A Tradition Worth Keeping

Kevin Gasser

Staunton Mennonite Church

8/3/08

 

1 Corinthians 11:17-34

17Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18For, 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. 19Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. 20When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. 21For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. 22What! 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!

23For 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, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25In 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.” 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 27Whoever, 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. 28Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. 30For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. 32But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. 33So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. 34If 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.

 

            A little girl was watching her mother prepare Sunday supper one day when she noticed her mom doing something strange.  The little girl asked, “Mom, why do you cut off the ends of the pot roast before you cook it?”

            The mother didn’t have a good reason why she did, so she thought a little bit and said, “I am not sure why, but I think it must allow the meat to absorb the flavor better when you cut it off.  I learned it from your grandmother.  Go ask her.”

            So the little girl went to her grandmother and asked her, “Grandma, why do you always cut off the ends of the meat when you are making a pot roast?”

            The grandmother replied, “I am not sure why I do it.  I think it must allow the meat to absorb more of the juices, making it juicier.  I learned it from my mother.  Go ask her.”

            The little girl, now rather frustrated, approached her great grandmother and asked her, “Nana, why do mom and grandma always cut off the end of the meat when they make a pot roast?”

            The old lady look confused.  She answered the little girl, “I don’t know why they do it, but I always cut off the ends so it will fit in my pot.”

            We all have traditions in our families, and our church family is no different.  The church practices many things, from baptisms to weddings, child dedications to funerals, footwashing to communion.  These are important traditions in the church.  But sometimes, if we don’t ask why we do them, the real reason for the practice can be lost.  So today I want to explore communion a little more to try to better understand this practice of the church.  Because there is a reason or reasons we do this, and we had better not forget why we observe communion.

            In verse 23 of this morning’s scripture, we find the apostle Paul retelling the story of the first communion.  His account is quite similar to the ones found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  On the night when Jesus was to be betrayed, he took a loaf of bread, broke it, and said, “This is my body that is broken for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.”  And that is one reason why we partake in the bread of communion today; we do so in remembrance of Jesus.

            And this reminds me of a story we find in Joshua chapter four where God instructs Joshua to select twelve men to place twelve stones in the Jordan River upon entering into the Promised Land.  And the purpose for these stones to be placed there was for them to be a way to remember that God had stopped the Jordan River long enough for the Israelites to cross over into the Promised Land, much like he had dried up the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape the Egyptians that were chasing after them as they fled from Egypt.  These stones were to be placed there so that when the children viewed the 12 stones sitting funny in the river, that they would ask, “What do these stones mean?” and that the people would answer by remembering all that the Lord had done for them.

            Remembering was extremely important in Jesus’ day, in large part because so few people were literate and so few things were written down.  Many of us have Bibles in our homes that we can refer to in order to help us recall the wondrous acts of God, but in the first century, they relied on oral tradition.  So they told stories, they had ceremonies, they re-acted out things.  In fact, that is why Jesus and his disciples were even gathered there in the upper room to start with.  They were there to celebrate the Passover meal.  They were there to remember the night when God spared the lives of the eldest Israelite children.  Remembering was crucial in a society that relied upon the spoken word to transfer knowledge from one generation to the next.

            Recently, some of Sonya’s old high school yearbooks have emerged from her parent’s basement.  She has been out of high school for less than ten years, but to look at these pictures would lead one to think it has been a generation or two.  The big hair, thick framed glasses, short shorts, and busy sweaters (aka Cosby sweaters) make us laugh a little at ourselves.

            But looking at these yearbooks is more than a reminder of how fashions have changed, it is more than a reminder of how we have changed, but it is also a reminder of the things that have changed us and shaped us into the people that we are today.

            Looking through the yearbook helps us to remember the teachers that have instilled wisdom upon us.  Looking through yearbooks helps us to recall all of the things that we have learned from teachers, coaches, friends, and parents.  We not only remember something that happened when we look at yearbooks, we remember how we have come to the place where we are, how we came to know what we know, and how we have been shaped into the people that we are today.

            Obviously, Jesus predates the modern yearbook.  But when he tells his disciples to “Do this in remembrance of me,” he isn’t saying “Remember the times we had together” or “Remember what I did for you.”  He is saying remember all of me.  Remember my teachings, remember my actions, remember how I handled myself when someone tried to hurt me or do bad to me, remember that I gave my life so that you might gain life.  We break bread in remembrance of Jesus Christ; the person, the teaching, the salvific acts.

            Returning to our scripture for this morning, we see that Paul moves in the same order as the writers of the synoptic Gospels.  Paul tells us that after breaking the bread and giving it to the disciples as a sign of remembrance, Jesus moves to the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”

            We don’t use the language of “covenant” too often in the 21st century, but a covenant is an agreement.  It is kind of like a promise, or a contract.  We know that God makes a number of covenants with the Israelites in the Old Testament, even before there was a people known as Israel, God was making covenants with them.  And we usually divide God’s covenants into two different categories; conditional covenants and unconditional covenants.  Conditional covenants meant that the people had to do something in order for God to uphold his end of the deal (Mosaic covenant, Leviticus 26).  In this case, if the people broke the contract, then God was not obligated to fulfill his end of the deal.

            Then the other kind of covenant is an unconditional covenant.  This means that God is going to do what God had promised, regardless of whether or not the people kept their end of the deal (Abrahamic covenant, Gen. 12).  And as a sign of this unconditional covenant, God gave Abraham a sign to remember the agreement by.  That sign was circumcision. 

            So now we have Jesus offering the cup to the disciples saying, “this is the symbol of the new covenant.”  The new covenant that Jesus is instituting with his disciples is symbolized by his shed blood, symbolized in the fruit of the vine, wine (I’ll let you decide if this covenant is conditional or unconditional).

            So in the elements of communion, we have a chance to look back and remember, to remember all that Christ taught, how he lived, and what he did for his people.  And we also have a chance to look forward to the promise that Jesus made in his covenant to his people.  But so many people for the last 2,000 years have missed out on the opportunity to experience this remembrance and foresight because of a misinterpretation of the next section in Paul’s writings.

            Verses 27-32 read, “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 we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined we that we may not be condemned along with the world.”

            Often times this scripture is read and people interpret it as saying that only those who are worthy, who are living right, who are without sin are allowed to partake in the elements of communion.  Many of you probably have similar stories to this one that my friend Tim tells.

            Tim is 51-years-old and he recalls growing up in the Mennonite Church when the bishop would come to his congregation.  Tim’s bishop was 6’5” with eyes that could see into your very soul.  The bishop came to Tim’s church for two reasons, to perform baptisms and to distribute communion.  He would walk up and down the aisle of the church with the elements in his hand, look at the individuals in the pews, and either nod if you were permitted to have communion with the rest of the church or shake his head if you were not permitted.  And if you were a known “sinner”, you were denied the opportunity to take communion.

            Now obviously there are a few problems with this scenario.  First of all, imagine the embarrassment of the person denied communion by the bishop!  I can’t imagine how many people never came back to church again after being refused communion.  Second, the bishop could only tell you that you were a sinner and couldn’t take communion if he (yes, it was always a male) knew about your sin.  So if the bishop knew you were a drunkard, a womanizer, or a gossip, only then could he deny you communion.  So how many sinners do you think got away with it when the only time they ever saw the bishop was on communion and baptism Sunday?

            The thing I don’t like about this way of understanding this piece of scripture is that if we were to examine ourselves before taking communion, none of us would be worthy of participating, would we?  We are all sinners.  This reminds me of the story of the woman caught in adultery.  Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone.

            Now I think that there is something to be said for examining ourselves and our relationships with others before we participate in communion.  I think it is a good practice.  Jesus teaches us in Matthew 5:23-24 that if we are making a sacrifice and remember that someone has something against us, we are to go make things right with that person before we make our offering.  Reconciliation is an important practice, but I don’t think we are supposed to reserve that practice for the night before we take communion.

            No, what Paul is referring to here is the practice of communion and how others can be excluded.  If we back up before our scripture for this morning, we find Paul commenting on the Corinthian’s way of practicing communion.  And Paul’s critique is that those that are powerful, those that are rich, those that seem to be a part of the “in crowd” are gorging on the food, drinking all of the wine, and leaving very little for the rest of the people.  The others not only don’t get a chance to participate in communion, they are left hungry and thirsty as well!  How different is this than what Christ taught?!

            Jesus didn’t come just to minister to the strong, wealthy, and well respected people of his day.  He spent a significant amount of time with those that we often refer to as the “least of these”.  Who did Jesus break bread with?  The tax collectors, the prostitutes, the sinners.  And these were the very people now being excluded from Christ’s table in Corinth.

            So Paul rightly has a problem with this practice, and he says to the group that they need to examine themselves as a collective group.  Verse 29 again says, “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”  When he says, “discerning the body” Paul is referring to the church.  He often refers to the church as the Body of Christ.  So before you eat and drink, think about the rest of the people that make up the church.  It isn’t all about you.  It is about Jesus and how we can come together to remember all of him, all of what he did, and the covenant he has made with us.

            If we were to take the time to read all of John chapter 6, we would see that Jesus refers to himself as the bread of life.  Without him, we have no life.  We starve; spiritually, emotionally, financially, we or someone else is starving when we don’t have Jesus, the bread of life.

            Therefore, I will not deny someone communion.  If you are the worst scoundrel, child molester, murderer, thief, I would not deny you communion.  If you were baptized in a different church, a different denomination, even a different religion, I would not deny you communion.  The only requirement that I have is that you consider yourself a follower of Jesus Christ.  If you are seeking a relationship with him, if you are seeking to following him daily in life, then you are invited to Christ’s table.  Because just as a doctor does not come for the healthy, but for the sick, so to did Jesus come for the tax collectors and the sinners, the prostitutes and molesters.  Why deny Christ to those who need him most?  Communion is a time to remember who Jesus is, his teachings, and all that he has done for us, “Do this in remembrance of me” he said.  Communion is a time to look forward as people of the new covenant.  Communion is not meant to be a time of exclusion.  The table is set, who else might we invite to join us in this heavenly feast?

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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