a sermon on 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 and Luke 24:13-35
preached on September 6, 2015, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
There’s nothing quite like a meal to bring us together. When a new colleague comes to the neighborhood, when I want to get to know someone better, when an old friend comes to town and we need to catch up, when someone just needs a listening ear, I prefer not just to sit down for a chat—I do everything I can to find time to share a meal together. No matter the menu, regardless of the location, whether the service is bad or good, something special happens across that table. I can’t really explain why, but I do know that there’s nothing quite like a meal to bring us together.
Today as we look at the Lord’s Supper in our summer series exploring the parts of the worship service, our two texts give us some insights into how this meal that we share here brings us together. Both texts connect us to the origins of this feast. Paul gives us words that tell the story of a meal hosted by Jesus on the night of his arrest that we use every time we gather here, and Luke describes how a simple, unplanned evening meal on the day of resurrection became a place to meet Jesus. In their different settings and different stories, our two texts today show us a meal that brings us together.
First, in Paul’s record of what we know as the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper, we get a glimpse of some of the problems that the early church faced as they tried to share this meal. The church in Corinth clearly had a lot of issues, and we’ll be talking more about those in Bible study starting this week, but Paul was particularly frustrated at how the inclusion of a meal in the worship practice of the church was driving people apart. The early church considered the Lord’s Supper as a time for all the people to come together to share a substantial meal—with portions a good bit larger than even the largest chunks of bread and grape juice that has become the norm today—but in Corinth, the great variety of people in the church had made this meal a very disconnected affair. Some people brought plenty to eat for themselves but wouldn’t share with others, emerging from the feast bloated and drunk. Others were not able to bring anything and so were left to go hungry. This meal to bring people together across all their divisions was becoming highly effective at driving them apart!
In response to all this, Paul reminded them of the words of institution that were surely familiar to them, making it clear that this feast was not so much about the food itself but about the gathering of God’s people to share it. He went on to caution the Corinthians that they needed to be prepared to share this meal. “Examine yourselves,” he told them, “…for all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” As they sat down to eat, he wanted them to think about the whole body of Christ to which they were connected, to remember that they did not eat on their own but rather were brought together in the midst of this meal.
The church has thought much of this examination over the last two millennia. For many decades, Presbyterian churches required those who wished to receive communion to present a token at the table that had been given to them if they had been judged worthy to commune during a visit from elders of the church in the days before communion was served. And even today, some churches include a time of what they call “fencing the table” based directly on Paul’s words here during the introduction to the communion liturgy. But what seems to have mattered to Paul here was not one’s general sinfulness or status of forgiveness but rather one’s readiness to come together with others in this meal, for this table is not a place of personal devotion but a place to share a meal to bring us together.
Our second reading from the gospel according to Luke reminds us of this all the more. After a journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus, filled with an unexpected conversation with a stranger along the way about all that they had experienced in the death of Jesus and the reports of his resurrection, these two disciples settled down at table with their guest to share a meal. As their guest blessed and broke the bread that they are to share, their eyes were opened to discover that they had been walking and talking with Jesus all along the way! Their experience of joy was momentary as Jesus disappeared from their midst, but they quickly returned to Jerusalem to share their experience with the other disciples in hopes that they might encounter Jesus again very soon. Even though they saw him again, they knew that there was something special about this and every meal that could bring them together with Jesus.
In the many centuries since these original descriptions of this meal, the church has integrated the Lord’s Supper more clearly into our life of worship and thought long and hard about what it means. Along the way, we all too often have gotten lost in the details. We have given this meal so many different names—communion, the Lord’s Supper, agape feast, Eucharist, Mass—that we get lost in what we call it before we even think about why we do it. Even worse, wars have been fought, families divided, and lives lost over exactly what happens when we break this bread and share this cup. We have too often demanded that those who come to this table understand what is going on here, forgetting that ultimately this is a place of wonder we place our faith and trust and hope in God as we receive a sign and seal of God’s grace that we can see, touch, feel, smell, and taste for ourselves as we are mysteriously brought together with God and with innumerable saints to share this incredible meal. When we get too focused on the meaning, we miss the bigger point here, that this is a meal to bring us together.
Our intense focus on the meaning of what happens here has made it all the easier to resist the call to let this meal bring us together. The news of recent weeks has been filled with far too many stories of people pushed apart and away from this and other tables. Violence divides communities in our city and nation, and we prefer methods of punishment that insist on exchanging an eye for an eye rather than seeking a path of restoration, reconciliation, and transformation. Evidence continues to emerge that points to systematic mistreatment of the poor and minorities by the criminal justice system in our city, state, and nation, not to mention all too many places where they are very directly deprived of their rights. So many who are seeking to be president of our nation are using rhetoric that excludes immigrants, the poor, LGBT persons, and others, pushing people away from the common table of our land. And beyond our shores, European political leaders have responded to the growing refugee crisis there by turning away people who do not look or believe like them in ways that eerily echo words and actions before and during World War II that contributed to the mass murder of millions of Jews and others in Germany and beyond.
Amid all these loud cries around us telling us that we are better when we are apart, it is difficult to hear the call to sit down and share a meal like this one to bring us together. But this table reminds us that there is another way. At this table, we can glimpse the unity that we will have in the kingdom of God so that we can be strengthened to live a little more like that in the days ahead.
The incredible film Places in the Heart offers a little glimpse of a meal that can bring us together. The movie chronicles one family’s journey through the challenges of murder, racism, economic distress, and even natural disaster. In the end, only sheer endurance and an incredible portion of grace bring the people of Waxahachie, Texas, and especially widow Edna Spalding and her family through to see a new day. Time and again in the movie, we are taken to the table, first the many tables set for Sunday lunch that are interrupted by word of the town drunk on the loose with a gun who ends up shooting the sheriff, the Spalding’s table that shifts from hosting the family meal to offering a place for the dead sheriff’s body to be prepared for burial, even the simple tables under the trees where the sheriff’s widow constantly makes sure that the black migrant workers she employs are fed.
All these scenes at table culminate in a moving gathering at the Lord’s Table, where characters gather across all the lines that had divided them to share a simple meal of bread and grape juice. As the trays are passed along the pews, women and men, old and young, blind and sighted, black and white, living and dead, even murderer and victim—all share the bread of heaven, the cup of salvation, the peace of God that comes in this strange feast. I know of no better image that embodies the wonder of this great feast that brings together those who have been set against one another, that unites us across every imaginable division, that lifts us up to sit in the presence of Christ himself to share this incredible feast of heaven and earth.
So as we gather at this table today, may God’s presence surround us as we share this meal, so that every time we sit at this or any table, we might know the incredible gift of this meal that brings us together with one another and God until we sit at table together in the kingdom of God forever and ever. Thanks be to God! Amen.