Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Community at the Table

Does the Lord’s Supper really matter? Couldn’t we use those 10 minutes of our worship service for something else, something more uplifting? Maybe 10 more minutes of some really moving praise songs, or, maybe something really great, like, I don’t know…a longer sermon! I had an interesting conversation with one of my preaching students a couple of years ago. I had just presented an introduction to the course. Because the class is a “preaching” course, I’m sure I made it sound like preaching was the most important thing under the sun. He came up to me with a very interesting question. He said, “Someone told me that there was a time in the history of the church when the Lord’s Supper was the most important thing in Christian worship services.” He said, “They told me that the Lord’s Supper, back then, was even more important than the sermon.” “Is that true?” Yes, that is true, and Father, forgive us if we have pushed the table to the corner of the room. Because where Christians gather, the table must always exist in the center of our room. It matters what we do around the table and it matters who is at the table. All of these things matter because it is not at our table that we gather. We gather here as Christ’s Body around the Table of the Lord. But we mustn’t be too hard on ourselves. The fact is, the people of God have often had difficulty understanding the centrality of the Table. On occasion, we’ve missed the point of the Table all together. Such was the case when Paul wrote his letter to the church in Corinth.

Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you! For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.  So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come.      I Corinthians 11:17-34 (NRSV)

Some of you may recognize that text. It is a text that has traditionally been read during our time of Communion. This text has a context. There was something wrong at the Corinthian table! This group was getting full and drunk, and this other group was leaving hungry and unsatisfied. The rich could arrive early because they were not restricted by their jobs. The poor and the slaves were usually the last to arrive to church, they had more responsibilities. By the time the poor and the slaves arrived, the food was gone, but the rich people were full of food and drunk on wine. According to Paul, when this happens, the “Lord’s” table is absent! They may have eaten together, but when one group is marginalized, when one group is left out, when there is division in the Body of the Lord, it is not the Supper of the Lord that takes place. There has been much discussion over the centuries about what Paul means in verses 27-29. He writes there:

Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.

Much of the discussion has centered on this question: What does Paul mean by “Body of the Lord”? Does he mean the literal body of Jesus? Or, is he here referring to the Body of the Lord, the church? While the case has been made for the literal body of Jesus, I believe the most convincing and plausible explanation is that Paul is referring to you, to us, to the church. I believe this for a few reasons. First, the problem Paul seems to be addressing here is that members of the Body of Christ, the church, are not considering each other. Some are leaving hungry; others are drunk. They are not waiting on each other. There is division at this table! Based upon that context, what else could Paul mean in verse 27 when he writes, “whoever eats or drinks in an unworthy manner…” Doesn’t it make sense that Paul is here referring to what he has been addressing all along? To eat or drink in an unworthy manner is to eat or drink without considering the body, to bring divisions to the Table. Unless Paul is bringing up an entirely different issue without any warning, this seems the most logical conclusion.

Finally, as the discussion concludes, Paul once again reminds him of what all of this is about. “So, brothers and sisters, when you eat together, wait for each other!” From beginning to end, Paul’s message here is consistent. The table of the Lord is where the Body of Christ gathers. To Remember, to Celebrate, to Proclaim their unity with one another and with Christ and for these reasons, church, the Table must remain in the center of our room, at the center of our Faith, at the very center of our identity as children of God. For this reason, it matters who gathers at the table. This is not a table where we meet with our co-workers. This is not a table where we gather to make small talk with casual acquaintances. This is not even a table where we gather with people of other religious faiths to show our goodwill or our openness. This is the Table where the community of Christ gathers. And what happens here is central to our identity, and church, central to our identity, is community.

As I mentioned last week God is a communal God, Father, Son, & Spirit. Those made in His image were made for community. When the various parts of Christ’s body join together to become one around the Table of the Lord there is power in that. In that moment we defy a world that says real, genuine community is impossible. In that moment, we reflect more than any other time the One in whose image we were created.

200 Years ago, a man named Thomas Campbell did something pretty radical. He wrote a paper, a treatise really, outlining his view of Christian unity. You see, he lived in a time when Christians were divided in hundreds or thousands of denominations. As he looked around, he thought to himself, “This is wrong.” Christ’s body should not be divided like this! So, he wrote his paper, and in it he declared:

“The church of Christ on earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one.”

What an absurd comment to write in 1809! The church was not one. There were Christians all over the place divided by denominational names and creeds. How could he make such a statement? In fact, He went one step further than this statement. He encouraged Christians from all denominations to leave their labels behind and recognize that they belonged to a much larger body, the one true church of Christ! Many other people joined Thomas Campbell’s cause, most notably his son, Alexander. Together these Christian leaders started a reformation of the church in America, reminding Christians everywhere of their unity in Christ, calling Christians everywhere to cast aside denominational labels, to become Christians only! Some of you know that only a couple of generations removed from their lifetimes, this movement for the unity of Christ’s church divided. The issues that divided them were many. But in 1906, Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ, for the first time were recognized by the US Census Bureau as two separate Christian groups. How tragic! A Christian movement dedicated so much to the unity the church, itself, divided! But as 1909 approached, some of these Christians realized that they were approaching a very important anniversary, the centennial anniversary of Thomas Campbell’s “Declaration and Address”, the document that had as its main purpose to declare the oneness of Christ’s Church. I have to be honest with you that many of them thought they should just let that anniversary pass by. After all, as they had witnessed, the church was divided!

But in the shadow of their recent division and while the wounds were still raw, some of those Christians stood up to say, “We will still profess to the world our oneness in Christ…” “In spite of everything that has happened, we will celebrate this centennial anniversary by displaying our unity to the world.”  What more appropriate place to do that than around the Table of the Lord. So, in October of 1909, over 25,000 Christians, members of the Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ, gathered at a large athletic stadium in Pittsburgh. On that Sunday, they shared together the Lord’s Supper (in every sense of that phrase). Though many issues divided them, the question of instrumental music in worship, the question of missionary societies and a host of other issues, in spite of these issues, they believed and modeled that day what bound them together was much stronger than what divided them.

In case you haven’t gathered this about me yet, I really care a lot about the unity of Christ’s Church. In fact, I think that is what drew me to study church history. I grew up in Churches of Christ, but I never heard the names Alexander Campbell or Barton Stone until I was a grad student at ACU. I fell in love with their vision, probably because I have always shared their frustration with the division of Christ’s church. I remember, as a kid, wondering why there were so many different denominations. I remember asking my mom to tell me the differences between us and Baptists or Catholics or Methodists. I remember, even then, thinking our divisions were so silly, and later, so sad. I loved the vision that said, “Let’s do anything we can to help restore the unity of Christ’s family.” I continue to pray for that regularly and I continue to work for that regularly.

I met last Saturday in Atlanta (quick trip) with a handful of leaders from African American and white churches. We were talking about how to heal the divisions between our two groups. I met over dinner this past week with some of my brothers from here at Glenwood and we talked about how to help Glenwood carry this vision of unity forward. Glenwood, I believe God may have put us in a unique position here in East Texas. This is such a gifted family. This is a family that cares so much for Christ, and the unity of His Church. We have a track record for that. We commemorated the 200 year anniversary of Campbell’s “Declaration and Address” by participating in the Great Communion with our brothers and sister from First Christian, and we do that still every year. This church has had joint services with Our Savior’s Lutheran Church down the street. That doesn’t mean we agree on everything. It means that what we have in common is far stronger than what divides us. This kind of spirit among Churches of Christ, especially in East Texas, is uncommon. Maybe God has put us in a unique position here in East Texas to carry His vision of unity forward. I don’t know what that may look like, but I pray for it daily, and I want you to pray that prayer too.

In a moment, we will gather around Christ’s Table. Will you remember the Body when you take the Supper? The Body not only in this room, but the Body down the street, and across town. Will you pray as we eat that God would unite us into one church? Will you pray that the witness of our oneness will be so strong that those who do not yet know our Savior will be drawn to such a strange site? People who are not alike are not supposed to get along like that! People who are not alike are not supposed to sing and pray together! People who are not alike are certainly not supposed to eat together! But we are not ordinary people. We are Christ’s Body! Lord, give us strength to act like it.

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