I Corinthians 11:23-29
There have been too many quarrels about how the bread and wine that is used at celebrations of the Lord’s Supper is or becomes the body and blood of Christ. It is difficult to see much good that has come from all the bickering over this question. The eucharist, which is supposed to be an act of remembrance that serves as a source of unity and joy, is instead (for many people) a source of conflict and division. Why have we not more often followed the example of Jesus on this question? When some of the people asked: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”, Jesus did not answer with explanations and theories, he simply told them to eat.
There are some instructions concerning the proper way to celebrate the eucharist which have come down to us through scripture and other tradition, and we should expect ourselves and other Christians to follow these instructions, but we must do so with the full knowledge that we are not doing exactly the same things as Jesus and his friends did that night. We just don’t have or know all the customs that Jesus and his friends had, but we can do what we can to be faithful to the request that we eat and drink together in remembrance of Jesus. We heard some instructions about how to celebrate the eucharist from Paul’s Letter to Corinth in our second reading this morning. The Corinthians were having trouble in their celebrations of the eucharist, so Paul is trying to help them, and if you read the few paragraphs before our passage this morning, the trouble that he mentions has nothing to do with academic arguments over sacramental theology – the trouble is the fact that poor people and rich people were being treated differently at the meal. Paul tells the Corinthian Christians that this division shows contempt for the church of God, and that their improper celebration of the Lord’s Supper brings judgment upon them. He actually says that they bring judgment upon themselves by eating and drinking without discerning the body. The Body that they were incorrectly discerning is not only a reference to the Last Supper where Jesus took the bread and said: “this is my body”, it is also a reference to the people who were sharing that bread, for in the same letter to Corinth a few paragraphs later, Paul says: “You are the body of Christ.” As Augustine of Hippo once said: “There you are upon the table…there you are in the cup.” (sermon 229) We need to have that in mind when we come together at the table up here – just as the bread that we eat up here is the Body of Christ (how and why we don’t know), so the people around the altar eating the bread are the Body of Christ (how and why, we don’t know).
We treat the consecrated bread from the altar with respect and reverence, as we should. However, if we do that, we should also treat each other with just as much respect. Reverence toward one form of Jesus is mocked by disrespect toward the other. We know we don’t always reverence each other as we should, but we also know that we are trying to grow so that we do. We also have the sure hope that the more we come together and believe together at the altar, the more we will be changed from the inside so that our outside actions match our desire, and that hope is met with grace.
We can also work from the outside in order to help our inward desires become more Christlike, and that outward work is also met with grace. There is some help in this regard from our reading in Deuteronomy this morning. Moses is speaking to the Hebrews as they prepare to cross the Jordan into their promised land. He asks them to keep all the commandments – not out of fear of God, but because those commandments will help them live in increasing joy and prosperity. He reminds them that the hardships they encountered while wandering in the wilderness were a means of preparing them for their life in the promised land. One of the ways of preparation was to allow them to hunger so that they would have to rely on God to feed them. Moses said this was a form of discipline.
Discipline is a means of preparation for something. Maybe if we accept the discipline of treating each other with respect as the Body of Christ, even when it is difficult or when we don’t want to or when we don’t feel like it or when the respect is not returned, then we will be prepared to enter our promised land of life with Jesus. Actually, we will already be there, and our families, our monastery, our nation and our world will truly be a land flowing with milk and honey. So, as God fed the Hebrews with manna, may we now be fed with the living bread from heaven, and may we do our best to see Jesus in that bread and in the people around us. Both tasks are difficult, but all we are asked is to take and eat. AMEN