This week our communion service will be shaped somewhat different to what most of you will be expecting. We will come to communion before the sermon rather than after it, and instead of emphasising communion as a response and extension to the preaching gospel as well as a part of intercessory prayer, this way the emphasis will shift to communion as a means to bring our need for forgiveness and the embracing mercy of Gods love to the surface.
This of course has a reason.
Preparing for next weeks sermon on 1 Corinthians 12 which talks about the Christian community as the body of Christ, I realised that just before that, in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul writes about communion and the disconcerting things he has heard about the practices that are part of it in the congregation at Corinth. It is out of those concerns, out of his writing about communion that the image of 1 Corinthians 12, the image of the Church as the body of Christ emerges. (And not the other way around.) When he starts talking about communion Paul talks about community and all it entails. Linking communion and community together as two vital, mutually inclusive things the Church cannot function without.
Today, by reversing the order we are accustomed to, we will experience that in the order it appears in the letter to the Corinthians: Communion first and what that means for our life of faith as a logical conclusion emerging from it.
Sermon: Gathered around the table
It is after a number of more general moral instructions that Paul comes, in chapter 11 to the heart of his message to the Corinthians. Up until chapter 11 he has spoken to them with all kinds of good advice and guidance, wrapped in positive and encouraging words full of praise for their commitment to the gospel and their endeavour to try and live out the gospel as he has handed it on to them. He addresses them as "brothers and sisters" suggesting intimacy, familiarity and a certain affection.
Not all is well in Corinth. There are factions and conflicts, there are misunderstandings and misconduct, but up to Chapter 11 the tone is one of pastoral guidance and explanation and gentle exhortation. Up until he comes to things concerning the Lords Supper. There suddenly the tone changes and becomes urgent, passionate and emotional:
"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."
This is where, for Paul it comes to the crunch, to the heart of the matter: where communion and community are concerned.
I cant believe it, says Paul, that the divisions among you extend to the Lords table, but from what I hear I have to accept that it is true. What I have heard is that when you come together there are other things on your mind than celebrating the Lords Supper, I find it hard to believe, but there it is, this is what I have heard, that you do not honour the table of the Lord, but defile it with inappropriate conduct.
"When you come together each of you goes ahead with their own supper, and one goes hungry and the other goes drunk!"
My mind boggles!
Paul uses very strong language, which makes it clear that to him this is very important. It is not the factions and conflicts he has difficulty with. In verse 19 he says that those are part of the process of clarification and explication that will help develop the practice and understanding of faith and the implications of the life that goes with it. At the Lords table however these factions and conflicts should make room for something else.
Underneath the factions and conflicts, underneath all the differences in opinion and variety of approaches to Christianity and faith, should be something deeper that holds the community of Christ together and that should come to the surface at the table of the Lord. Underneath it all should be the awareness of a shared call, of togetherness and the mutual understanding that we are, as community of Christ, brothers and sisters who are each in equal measure loved by God, redeemed by Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit.
A concept that probably, for us who live in 21st Century society of people who value individuality and independence very highly and are ingrained with a middle class politeness which tells us to move on and away rather than engage in conflict or even debate, is even more difficult to grasp than it would have been for 1st century Christians in Corinth that what Paul says here is that conflict is more ok than staying away from whatever it is that may be uncomfortable and not entirely "us" in some others who are part of our community.
Most people I meet who have left the Church have done so because they fell out with someone, or because they did not agree with some process or policy that they felt made it too hard for them to remain part of the community. Not doctrine, bad preaching or poor visiting, but the community, and the difficulties of coping with the more challenging aspects of staying with it, estrange people from the Church. And those who stay often stay because they have good friends and strong connections with the people in the community, rather than because of ideals or dogma they agree with. In a society where commitment to community has in many cases been replaced by a set of various, fairly loose connections to whatever group one feels comfortable with at any one time. And I believe the decline in numbers in our Church communities has a lot to do with that.
Why bother? If you can move on to greener pastures and find others elsewhere who dont challenge you or disagree with your take on things and be more comfortable, why ever would you not move on as soon as joviality starts to wear a bit thin?
This is probably what Paul is talking about with the food and drink issue: not so much the fact that some drink more than they should or use the Lords supper to really splash out on food, but the breach of community with some drinking to excess in cosy groups of likeminded people and others being left out of even the most basic of needs and the disregard and disrespect it shows for their brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul is talking about the sin of breaking the body of Christ up in groups who have a shared interest and background, and forget about the bigger task of living as Christs body and representing him in the world as one.
We are given to each other says Paul, by the grace of God. He has called each and every one of us into the body of Christ to become part of his working in the world. We are not here because we like each other, or because we have a shared interest or background, we are not here because we naturally gravitate towards each other.
We are here because God wants us here, because God has chosen us, because God has brought us, you and me, together to become the living body of Christ, here in this place and at this time.
Factions, discussion, difference of opinion, even personal dislikes are subordinated to the fact that we are all, whoever we are, called to be Gods people who gather at the table and seek to give shape to the way of Christ in our lives.
We may pause a moment here and look at each other. Look at the other people who are gathered here this morning. And perhaps have an especially good look at those we sometimes find a bit of a challenge to be with. God has called each and every one of us to be here to day and answer to his call to follow Christ. Individually and in community. To live out his way together, give shape to his values of breaking and sharing and giving - together and in community.
None of us is more precious or better equipped than any of the others. Each and every one of us is here for a reason: Because God wanted us here and called us. And it is only after that we become friends and find people we easily work with and others who can perhaps be more of a challenge.
First and foremost, before anything else happens we are people who have been called by God to gather around the table and share bread and wine and give each other Christs peace. People called to accept and honour each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Not because we chose each other, but because God has chosen us. Because we trust that God chooses carefully and with purpose. Virginia, Morag, Andrew, Mark, those of you who have taken on the role of church elder or councillor, those who are otherwise involved, those who are only here every now and then, all the way to the babies brought to this Church for baptism all have their role to play and their own unique contribution to make. And only together can we fully fulfil the purposes God has set for this place.
The table of the Lord is at the core of that for Paul, it is there the challenges of community need to be put aside and we for just one hour need to be what we are called to become, the people of God, the body of Christ, no matter what our differences are or who we would rather be with. It is here, around the table we are brought together and the kingdom takes shape in a community that lives out its values. An hour of practice, to keep us on track, and show us and others what we are living towards. Mutual acceptance and understanding, the deep peace of Christ, justice and equality, and a unity of Spirit and purpose.
That we are still working on that in our daily life may be frustrating and hard at times, but if we fail to practice it around the Lords table everything is lost. Because if we stop breaking bread and sharing wine together and let the diversions and discord of the world come between us here, how will we ever succeed in making it happen, even to the smallest extend in our daily life?
Look at each other! Each and everyone of us here has been called, by the Lord himself, to partake of his table. He who knows us better than we know each other or even ourselves, because he is more intimate with us than our own hands and feet, closer than our breathing going in and out (to paraphrase Alfred Lord Tennyson) has called us here as his friends and companions on the road to the Kingdom. He has given us to each other with a purpose: to live out, together, in community, what is still to come, at the end of time, a community where Gods love holds and heals and brings change for the better of all his people and the whole of his world.