Building a Bigger Table
1 Corinthians 11:17-34
When I lived in Northern Ireland, I was part of a church that celebrated the Lord’s Supper only four times each year. This was a church full of wonderful people who welcomed me into their homes, studied scripture together, served their community, and took their faith seriously. But there was something very interesting that happened every time they celebrated the Lord’s Supper. The plate of bread would be passed from seat to seat, and then followed by the small cups of juice. But as I looked in front of me, a number of long time members passed the bread and the cup without taking any. And I looked all around me some more, and realized only about half of the church was partaking of the bread and the cup.
After I had taken the bread and the cup and worship had ended, I asked around why people weren’t taking in the communion. It definitely wasn’t the pastor who told them not to. She was huge on welcoming and including everyone, and proclaiming God’s grace even when we don’t deserve it. I found out that it was because of this passage from Paul that we just read today. Specifically, it was the lines:
“27 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. 28 Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”
For many of them, they believed this passage was saying, only if you are a good enough Christian can you come to Jesus’ table. Only if you examine yourself and find yourself to be worthy, can you share in this meal.
But that is not what Paul is saying at all in this passage. He is not trying to keep people out of the meal. He is instead trying to welcome more to this table.
Paul is angry in this passage. But not because sinners are coming to the table of grace. He is the worst of all sinners he tells us. He has no room to judge others on their past. If he can be welcomed by Christ than all can be welcomed. No, Paul is angry because the Corinthians have forgotten what this meal is all about.
In first century Corinth, they shared the Lord’s Supper a little bit differently than we do today. They had it as a full meal. And they did not have separate church buildings yet. They met in each other’s homes. So when they came together for the Lord’s Supper, it was usually at a wealthy member’s house.
And in this house there were two rooms where people gathered. The first was the triclinium. It was the inner room with couches for people to recline on and feast. In the Corinthian church, the wealthy homeowner invited his or her friends and family and those of the same status and wealth to join them in this inner room, sitting on nice couches, being closest to the food and drink, sharing conversation with one another.
The members who were a different class and status stood outside in the courtyard, waiting until after those in the inner room had their fill. The servants and slaves and workers were treated like second class Christians. They got the leftovers. They don’t share the same space. They are treated just the same by their wealthy brothers and sisters in Christ as they are by everyone else.
This is what Paul is angry about. This is why he says, “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. 21 For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.” The Christians in Corinth say the right words of institution, they go through the right actions of breaking the bread and pouring the cup, but they forgot what this meal is all about. It has become just another meal like all the other – where the wealthy are fed and the poor go hungry and where barriers are built to keep us separate.
They have made this meal about themselves instead of about the grace of Jesus Christ. They have forgotten that at the heart of the Lord’s Supper is the one who broke down every barrier between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, rich and poor, male and female. At the heart of this meal is the one who is the bread of life and the cup of salvation, for all people. Even for those of us who have sinned. Even for those of us who have been forgotten. Even those of us who have been treated as second class.
Paul is not saying that we need a bigger fence to keep the bad people out. Paul is saying we need a bigger table so that all people can sit at it and come together.
There are many ways I have received the Lord’s Supper. But one of the most powerful was at a church in Philadelphia called Broad Street Ministry. I have spoken about it before, but it’s worth repeating her. Every Sunday night in worship at Broad Street Ministry we shared communion with one another. What made it so unique was who was gathered each night together. It was a mix of wealthy urban professionals, recovering addicts, art students, people who had served time in prison, seminary graduates, local musicians, and a sizable homeless community. People came for a variety of different reasons, with very different stories and backgrounds and gifts.
Every evening after we shared communion, the sanctuary was then turned into a dining hall. They would pull the chairs to the side, roll out the tables, and invite us to sit with new faces we hadn’t met before. While bread, salad, pasta, and drinks were brought before each person, we got to spend time face to face, hearing each other’s stories.
One evening, the musician John Bell was with us. He is a Scottish contemporary hymn writer. You may not know that name, but we sing a few of his songs here in worship. His most famous is The Summons (“Will you come and follow me if I but call your name…”). And interestingly, he didn’t come to play music or lead us in songs. Instead, he wanted to just worship alongside of us. He snuck in the back a few minutes after worship began. But after the service he stayed around to share a meal with all of us strange people who called Broad Street Ministry our home church. I remember not realizing it was him until a couple of minutes sitting there, wondering who this strange guy with a strange accent was.
Now if I was John Bell, it would be hard for me not to brag or show off or say something like, “O, that song you just sang, I wrote it!” I would be very tempted to spend the meal going up front, playing music, and letting the people know how fortunate they are that I have graced their presence.
But instead of all of that, he spent the whole time at that table hearing other people’s stories. He asked us about our own lives. He got up and helped serve us bread. He laughed at our jokes. He remembered our names. He talked about how strange the American accent is from the Scottish one. At that table, in that sanctuary, people weren’t sorted into higher class or lower class, rich or poor, homeless or powerful, famous or just another seminary student. Here, all of us were welcome, because Christ’s table knows no limits.
We forget sometimes the radicalness of this table. We forget sometimes that even on the first night this meal was celebrated Jesus wasn’t surrounded by perfect people who deserved this. He was surrounded by fishermen, tax collectors, and zealots. He was surrounded by those who would very quickly betray him, deny him, and doubt him. He was surrounded by those who still had their own biases and struggled to understand who Jesus was and what he came to do. But still he said to all of them, “This is my body given for you…and this the new covenant sealed in my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Our job as Christians is not to worry about whether we are good enough or worthy enough for God’s grace. None of us deserve it. But it’s offered to us anyway. Because God continues to love us and want a relationship with us no matter what we have done, no matter how others see us.
Our job as Christians is to share that message of grace. It is to break down barriers and let the world know that your class, your wealth, your status, your ethnicity, your background, none of that is what defines you. None of that can keep you away from God. What ultimately defines you is the fact that you are beloved by God. You are beloved by God so much that God came into our world and died and rose again for you.
Before you come to this table today, I invite you to do as Paul states: “Examine yourself.” But don’t try to judge whether you are good enough for this grace. If you were, it wouldn’t be grace. Instead, ask yourself, “What ways can I welcome others to this table? What ways can I show this kind of love and hospitality and welcome?” Because the Lord’s table is an abundant table. Because Christ’s table is where we all may be fed. Amen.