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.