of Holy Communion is certainly not the place to get drunk. What we are talking about,” said Paul “is a communal remembrance of our Savior’s death. All of us together, in a holy, sacred moment of worship.” Paul says to Titius Justus and Fortunatus and the others, and also to us: Paul says, “I wasn’t there for Jesus’ last supper with his friends, and you weren’t there. But we are remembering it anyway, and the way we remember is to do what Jesus did. We take a piece of bread and a cup of juice and we eat and drink. We didn’t see Jesus in his last hours. We weren’t there to see his beaten, broken back and we didn’t see the blood dripping from his hands and feet. But we are remembering it anyway, and re-enacting it with a little piece of bread and a sip of juice. And maybe it’s better than we didn’t witness it all ourselves. Because we might have forgotten, over the years, and the memory might have faded. But now, we see it all over again, freshly, vividly, every time we eat this bread and drink this juice.”
But there was more to the story in Corinth. It pained Paul deeply that there was so much fighting and bickering and suing each other going on in the church he had founded in Corinth and that he loved so dearly. And it pained him even more that they should be fighting over Jesus’ Table. He’s already made the point that this remembering we do of Jesus is not a social event. It’s not a Sunday brunch with the bunch. Now he says to them: “You can’t come to Jesus’ Table if you are arguing and bickering with one another and harboring grudges against each other. That would be a great offense to Jesus. That would dishonor Jesus in the worst kind of way.
Then he adds another concept. Then he uses the word “body” when he talks about the church and he reminds those folks in Corinth and he also reminds us that the human body and the body of Jesus (that is the church) is made up of very distinct but very equal parts. No part is any more important or any more honored than another but each part of the body needs the other parts for its very life. The eye can’t say to the ear, “I don’t need you.” And the foot can’t say to the hand, “what good are you to me?” And some of our inner parts, which we may prefer not to think much about, are vital to our lives.
Maybe some of those wealthy business men and those independent business women thought they were more important in the church than their slaves and former slaves. Or the men were more important than some of the women. Or some who gave more money were more important to the church than those who gave less. So the picture of the body would have been a surprise to them. A startling surprise from the pastor they loved. That they were all equal and that they all needed each other to survive.
And now may I say this: There have been real hurts at North Kent Church. I have heard them. There have been very serious differences of opinion, and anger and frustrations. I have heard all of that and it has been very painful. And I have been so very, grateful, this past year to see the changes in you. I have seen real forgiveness happening here. Some of you have told me your stories about how you have been able to forgive and move on with each other, and my heart has been very glad. I have listened to the happy hubbub in the narthex before worship. I have seen how well the committees of this church are working together. Every Monday I notice your very generous giving. I have seen how everybody in this congregation lends a hand together for mission, some of you very silently. I have heard the deacons remarking about how they’re having to stay later and later on Sundays to clean up after coffee hour because nobody wants to leave. I sense a beautiful new spirit here and I am very, very grateful.
In moment we will be joining together in eating and drinking this bread and juice, and remembering Jesus. Every time we here in this sanctuary take a little hunk of bread and every time we sip juice from a little plastic cup we are telling and re-telling the story of Jesus’ death. With millions all over the world. From the very first two in Emmaus who ate with Jesus on Easter Sunday evening and all the way down through the centuries until the day he comes again.
In our minds it will be as if we were sitting there with Jesus and his friends over a meal and it will be as if we are hearing Jesus say, “This is my body. And this is my blood.” And: “Do this to remember me.” And we will be remembering. And in our hearts we will be full of gratitude.
And maybe there will be another picture in your mind as you eat and drink. Maybe you will picture this congregation – the people who know, sitting here with you – and some you don’t know so well yet - as the body of Christ. The hands honoring the feet and the feet working with the eyes and the eyes cooperating with the ears and the ears working in harmony with the heart and the heart sharing with the mind. All of us held together by our love of each other and of Jesus, and our commitment to him.
What a joyful, sacred, holy celebration that is.