A Sermon on 1 Cor 11:17-34
It seems somewhat ironic to have entitled today’s sermon theme ‘more than a meal’ when a tiny scrap of bread and a sip of wine could hardly be described as a meal.
Yet this tiny scrap of bread and sip of wine have been understood for centuries to be connected to a moment within a meal shared between Jesus and his disciples. It was a moment in which Jesus encouraged his disciples to remember him; his body and blood; his presence in the world; by breaking bread and sharing wine together.
|Creative commons: Ian Britton|
Nearly 2000 years have passed and here we are still sharing these elements and wondering what lies behind and beyond our eating and drinking. Where did it come from? How will it change us? What is its purpose?
Looking back to its origins we know Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell a story of Jesus sharing bread and wine and encouraging his disciples to continue to do so after he has gone to remember him.
In the earliest communities of followers of Jesus there is evidence that they did precisely as Jesus had instructed them.
In the book of Acts we hear that the first Christians in Jerusalem gathered on the first day of the week, Sunday, for the breaking of the bread. Although the wine is not mentioned the inference is understood by scholars to be that gathering and sharing in the breaking of bread which Jesus had instructed his followers to do.
Today we read from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians a section relating to how the people were gathering and what the focus of the gathering should reflect when the bread and wine was shared.
It is in Paul’s letter that we see how the early Christian community struggled to understand the nature ofis event of sharing bread and wine and how it was connected to their following of Jesus. It is from this section of this letter that the church, for much of its history, has borrowed Paul’s words as the setting of the feast:
“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you...”
To help us understand a little more deeply the meaning of communion for us I want to look a little more closely at what was happening in Corinth and what Paul’s concern was because it is from this situation that I believe we have ended up where we are today.
If we were to travel back in time to Corinth we would find no church building and that the people who gathered on the first day of the week did so in someone’s home. It was probably the home of one of the wealthier members of the Christian community.
Here they shared in a meal, a dinner party as it were. Now in the ancient world the dining area was usually a separate room in the house which would have seated a relatively small group of people, maybe a dozen or so. The process for meal taking was based on social status. Those more important members of the community ate first and so on down to the least. This was the regular practice in the ancient world.
It appears that this practice had been adopted by the Christians who were gathering in Corinth to the extent that some were eating much, whilst others were going hungry. Additionally, some were consuming large amounts of wine to the point of being drunk.
Based on Paul’s description it is clear that when the community was coming together they were coming together for a full meal. And based on his words about the ‘taking of the cup after supper’ it has been understood by scholars to suggest that the bread may have broken early in the meal whilst the drinking of wine occurred at the end of the meal.
The way we celebrate communion today looks nothing like this, there is no meal sharing and we are not gathered in someone’s home. Yet, it may in fact be what was occurring at Corinth that has led us into the situation.
Paul’s chief concern about what was occurring was a social one which had religious connotations. He was not concerned about the liturgical practice or worried about what was happening to the bread and wine. Is it really Jesus body and blood? No. Paul was worried about how the celebration was marred by division and exclusion.
This division and exclusion was completely contradictory to what Paul understood remembering Christ was all about. by challenging the practice and setting the words of institution into the gathering Paul was reaffirming that this was not the simple sharing of a meal, it was a liturgical act. More than that in the remembering it was not to be simply like a weekly funerary remembrance of Jesus but a tangible act of remembering his life and expression of hope that Jesus would return.
It is these corrections to the community Corinth which I suspect have led the Church away from the full sharing of a meal into a formalised process of celebrating and remembering with the bread and the wine. Whether we actually have a more faithful expression is questionable but that the social division and exclusion based on how much people eat and drink has certainly been removed.
If we bring ourselves forward in time to our own celebration in which we share the bread and wine over nearly 2000 years there has been a great deal of reflection and development of the process of our Eucharistic celebration.
For me one of the strongest aspects of our celebration is summed up in the word anamnesis. Anamnesis is the act of remembering and I like that it sounds like amnesia because I think of it as reversing our collective forgetfulness.
Here at the table we remember that whilst we might forget God, God does not forget us and this is indeed good news.
We remember the saving acts of God through history when we pray especially in what is known as the great prayer of thanksgiving.
Of course we remember Jesus: his life, his death, his resurrection and the promise that he will come again.
Yet here we also remember that we are bound not simply to God but to one another as well.
Remembered rightly, communion is not just about remembering the past event of Jesus death but also the future to which we and the whole creation are being drawn: life with God and one another.
What is vital here is that our remembering, an act which is transformative, points us beyond ourselves.
Jesus life, his descent into the world through the incarnation, is about God entering into the creation and reaching out to others. Jesus healing; his casting of demons; his acts of forgiveness are ultimately about the restoration of community and reconciliation of people with God. This was at the heart of Jesus presence in the world. The promise of the resurrection is not simply a promise that I get to go to heaven when I die but that God has a future for we who are his people and that future is one we share in together.
In this sense eating a little bit of bread and drinking a sip of wine each Sunday is not simply about saving you personally it is about reminding us that we are God’s people together as we share in a meal with one another.
We do not come as individuals to the table but as a gathered people and through the history of the church we have come to the understanding that because there is no separation between those who are alive and dead in Christ when we gather to share the communion of saints gathers with us.
Not only are we reminded that our life in Christ is a shared life we are reminded that Jesus coming into the world was for the sake of others.
Jesus did not come to set up a holy club where individuals could come and eat some bread and wine each week to stay saved. Jesus came to serve the world and when we eat and drink at this table we do so remembering that this is a foretaste of the coming kingdom promised for all people and that we who have encountered this are called to serve the world for which Christ died.
Communion cuts at the very core of the divisions of the church in which we do not all welcome one another to the table but just as in Corinth have learnt ways to exclude one another. Communion cuts at the very core of the individualistic society in which we live and at the pietistic traditions of personal salvation that many of us have developed. In these things communion challenges our individualism, our exclusivity, our religiosity, our lack of compassion because here we remember Jesus.
In sharing the bread and wine we share together and we do so to be renewed as we led from this table to serve the world for which Christ lived and died and continues to pray.
Paul was right to challenge the problems of the Christian gatherings in Corinth and maybe because of what Paul said the element of sharing a meal was removed to help Christians understand that what was occurring was more than a meal. Yet I cannot help but think that just because the meal sharing was removed that we have come to a better understanding of what it really means to be God’s people together and love one another as Christ loved us.
As we continue to sit with that tension I believe as we share we can only do so in grateful thanksgiving for the God remembers us despite our ability to remember all that God has done for us. This is indeed grace and the taste of bread and sip of wine taken in the context of our gathered worship reminds us of this.