To say that the Corinthians have a “problem” is a gross understatement.
This motley crew of haphazard diners is a dysfunctional family of faith drowning in a swirling cesspool of sin and brokenness.
For starters, whenever they get together for the Lord’s Supper – the centerpiece of this morning’s Scripture lesson, these Christians-in-name-only gorge themselves on bread and get drunk on the communion wine. Then, to make matters worse, the boozy soiree twists itself into a drunken orgy: Sex with family members and prostitutes, other decadence too unseemly to name in polite company.
A weekend bachelor party in Las Vegas is a well-mannered tea party compared to the antics and shenanigans of these knuckleheads, who also are waging class warfare, setting up divisions between rich and poor, thus treating with contempt and hypocrisy the Lord’s Supper, that joyful feast of the people of God ordained in the Upper Room by Jesus himself – as a memorial of his death, as a celebration of his resurrection, and as a reassurance of his promise to come again.
Celebrating holy communion is all that and more, but most definitely not a perverse opportunity for the upper class to flex the muscles of their self-imposed superiority right up in the faces of the famished, underprivileged, and disconnected.
Never one to be at a loss for words, or to be tolerant of misbehavior in the Church, the apostle Paul dives head first into the putrid muck and mire of Corinthian depravity. The congregation at Corinth has become a festering, bubbling slough, and Paul courageously wades in up to his neck to drain the swamp.
Listen, then, for the Word of the Lord, given to us in love, to proclaim the story of God with us.
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.
For, 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. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.
What! 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!
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, 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.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come. (1 Corinthians 11:17-34)
Meet Marty. Marty Van Beek.
One of the 300-or-so kids who, like me, spent grade school, junior high school, and high school together as the Class of 1979 in a mostly all-Dutch village in northeast Wisconsin.
Marty was a snot, and I didn’t like him. Nobody did.
He wasn’t a bully in the classic sense of the word. Marty was more like the mosquito that’s been buzzing around your ear for the last three hours, or like the shivering sound of nails on a chalkboard over, and over, and over.
Marty was an annoyance, a mischief-maker, an irritatingly different soul who seemed to rub most everyone the wrong way.
He was the guy who’d help himself to your lunch.
He was the punk who’d knock your books to the floor as he strutted or slunk by your classroom desk.
He was the scalawag who’d snatch the winter stocking hat off your head and bury it in a snowbank.
You get the idea: Marty, always the windshield, never the bug.
Our high school graduation, in early June of 1979, was the last time I saw Marty – until years passed, and time came for our 20th class reunion. I arrived and bellied up to the bar for a cocktail, then made my way across the hotel ballroom and joined a group of high school chums who’d taken their places lining a long banquet table.
The place-setting across me was vacant. Sweet! Maybe I can score the uneaten dessert! But who sits down at the last minute – right as the staff are trying to serve the meal? Yup, you guessed it, it was Marty. Marty Van Beek. The rogue bad-boy of our many years in public schools. Marty Van Beek. The snot. The burr in the saddle blanket of scholastic life.
This will not go well, I thought. It might even get dangerous, I predicted, as I tried to decide whether to bean Marty in the head with a dinner roll, sneeze on his entrée of banquet chicken with steamed vegetables, or “accidently” spill his bottle of Miller Lite into his lap.
Decisions, decisions! But it was Marty who broke the awkward silence and started the uncomfortable conversation.
“I was a real horse’s a** when we were in school,” Marty confessed to the old gang gathered around the table. “Sorry about that. I’m surprised more of you didn’t punch me in the face.”
And in the blink of an eye, in the laughter that erupted from Marty’s candid self-assessment of his childish transgressions, more than a decade of schoolyard injustices were made right in Marty’s admission of guilt. Forgiveness was sought, and forgiveness was granted – around the table, as bread was broken, together, worthily.
And so it goes: Sitting down to dinner with friends and family – or old acquaintances – can be and often is risky business, dangerous territory, but you do it anyway, despite the unknowns. Because it’s worth the risk!
Which is one of spiritual points that Paul makes in a valiant attempt to save the Corinthians from themselves and end the mockery they’re making of the Lord Supper.
To be clear, Paul is NOT saying that Christians who are “unworthy” should refrain from taking the Lord’s Supper. After all, every Christian is unworthy, and since that is so, none of us is truly worthy of savoring the joyful feast of the Lord. Paul is not saying that these Corinthian Christians are “unworthy” of taking the Lord’s Supper but rather that Christians who take the Lord’s Supper in an “unworthy manner” should step away from the buffet. Pronto!
That is, if they’re going to be hypocrites – and they are, they should refrain from participating, lest they overturn the Table of the Lord with their disruptive mockery.
“Worthily” does mean deserving grace, but rather knowing that you stand where you do because of grace and knowing where you stand on the path of spiritual maturity. “Worthily” is looking in the mirror and doing some brutally honest self-assessment. “Worthily” is picking up the junky mess we’ve made of our lives and our world, and letting go of all excess baggage to which we cling, the stuff that’s slowing us down, holding us back, and getting us nowhere.
This should be an ongoing process in our lives – this spiritual housecleaning that lets in a breath of fresh air.
But since none other than Jesus himself has given us the sacrament of communion, the Lord invites us into deep preparation, before dinner – a time to take stock of our discipleship with candor and frankness, and to bring whatever sin and brokenness we unearth with us to the Lord’s Table.
And to offer it there, and to leave the meal pointed in a more faithful direction and following a more Christ-like path, encouraged and nourished by the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper.
Deep, spiritual housecleaning that tears open the shudders and throws up the sash reflects on the day that is, or the week that was, or the last couple months that were, using a powerful magnifying glass that allows you to see everything that’s gone on, examining your actions and your attitudes, your inaction and indifference, the hateful and untrue words that you failed to self-censor.
Sometimes, your sin will stand out like a sore thumb: The yelling that you might have done in anger; some act of gossip, greed or lust, or something along those lines. Sometimes your less-than-Christ-like actions are clear as day, even as other times a derecho of evil pummels your heart, but you don’t do a blessed thing to clean up the broken limbs and sweep up all the debris. All those trespasses swirling deep inside, both actions and attitudes – think through these things!
And then, with the help of the Holy Spirit given to you in baptism, repent: Turn away from evil, confess those sins to the Lord, look away in sorrow and disgust – not just because what you did or didn’t do was bad and wrong, unhelpful and destructive, and you kinda, sorta need to apologize, begrudgingly. Even more so, you turn away from sin and evil, because they horrify you, and you desperately want to seek safe shelter in the Lord. Turn to Jesus in faith, repent from your sins, and rely on the Spirit of Christ to make all things new.
The Lord’s Supper, then, is supposed to produce results – spiritual fruit, as Paul elsewhere names it:
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23), descriptors of Christ’s death on the Cross yes but far more than mere example. When Jesus Christ, on the Cross, gives up his life for you, and for me, and for all the saints in light, the Lord does for us what we never-ever could have done for ourselves – and what we still can never do for ourselves.
The Gospel promises that all who look to the Cross of Christ, in faith, will be saved from sin and death, by faith – believing, even with the faith of a tiny mustard seed, that the fruit of believing in the Gospel is a life that’s transformed by the Gospel. We don’t transform our lives in hopes that we might then be made “worthy” and saved by the Cross and Empty Tomb. No, transformation leads to salvation! It is the fruit, the result of salvation – living sacrificially toward one another, as we remember Christ’s broken body and shed blood, one with Jesus in his death, one with Christ in his resurrection.
As we wait on one another, as we for one another, the Lord calls us to live hospitably toward one another. We are to provide for one another, as we remember how Christ took us into his own family, and punched our admission ticket into his glorious kingdom, even when we were yet sinners, children of wrath, condemned of rebellion against Almighty God.
We’re not breaking bread and pouring the cup this morning. But we will next Sunday!
So, please make time this week, with the Lord’s Supper so close on the horizon, to reflect upon the extent to which you graciously share Christ Jesus’s love, hospitality, and provision with others. Trust the Spirit to reveal the burdens you might carry for another, or the encouragement you might offer, or the reconciliation that is possible.
Where might mercy be sought and extended? Where might forgiveness repair the breaches of relationship, with God and with one another? Where and how might you use your riches and your strength to benefit others in the way that Christ did by living? Not selfishly, but for the sake, and the benefits, and the building up, of those friends, neighbors, and strangers who make up the Body of Christ. For in eating the bread, we proclaim Christ as “for” believers, “on our side,” and in pouring the cup, we share intimately with Jesus, who calls us to share intimately with others.
As for Marty, Marty Van Beek, the snot, the scalawag, we didn’t become fast friends or bosom buddies.
That apparently wasn’t the Lord’s intent in bringing us together for a meal. I haven’t seen him since that surprising night of our reunion and reconciliation.
And that’s OK. Because I’m still feasting on the leftovers, and remembering that the Table is a dangerous place, and doing my best to accept heaven’s sacred invitation to dive deep into my soul, heart, and mind – measuring how closely and richly my life aligns with Jesus Christ, and giving thanks for the power of love that ties me to the Lord and to others.
Time will tell, but I think I passed the test – at least as it relates to Marty. Marty Van Beek. The snot. Forgiveness sought. Mercy given. Repentance made. Renewal celebrated. At the table, of a class reunion. And so too at the Table of the Lord, pleading the body of Christ broken for us and the blood of Christ shed for us, as our precious summons into the Kingdom of God.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit! Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, October 30, 2022, as part of his current sermon series, “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God with Us.” Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Jacob Gerber, Karl Jacobson, and J. Paul Sampley, inform the message.