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 The Grace-Full Table

Sermon - 10/07/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Corinthians 11:17-26

We continue our reflection on the table of the Lord this morning. I want to share with you from Paul's letter to the Corinthians.

And the second half of this passage is a very familiar passage, what we call the words of institution that are often used at the table. But the first half is less familiar, and an important reminder to us of the context in which Paul originally wrote these words, and what is happening there in the life of that early Christian community in Corinth.

So, reading from the 11th chapter, verses 17 to 26:

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. 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!

23 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,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.


In 1974, I moved to Indianapolis, just a young and naïve kid, 19 years-old, grew-up in small-town Albany, Oregon. Now living in the big city, it was a pretty heady experience. Not only that, I was working in the Missions building for the Christian Church Disciples of Christ, the headquarters, the central location for all things 'Disciple' all around the world. There were literally folks serving all around the world who would come through that building continually. I had these wonderful opportunities to visit and meet people from all parts of the world.

I'll never forget that fall of 1974, when there was a delegation from the Russian Orthodox Church. They wore very traditional Orthodox garb, full-length black robes that went to the floor, big hats, big crosses, full beards (all men, of course). You have to remember, this is in the midst of the Cold War. The only Russians who came to the United States in that era were either athletes or government officials. And so to have this delegation from the Russian church was really a big deal.

And you also have to keep in mind that during that era of Soviet rule, churches were not permitted much, stuff that we take for granted. Things like Christian education -- they had no Sunday schools, they weren't permitted to do that. They had one seminary for the training of their priests, for the entire country. Evangelism, you know, going out and trying to bring new people into the church -- they weren't allowed to do that. Missions of various kinds, social programs -- the one thing they were allowed to do was worship. And so they were asked, in our conversations, someone asked them: "How is the Church able to survive in that kind of environment?"

And I'll never forget the answer of one of those priests, who told us "Never underestimate the power of holy Communion to make Christ known in the world".

And I think it's a great reflection for us to ponder because so often we take for granted what we do here, and the meaning of the table.

So this is world Communion Sunday. It's a Sunday that reminds us of the ways in which we are connected with Christians all around the world, regardless of any differences in culture or language or beliefs or practices, that we unite together around this table. So I want to reflect with you on some of the meanings that we attach to the table.

In 1971, our commission on theology for the Disciples of Christ issued a report on the meaning of the Lord's supper. One of the things they said in that report was that "The Lord's supper means more than the church is ever quite able to say about it". So what I have to say is really just scratching the surface, it's just starting to give us some reflection on all the meanings that are contained here.

And I want to focus on four this morning. The first is remembrance -- this is one of the reasons why I wanted the table down front because right at the front of that table it says "In remembrance of me". And remember this: this table has been on his chancel for 101 years. Ever since this building was built. So the table itself is quite a witness.

And sometimes we think, then, of the Lord's supper as a memorial, because of that emphasis. Something we do to remember and honor someone who has died before us. But there's one problem with that: our fait is in the one who is risen. And so that we celebrate the Christ is not dead, but very much lives.

Well, the Greek word that Paul uses in this text for "remembrance" is 'anamnesis'. This is not simply to recall something in your head, to think about something. A great example of that is from the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus. He wrote about the worship practices of a Greek goddess known as Basilia. This Greek goddess was the goddess of kettle drums and cymbals, of all things. And so to re-enact, to call this goddess present, what would they do? They would play drums, and cymbals. In that way, they would bring the goddess present.

We may think that's weird, but the point is the word that Diodorus uses to describe that act is "anamnesis". To re-present, to make the Gods present.

So what we do in the breaking of the bread is not simply remembering Jesus in our thoughts, it is to re-present Jesus in our midst. To re-"member" Christ. To make him present.

Years ago, there was a Russian archaeologist who said he found incontrovertible evidence of the death of Jesus, in a grave found beneath an ancient rubbish heap outside the walls of Jerusalem. That created a bit of a stir, some controversy, presumably there's some bone fragments or something. Well, there was a British scholar by the name of Carlyle Marnie, who supported (in a very back-handed way) efforts to publish the findings of this archaeologist. And he wrote: "Rubbish! Let him publish. It couldn't hurt, because this is not where Jesus said he would meet us. Not by a rubbish heap, not behind any wall. Find the wood of the cross, find all kinds of graves. He said he would meet us at neither cross nor grave, he said he would meet us as his table".

Here is the place where we come to meet Christ. This is what makes it a sacred table. This is what makes what we do here a holy act.

Now, the second meaning I want to talk about is used in the word that we most often used to describe what we do with the table. We call it what? Communion, right. The Greek word for communion is "koinonia", which also can mean fellowship. Now, if you watched the movie or your read Tolkien's book "Lord of the Rings", call to mind the nine travelers given that task of destroying the ring of power. Remember what they called them? They are the fellowship of the ring. They are united together by this common purpose.

To commune with Christ is to participate in the fellowship of the table. To share together in this common purpose.

Now, only note in this passage from Paul here, the folks in Corinth are not bound together at all. The table that should be a place of unity has instead become a place of division. And so Paul is pretty harsh on them for that division. He notes particularly the humiliation of the poor, by having their big banquet and leaving them out, not including them.

Our General Minister and President, Sharon Watkins, send out a pastoral letter this summer that created a bit of a stir among some of our Disciple churches. And rather than just reading the letter, I want to play it for you, because you need a video of it to really hear what she has to say. This is about half of the letter -- the entire letter is on the www.disciples.org website.

Click here to view Sharon Watkins video (edited/shortened version)

Click here to view the entire 7-minute video.


Powerful words. The irony of that letter in that video is it there have been some who have excluded themselves from Disciples because of it, even thought I think it's a very powerful message for inclusion and acceptance of all sides. But you see, that's too much for some people to handle.

At this table, we put aside our differences, and we come together, sharing equally and united as one body, the body of Christ.

Alexander Campbell, who was our most prominent founder, biblical scholar, philosopher, insisted that there only be one loaf of bread, un-cut, as a picture of unity. Not as an ideal to be obtained, but as a visible reminder of a deeper, unseen reality that already is, though too often obscured by our differences and disputes.

A case in point on this same issue was a letter issued by the Archbishop of Newark telling Catholic parishioners who support marriage equality for same-sex partners that they were no longer welcome at the table of the Lord in those congregations of that parish. Forgetting that it is not the Church who gives the invitation, it is not the clergy that made the sacrifice, it is not for us to say who is welcome at the table. But of course that was precisely one of the main issues which caused our founders to begin this movement, to restore New Testament Christianity for all to unite around this table.

The third meaning of this table is sacrifice. And it's striking that Paul, in this letter, says not that we proclaim Christ's resurrection but that we proclaim Christ's death. And so Lord's supper is a tangible reminder that there is little in this world with deep meaning and lasting value that is obtained without some sacrifice. And so too for the love of God.

Now, forget all the theological debates on weighty ideas like sacrificial atonement, the idea that someone had to suffer terribly for our great sin (an idea that I find barbaric, but that's just to use a nicer word than my real feelings about it). And while we're at it, I just have to say that I think there is an enormous problem caused by 'privatizing' the meaning of the death of Jesus. 'He died for my sins', you know that I'm the one that caused his death. I mean, really? Is that the best we can do? Is that the kind of guilt that we want to lay on people? That you caused his death?

You see, none of that is necessary to understand that the love of God, so overwhelming in the person of Jesus, could not, would not rest until it was nailed to a tree. And that by proclaiming the death of Jesus, we show the depth of God's love for us, that is greater than death. And which, by overcoming death, frees us from sin and shame, from death and guilt.

And there's more to be seen in the sacrifice of the cross than the death of Jesus. In 1984, I had the opportunity to attend the World Council of Churches assembly in Vancouver, Canada. On a Sunday afternoon, there was a celebration of the Lord's supper with Christians literally from just about every country of the world. Very powerful, thousands of people coming together. I'll never forget the Bishop of South India who presided at the table, and told us that the remembrance of the suffering of Christ must also include all those who suffer. He said there's a real sense in which the brokenness of the world is the broken body of Christ. And thus our hope is that as we share with Christ in human suffering, we find also in Christ the new life which God shares with the world. You see, that's what gives sacrifice and death its meaning, that from it comes the possibility of new life.

And so at this table we proclaim Christ's death until the one who is our life comes again.

Now, lastly, the Lord's supper is representative of a much larger feast. The first fruit of the great banquet in the reign of God that Jesus talked about, where all are welcome, where all are invited in off the street to be fed at the table of the Lord.

Campbell, Barton Stone, the other early leaders of our movement in the 19th century had a number of debates over how inclusive this table really is. It was not until late in life that Campbell came to the conclusion that God would welcome many of the people that the church excludes, and therefore he cannot bar anyone from the Lord's table.

Unfortunately, I think, that remains today (sadly) the minority position within Christendom, which sees the table as the nourishment for believers only. That's one of the arguments used for the exclusion of children, which is not our practice here.

I propose that the primary purpose of this table is not solely for us. It's not just for our benefit. It is first and foremost to give a visible sign of God's grace to the world. By anamnesis and koinonia -- through remembrance and fellowship. Making Christ's present for the benefit of all.

In the hills outside of Ephesus, there stands a humble house uncovered in the 19th century, foundation dating back perhaps to as early as the first century, by which a German mystic by the name of Catherine revealed to be the final home of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It's not its rather dubious historic claim that I find remarkable, it is rather its present usage. When you enter into this very modest structure (as our pilgrimage group did when we went there last year) there is a certain sense of awe and reverence. A number of small icons on the walls, nothing terribly ornate. A very humble altar, dedicated of course to Mary. A number of candles that you can also light there. The entire structure is actually probably smaller than this chancel.

But off to one side, there is a small room, and in that room are a number of Muslim prayer rugs. You enter in in complete silence. They don't allow pictures (otherwise I would have shown you some). [Note: picture below courtesy of Wikipedia]. But it's a place that moves many people to tears.

When I first visited it in 2003 with Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan (on another pilgrimage), we met with a priest who told us the significance of those prayer rugs. It turns out that Mary is revered just as much in the Muslim faith as in Roman Catholic tradition. And that many Muslims come to this house of Mary to also pray. And so this very soft-spoken priest told us of the privilege he had to serve in that one place where Christians and Muslims unite in prayer. And the power of the Spirit that is felt there by so many.

Just as our group did when we were there last year, in 2003 we celebrated the Lord's supper in a small chapel next to the shrine. And it was a very sacramental moment. And then one of our members, who had a talent for writing haiku to interpret the experiences we had on that pilgrimage, read this:

"Is this Mary's house?
Did you weep in the chapel?
Now what do you know?"

The table of the Lord is that place where God's grace is available to all.


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