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