Imagine you have been invited to a Christian dinner party in 1st century Corinth, at the church Paul is writing to. Your expected time of arrival is based on your social status. The wealthier and more well-respected you are, the earlier you get to arrive and start eating. The poorer and less social clout you have, the later you have to arrive. Governors, doctors, and the like get to come nice and early. Then, maybe the accountants, the teachers, followed by the manual laborers, and finally the unemployed get to come. The wealthier and more well-respected you are, the better food you get. The poorer you are and the less social clout you have, the worse food you get… if you get to eat at all. At this church in Corinth the well-to-do folks come dressed in ball gowns and tuxedoes and fill their bellies with caviar and get drunk off of Dom Perignon. The middle-of-the-road folks get a falafel sandwich and a coke. The poor folks don’t get a thing.
The early church was doing something incredible just in the fact that the rich and well-respected got together under one roof with the poor and the despised. Very few organizations did this at the time (nor do many today). But other than their shared physical proximity, the Corinthian church was not living into the meal it was celebrating. They were celebrating this meal like they were accustomed to celebrate any other meal. It was completely normal and expected that at any dinner party the rich and well-to-do folks got pampered accordingly and that the poor and not-well-to-do folks were ignored accordingly. It was very important to the ancient Romans that everyone know their place and live into it in all spheres of life.
Paul sees this happening and gives the Corinthian church a wake-up call. They have forgotten that being a follower of Christ means something and it makes a difference. Paul gets back to basics and implores them to remember who Jesus is and why he commanded us to celebrate his last Supper.
…the Lord Jesus on the night when we was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In 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.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
In this meal we remember that Jesus was given up for the sake of the world. He gave his body and blood so that sin might be forgiven and death might die. Every time we participate in that meal celebrated first by Jesus we remember his self-giving love. More than just remembering it, Paul reminds the Corinthian church and us that we are called to proclaim Jesus’ death until he comes. We proclaim it in the way we gather around the table. It makes a difference in how we eat and it makes a difference in the life it strengthens us to live. Remembering the meal Jesus shared with his friends on the night he was given up to be arrested, crucified, and killed, we cannot live the selfish lives we are used to living. It may be acceptable or even considered virtuous in Corinth or America to look out for yourself first and let others figure out what they need. In America and Corinth it is acceptable for the wealthy and powerful to fully enjoy the fruits of their status and not have to share their hard-earned possessions with those who are poorer or weaker than they are. The apostle Paul comes down harshly in this matter. Those who celebrate the Lord’s Supper in ways that uphold divisions and harm others are partaking in the meal unworthily.
The Lord’s Supper is central to Christian identity. Everything else in Christian life stems from it. In this meal we proclaim Christ’s death until he comes. We proclaim that God’s love was and is made known in the laying down of one’s life for a friend. We proclaim that flashy acts of glory and honor do not have the power to change the world, but humble service and charity do. We proclaim that God’s Word incarnate who existed before existence got down on his hands and knees performing a slave’s task of washing feet. God is willing to stoop that low in order to serve God’s people. We proclaim that God ate that last meal with all of his disciples and washed the stinky feet of all his disciples- like Judas who was ready to sell out Jesus for some peace of mind and a small bag of silver; like Peter who talks the talk but often fails to walk the walk- who promises to always be by Jesus’ side, but denies that he even knows his teacher at the first sign of trouble; like the other disciples who sit silently around the table too afraid to strongly commit to Jesus’ mission. Jesus laid down his life for all of them though certainly not because they deserved it.
What would it look like if our table looked like that? What would it look like if the Lord’s Supper fed us so that we might truly proclaim Christ’s life-giving death to the world?
Too often we don’t seem to be doing a great job. Divisions remain just as bad, if not worse than they were around Jesus’ dinner table in Jerusalem or at the Communion table in Corinth. Some people estimate that today there are as many as 45,000 Christian denominations and groups in the world. That’s a lot of division. Churches within their denominations or within their congregations are divided over countless issues both significant and trivial regarding racial justice, evangelism practices, human sexuality, worship styles, budgets, and more. So often we treat our internal conflicts and divisions in the same way we would treat them had Christ never handed over his life for our sake. It is an immense struggle in the midst of culture wars, doctrinal disagreements, and the like to take a step back and remember Jesus’ supper and proclaim his life-giving death. Not only that, but it is a struggle to live the meal in the places in our lives outside the walls of the church. It makes a difference. Jesus’ radical, self-giving love calls us to love others without regard to whether or not they deserve it, whether we agree with them or not, whether we like them or not, or whether it is easy for us to love them or not.
We are human and we do sin. Thank God that salvation doesn’t depend on how well we give our lives for the sake of others, but it depends on Christ. In the last supper we see that Christ gave himself for folks who actually did a pretty bad job at giving their lives for others. He washed the feet of sinners and he gave his body and blood to those who would abandon, deny, and betray him. Christ gave his body and blood for us too. No matter how divided our tables may be elsewhere, at Christ’s table we are welcomed and loved. Not much has changed. One of my favorite lines from a song goes, “Lost in fog and love and faithless fear, I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere.”
We’re still sitting at tables where we fight, we betray, we abandon, and we quietly do nothing. And yet Christ is still serving us his body and blood to bring forgiveness and life, and he is still serving us humbly washing our feet. We are still called to remember that vision of humble service and proclaim Christ’s life-giving death to each other and the world especially when we doubt our worthiness of God’s favor and when we fail to see others as worthy of God’s unconditional love.
What a humbling joy that is! And though we may fail, we have been given the gift to share that joy with others around the Communion table and with those who are not yet gathered around the one table. We humbly and joyfully proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Christ gave his body and blood in great love for us.