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Sermon - November 2, 2014

Princeton Presbyterian Church (EPC)                                               Sermon # 1188

November 2, 2014                                                                              1 Corinthians 11:17-34

Dr. Ed Pettus



“Gather ‘Round the Table”


            If there is one thing that most churches share in common it is the joy of gathering around a table to eat in a meal.  As we say sometimes, “If you want to have a good turnout for an event, offer food!”  Back in the day, in the early church, believers would also gather around a common meal and that meal would also include the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  It was not quite like our covered dish meals, this was more like shared meals on a regular basis where those who had more shared with those who had much less.  It was known as the Agape Feast, the Love Feast.  But, what started as a wonderful expression of church unity grew into a sinful distortion of abuse and division.  The church was supposed to be together.  The church was supposed to be without division.  The church was like no other gathering of people.  In a society that had many divisions, slave or free, rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, the church was the one place where everyone was treated equally and everyone could share in the Love Feast.  The church was a lot like a family.


            I remember when I was growing up, like many families, much of my family life revolved around the kitchen table.  I heard family stories around the table, learned our family traditions, and grew to love the foods that were a part of our particular family: Granddaddy’s cornbread, mama’s fried chicken, and grandma’s chili dogs.  Things were told around the table: each day's events, things we might now remember and laugh about, or the things that might make us sad.  There were questions and dreams and the kind of talk that makes a family what it is. 


Centuries before our families, another family story was told again and again around the table.  It was a story that gave identity to a people, to families, particularly to the families of Israel.  I imagine a Jewish family sitting at table eating a meal and after sharing the day with one another, they laugh at something said by the youngest child, and then the father shares a family story.

 "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.  When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand” (Deut. 26:5-11).


            The story begins with the story teller saying, “my ancestor,” and ends in the plural, “treated us harshly, we cried to the Lord.”  The old story becomes the tellers’ story and the listener’s story, because the story is retold in a way that brings the teller and the listeners into the event in a way that re-enacts their story.  This story is retold in this Passover meal and thus becomes our story as well. 


            Centuries after God delivered Israel out of Egypt, the apostle Paul tells a new group of listeners the story into which they have been adopted.  It is another story to remember, retell, and relive in the liturgy of the church.  “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…”  The story is handed on, retold, reshaping a new community and then passed on as the family of God gathers around the table again to tell what had become their story and our story.  “Do this in remembrance” – share the story, share the meal, love one another.  All this and much more can be included in the meaning behind the story.  This story is our story.   


            The story of the Lord’s Supper is a table meal that shapes our identity.  The church in Corinth distorted that identity by acting in ways that disrespected all that the story stood for.  Of course, that did not sit well with Paul.  The Corinthians came together around the table to talk and to eat, but they began to abuse the situation.  They failed to respect the story; instead they treated it with contempt and treated one another with contempt.  They made the meal their own private affair, eating all the food at the expense of others, drinking to excess, forgetting that one of the primary reasons for the supper was to share with one another in Christ’s love, in Christ’s story, and in His Spirit. 


So Paul had to deal with family members in the church who were abusing the table.  They demonstrated by their behavior that they despised the church (11:22).  Paul discusses the question of worthiness. Who is worthy to come to the table?  He says worthiness is not based on whether or not we deserve to be here, for not one of us does.  Worthiness is not based on our earning the right to be here, for none of us have.  Worthiness is only possible when we understand that it is by grace that we are here.  God makes it possible for each of us to take part in this table fellowship and in the table story that began centuries ago.  In that grace we find that only through the love of God in Christ are we worthy to come to this table.  We are called to eat and drink because God has adopted us into his family.  We share a common story.  Our worthiness only comes into question when we abuse the meaning of the table by abusing our relationship with Jesus and our relationship with one another.   Then the table became a witness against the church.


Let’s look at worthiness.  According to this passage there are two ways the Corinthians became unworthy: by partaking without knowing and respecting the meaning behind the sacred symbols of Christ’s body in the bread and wine or partaking without honoring the value of the body of Christ, the church.  The “body”, in Paul’s expression “to discern the body”, may mean the body of Christ, that is, Jesus represented in the elements of bread and juice, or the body of Christ, the church represented in every believer.  I think it means both!  The term “unworthy” does not mean that we are not welcomed at the table because we are sinners.  If that were the case then no one could receive this sacrament.  Paul is saying that those unworthy are distorting or ignoring the meaning of the sacred meal and/or distorting or ignoring the meaning of the sacred church. 


This is not to forbid us to partake of communion because we feel unworthy, but it is a warning to make us aware that this is a place of encounter with the holy.  What Paul gives them is what the Lord handed down to Paul.  This meal is the sharing in the body of Christ.  Bread broken as his body is broken for you.  The cup shared as the new covenant in his blood.  The table became a witness against the people of God who had this rebellious streak and stubborn attitude.  They mistreated the body of Christ by mistreating one another.  They mistreated the body of Christ by eating all the food before others could share in it and by getting drunk on the wine.  This table speaks against our sin and speaks to what Christ has done for us. 


Take as examples:

The table speaks against our pride, because it speaks of the humility of Jesus Christ. 

The table speaks against our greed, because it speaks of the sacrifice of our Lord. 

The table speaks against our apathy, because it speaks of the passion of Christ. 

The table speaks against our minimal commitments, for it speaks of the total commitment of Jesus.

The table speaks against our comfort, for it speaks of the suffering of Christ.

The table speaks against our unbelief, for it speaks of the faithfulness of Christ.

The table speaks against our lack of discipline, for it speaks of the obedience of Jesus.


You see, we are not worthy by ourselves, but we are worthy because of Christ’s humility, sacrifice, passion, commitment, suffering, faithfulness, and obedience. 


            Paul understood that retelling the words Jesus gave him would speak the truth to a people who needed to renew their lives in the sacrament.   They needed the very nurturing that the sacrament promises.  Christ nurtures us spiritually.  In this sacrament we are nurtured by the Holy Spirit as we partake in the body and blood of our Savior.  That is what we celebrate.  The table is indeed a table of celebration, for we know that Jesus is present by the Holy Spirit and while our sin may be revealed, that sin is also forgiven and we are reminded to live our lives in holiness before God.  We are reminded that we need to honor the body of Christ in the twofold sense of honoring the elements of bread and wine and honoring one another for we are the body of Christ; we are the church. 


If you think about it, this table is like the tough love we need to keep us on our toes, to remind us that we are indeed prone to rebellion against God.  We come not because we are holy... but that we may become holy through communion with Jesus Christ. 


Let us gather ‘round the table, with respect for the story it tells, with appreciation for the story of which we are a part, with gratitude that our worthiness is not based on what we have or have not done, but based on God’s grace.  This is the good news, that in Christ we are indeed worthy to come to the table, to share in the story because we are a part of the family of God, a part of the body of Christ.  Come in the knowledge that Christ is known in breaking bread and in drinking the cup.  Come in love for God and for one another.  Come, gather ‘round the table, for Christ feeds us by his Spirit that we might grow in grace and love.  Amen.