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Reading Someone Else’s Mail 3: Discerning the Body

February 3, 2014

“Reading Someone Else’s Mail 3: Discerning the Body” 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 © 2.2.14 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Every Thanksgiving at the brand-new Westover High School in Albany, GA, we collected food for those we termed the “less fortunate” across the Flint River on the other side of town. The goods were placed in baskets and covered with white tissue paper, then brought forward with great ceremony in a school assembly. I even recall that we boys wore white shirts and dark ties, adding to the formality of the occasion. My mother, having been dirt-poor and hungry herself back in the day, always bought family-sized cans of name brands for me to take to school. But I noticed that some of the other kids fulfilled the letter of the law, but not its spirit by contributing the smallest tins of the lowest-priced brands of stuff they and their parents would never think of eating. I guess they subscribed to the common belief that beggars can’t be choosers, and if you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat anything.

Such attitudes showed a lack of respect for those with little or nothing. But those students and their families didn’t invent disdain for people of a lower social and economic class. The same callousness was institutionalized in Roman customs of the first century. Guests at a dinner were served food of varying quality in different rooms according to their station and their relationship with the host. The ancient Roman writer Juvenal tells of a dinner with a patron that reflects this practice: “You’re given a wine that not even a poultice would take…but your host drinks vintage wine…. You’re served bread you can scarcely break…. But a loaf made out of fine flour, snow-white and soft as gauze, is served your host…. Look at that mammoth lobster, with garnish of asparagus, being served your host…. For you…one shrimp afloat on one half of one egg on a tiny plate…. Look, that half-eaten hare he’ll give us now, or from the haunch of the boar some bits;…. So all of you sit in silence, ready, with bread held tight, untasted, and wait.” Sounds like the old song in which Little Jimmy Dickens remembers being hungry while adults like the preacher ate chicken: “Take an old cold tater, and wait.”

Surely, though, such customs did not prevail in the churches of the same era? Guess again. In Corinth, a Roman colony, groups from the congregation met in scattered homes for prayer services on the Lord’s Day. But when all gathered periodically to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, they met in the evening at the house of a wealthy member. Remember that in the first century there were no sanctuaries or dedicated church buildings. In a typical affluent home, there was a dining room which would accommodate about nine people. A courtyard would handle another 30 or 40 if some stood. The meeting began with a meal, which concluded with the ritual breaking of bread and drinking of the cup we call “Holy Communion.” Everyone was expected, according to the custom, to bring his or her own dinner and wine. So this was a potluck, right? Wrong. The rich host feasted with his friends in the dining room at their leisure. Their time was their own; nobody told them when they could get off work and go. The members who were slaves and common workers toiled seven days a week. By the time they got to the meeting with their meager provisions or nothing at all, the host and his cronies were drunk and stuffed. There had been no thought of sharing or of everyone gathering in the courtyard and joining in a meal at the same time. The bottom line? Class distinctions were preserved, selfishness reigned supreme, and a supper that was supposed to belong to Jesus and unite people in his love became yet another example of the divisiveness and individualism that afflicted the church.

Paul was not a happy camper when he found out about the situation. There were some things he could commend the church for, but not this. He’s very blunt: their actions show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing. His assumption is that being the church means people are partners in Christ; they stand equal before God, because all are sinners and all are saved by grace. The playing field is level. Class and status, race, gender, age—none of that matters. Paul is willing for the more affluent to gorge themselves all they wanted in their own homes, they could drink with their buddies till they floated away at their own private gatherings. But when a house becomes a church, and the meal is a gathering of the people of God, cultural social conventions no longer apply. The church has to be a distinctive community whose life is shaped by the memory of a great gift and whose practice is disciplined. It needs to be a group of people for whom the sacrifice of Christ is the model and whose goal is to be better and to make the world better. As someone has said, it won’t do merely to worship Christ. We need to follow him.

Paul’s solution was disciplined self-examination in preparation for the gathering. To go on as they were was to eat the bread and drink the cup in an unworthy manner. The key was a practice he called “discerning the body.”

When I was growing up, I was told that phrase meant understanding, with my mind, what I was doing. Children, I was told, could not discern the body, so they couldn’t “take communion.” It was only much later that I discovered that discerning the body had nothing to do with what we understand with our minds, with comprehension of and assent to a doctrine. Instead, it is about the state of our hearts, and more specifically, the way we regard our neighbors in the pew and in the community. It’s not about orthodoxy, “right belief,” but rather orthopraxy, “right practice.” Failure in this area is the “division,” in Greek, the “heresy,” that Paul condemns. To discern the body is to recognize that we all belong in the body of Christ, the church, and in a larger sense, that all people belong to God, made in his image. It is to pursue and maintain just and fair and loving relationships with our Christian sisters and brothers and with our neighbors of any faith and none. It is to refuse to let the distinctions, the privilege, the practices of the world divide and categorize us in within these walls and as the church scattered. Jesus’ death and his risen life among us have decisively changed our relations with others. They bind us in covenant with him and with each other. When we celebrate this meal, the words “I,” “me,” “mine” need to disappear from our vocabulary.

But what about self-examination? Surely that’s intensely personal, someone might say. Again, I recall what I was taught as a boy. My church and parents said it’s about beating our breasts, confessing how we murdered Jesus, realizing what miserable sinners we are. And then, and only then, when we have become convinced of our own worthlessness and worm-like lowness, can we come to the Table. No wonder people back in the day could barely endure even quarterly Communion, given the sadness and remorse surrounding it.

Certainly we look inside ourselves as we come to the Table. But Paul is not asking us to catalog our little misdemeanors and failings measured against an individualistic revivalist morality that has more to do with the bedroom and barroom than the boardroom. If we define sin so narrowly, we may easily excuse and ignore failures of justice, kindness, and humility in ourselves and others. But the apostle has something much broader and harder in mind. Listen to this statement from commentator Richard Hays: “…the call for self-examination…has been heard as a call for intense introspection. This is, however, a grave misreading. [In the context of the situation], to eat the meal unworthily means to eat it in a way that provokes divisions…with contemptuous disregard for the needs of others in the community. Paul’s call to self-scrutiny…must therefore be understood not as an invitation to the Corinthians to probe the inner recesses of their consciences but as a straightforward call to consider how their actions at the supper are affecting brothers and sisters in the church, the body of Christ.”

So what is your heart and mine telling us right now about how our actions affect others? Do we discern the body this morning as we approach the Table? As you and I celebrate this meal, let any walls we have built come tumbling down. Let us look not to our own interests, but to those of our neighbor. Let us examine ourselves and make a fresh commitment to renew a relationship or to start one, to get to know the person that has remained a stranger or become an enemy. Let us put aside differences of age and class and perspective and whatever else, so that when we meet, it is indeed “for the better” and not for the worse. Let the words of the hymn describe our experience: “As Christ breaks bread and bids us share, each proud division ends; the love that made us, makes us one, and strangers now are friends. Together met, together bound, we’ll go our different ways, and as his people in the world, we’ll live and speak his praise, we’ll live and speak his praise.”

Discern the body. Live with discipline. Act in love. And so in all things, follow our Lord, to whom we belong and whose body we are.

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