1 Corinthians 11:17-34
It is hard for us, given our tender Baptist sensitivities, to imagine someone getting drunk at a church supper. I’ve never seen it, and I’ve been in church for a very long time. My mother used to maintain that I was in church the Sunday after I was born, which, because as your pastor, I can engineer these things, just happens to be this very Sunday. My first church service in life must have been a Communion Sunday, and of course, it had to have been the first Sunday in March. So, happy church anniversary, Wayne, it’s been a pretty good run. So, where was I? Oh! Drunk! Yeah, in all my years of hanging out in churches, I have seen a drunk person at a baptismal service, and that was certainly a hoot, and a great, long story, but not for this morning, but I have never seen anyone come to a church supper and commence plowing through a jug of Allen’s Coffee Brandy, or a couple of bottles of Boone’s Farm Apple Wine, or a 12-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Perhaps I’ve been sheltered all these years.
Our first century forebears, however, do not seem to have been immune to drunkenness at church suppers, at least not in Corinth. Apparently at Corinth, drunkenness was a regular part of the program. And I’m trying to conjure up an image of that, but it is just not coming together. And part of the reason that I have trouble conjuring up that image is that church suppers in the first century had overtones that were far more sacred, and far more holy than church suppers that we have in the twenty-first century. When our forebears sat down to eat together, they were participating in a very sacred event. They were participating in a hybrid celebration of both Passover and the Lord’s Supper. They were observing God’s deliverance of his people from slavery in Egypt, which is the greatest salvation event in all of the Old Testament. Let’s have a side-bar for a moment. As far as your pastor is concerned, what’s the first, but second-most wonderful salvation event in the Old Testament? Ideas? It is forgiveness, clothing, and a new place to live. The other half, of the hybrid celebration in a first century church supper, was an observance of communion; a reminder of our Lord’s suffering and death, and of his sacrificial atonement for their sin and ours, which is the greatest salvation even in all of history. Church suppers were so sacred to the early church that they ate a meal every time they gathered for worship. They called these meals “love feasts”. And drunkenness at supper certainly profaned the holiness of the event. And while we may not be able to comprehend someone being so stupid and so sacrilegious as to get drunk at a love feast, perhaps we can imagine that someone might eat their own food. That’s verse 21.
We Baptists can sometimes be as adept, or even more adept than the scribes and pharisees when it comes to creating extra, but completely meaningless laws, rules and regulations. And I can remember as a kid, having eaten my way through hundreds of church suppers, that one of the rules, one of the stupid rules, is that you don’t eat your own food. Your food is there to be shared with others. And that’s a good thing. It’s a noble thing. It’s what Paul is talking about in this passage. We’re supposed to bring enough to share with those who can’t bring anything. But we Baptists can pervert anything, and we have, especially if it can become an opportunity for gossip. “Did you see that? That’s the casserole that she brought, and she’s piled her plate high with it!” “Well, you know, she’s too good to eat someone else’s food, ‘you never know where it’s been, you know.”‘
I’ve been to way too many church suppers, but my favorite type, especially for raising gossip, is the bring your own place setting kind. “Look at that! I’ll bet the only time that fancy china ever gets out of her china closet is when we have a church supper. And you know what she says? ‘Oh this old stuff? I’ve been meaning to get rid of it for years, but I just can’t seem to part with it for some reason. Its still quite usable, you know.”‘
And my all time favorite: “Here she comes, ‘paper and plastic Penelope.’ She certainly doesn’t plan on doing any dishes tonight.” “Well, you’ve seen the rest of her house, haven’t you? Dirty laundry everywhere, kitchen table piled high with mail, the whole place looks like a cyclone hit it.” Yeah, I really do think I’ve been to too many church suppers.
Gossip, of course, creates divisions among us. It isn’t so much the fancy china or the paper dishes and plastic flatware that creates the divisions, as it is the gossip about them that creates the divisions. Division ought not to exist in any church under any circumstances. The Apostle Paul has already made this abundantly clear, when he slammed the personality cults, earlier in this letter. And now he goes on to make his strongest statement ever about the abhorrent nature of divisions. But ironically, he puts a positive twist on it. He says, “Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine.” In other words, if we have learned to live happily with divisions among us, or if we have perpetuated divisions among us, our faith is questionable, and perhaps even non-existent. Paul has already condemned the personality cults that were active among the folks at Corinth, but now he takes a stab at the social divisions that existed in the church. Our world functions best with the efficient use of social divisions. We have rich and poor, and white and black and everything else in between. Every person in this room knows their place in this world. And we also know that it is highly unlikely that we will ever change our place, even if our circumstances radically change. But if the world functions well with social divisions, the church becomes a failure when social divisions exist. Social divisions destroy the unity that is so difficult to achieve, even among faithful brothers and sisters in Christ.
The social divisions at Corinth played themselves out most visibly in the most sacred thing that Christians can ever do together. When they came together at the love feast, some of the folks were overeating and some of them were getting drunk. And generally, it was the richer, well heeled folk who were doing this. And they were doing it because they could. The wealthy elite had lots of time on their hands, and so they would arrive early for the love feast, bringing their own epicurean meals and finely fermented beverages. And they had nary a thought for those poorer folk who had to work for a living and who would arrive later, perhaps not being able to bring any food or any drink at all, but rather depending on the love and generosity of others. But unfortunately when the poorer folks arrived, the food would be gone, or nearly gone, and the wealthy folks would be steadily slipping from the bonds of sobriety.
The Lord’s Supper, or communion, is celebrated with wine and with bread, to commemorate the body and blood of our Lord. To the Apostle’s great astonishment, some of the people in Corinth were celebrating communion with far too much wine in their stomachs, and the rest of them were celebrating it with not nearly enough bread in their stomachs. This, of course, ought not to be. Paul implies that it is not so much the drunkenness and the gluttony that shows contempt for the church of God, as it is the social divisions among God’s people that allow for that drunkenness and that gluttony. When I was writing this sermon, I intentionally did not think of anything that divides us as a family when we come together for worship and communion. I’m not sure if we promote social divisions or not. But just because I did not think of any, does not mean that they do not exist. Perhaps the divisions among us are more matters of the heart than the obvious ones that afflicted the folks at Corinth.
It is the body and the blood of Jesus Christ that unites us into one huge family of sisters and brothers. When we share communion, we publicly affirm the presence of Jesus Christ in our midst. It is a presence
that we cannot fully define or comprehend. It is a great and glorious mystery. And yet, we know in our hearts that when the bread and the cup is passed among us, that Jesus himself is the one who hosts our worship. He is here, among us, powerfully present, standing at the head of our table, passing himself among us and saying, “Here, this is my body, which is for you. Take this cup. It is my blood, a symbol of the new covenant that I have made with you for the forgiveness of your sins. Do these things in remembrance of me.”
And if Jesus is here, standing at the head of our table, hosting our worship we need to be one. One in hope, one in love, and one in faith.
So then, let us cast away all that divides us, all that distinguishes us one from another, and let us come boldly to this table, confessing our sins so that we may feast with joy on the blessings of our Lord, our maker and our redeemer.