Ever had one of those days when you can’t do anything right and everyone is quick to tell you?
The members of the church in Corinth were having one of those days … a letter had arrived from Paul and it did not make for happy reading. And some of the congregation were, well frankly, feeling a bit miffed – that sort of embarrassed, defensive indignation that you feel when you’ve been found out, because the truth really does hurt.
You see, they knew they were having problems. No one would have denied that; no one could agree on anything and someone had written to tell Paul. A real mixed bunch they were: different nationalities, from different religious backgrounds, those who preferred one person’s preaching and those who preferred another’s, some wealthy and well-heeled and some poor (Sounds like the 21st century not the 1st Century!). Like children in a school playground, they were splitting into cliques and the bickering, oneupmanship and boasting were getting the upper hand. And we won’t even talk about some of the X rated immoral stuff going on.
… and the one thing they all seemed to have in common was collective Amnesia.
Brains are funny things, amazing and yet infuriating. We’ve all had that experience of going upstairs to get something really important, only to get to the top to find you’ve forgotten why you’re there. And then you come back downstairs to retrace your steps and suddenly it pops back into your head. Brains are designed to remember but also to forget otherwise our heads would be cluttered with useless information and we wouldn’t be able to function. Occasionally it goes wrong though. But a whole community forgetting the most important thing at the centre of the life of that community? And hardly anyone seemed to notice? Now that’s strange.
You see the words and actions should have reminded them; they should have been the memory trigger. Each time they shared in the Lord’s Supper, the words should have been the clue: “The Lord Jesus on the night be was betrayed, took bread, and when he gave thanks, he broke it and said, This is my body, which is for you: do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11.24).
Now if I say to you cast your minds back to 1988, what can you remember? You are probably struggling to recall anything but you might already have words going through your head. Words phrased into questions such as ‘How old was I then?’ How old were the childen? Where was I working? Or what year was I in school? Or maybe you weren’t even born then! And even single words can connect us with memorable images and feelings. In 1988, one word became synonomous with a terrible, sad disaster – ‘Lockerbie’. Even if you weren’t born then, the replaying of the TV images and the mention of the name helps us to have a collective memory of the horror of that Pan Am flight.
Words are powerful memory triggers and yet they didn’t seem to be for the members of the congregation in Corinth. Even though the length of time between Christ’s last supper and the time they were celebrating communion wasn’t very long (about the same time as between 1988 and now), they had forgotten. They had forgotten how the words linked them back to that Last Supper. They had forgotten how the words linked them back to Christ’s death on the cross – to his body given in that ultimate act of love; they had forgotten how the words linked them back to that ultimate act of self-giving. The breaking of the bread and distributing to each of them should have reminded them of the most intimate sharing in and participation with Christ. As they took the bread and broke it, that should have reminded them of the fellowship they share as members of the one body of Christ. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10.17 New Revised Standard Version)
But they had collective amnesia … they had forgotten and they were busy pursuing their own interests. The Lord’s supper in Corinth was a ‘bring and share’ – without the share part. The big houses of well-off members of the congregation were great places to worship together; big, and spacious with atriums and dining rooms. The small congregation could meet together in relative comfort. But the well-to-do arrived first and started to eat and to drink and drink. So by the time the poorer members arrived the food had all but gone, and some were already drunk. Imagine arriving at someone’s house for dinner, you’ve been told to arrive at 8.30pm and everyone else arrived at 7.00pm. You’re really looking forward to the meal and the company only to find when you get there, everyone’s finished and already snoozing on the sofa! You’d feel unwelcome and very uncomfortable.
In Corinth the very act of worship that could have been the focus of unity had become the focus of division because the congregation had failed to recognise the character of the church or themselves, as the body of Christ. If they had, that would have prevented the socially and economically priviledged members acting independently.
Life in the 21st Century doesn’t seem so different. Our society is as diverse as 1st century Corinthian society and in our Church, in our congregations we have people from different ethnic and denominational backgrounds, and different social and economic backgrounds. The words should have reminded the Corinthians of the life they were called to live together in Christ, to love one another. And by God’s grace, we too are are part of that same body. The words can remind us that we too are called to live together in Christ. At the end of his letter, Paul urges the Corinthians to “Do everything in love” (1 Cor 16.14). As we come together in Communion this morning, as we hear the words, as we think back to that last supper we remember that we are all members of the one body; Christ died not just for me, or you, or him or her but for us.
1. Our Church is ‘Open for All’. What do you think this means? The Church in Corinth appeared to be ‘Open for All’ but there were divisions within the community. Can we learn anything from their behaviour about ourselves or can we learn what to avoid?
2. Paul talks about receiving communion in an ‘unworthy manner’ (1 Cor 11.27). In Corinth this meant treating the less well off badly. Are there any modern day parallels in our church?
3. He offers 2 solutions – ‘a man ought to examine himself’ and anyone who participates should recognise ‘the body of the Lord’. What does he mean ‘recognise the body of the Lord’? (1 Cor 10.16-17 and 1 Cor 12.12-31 might give some clues)
4. If the Corinthians had not been abusing the Lord’s Supper, we might not have had these words which we still use in Communion today. Can you think of situations where unexpected good had come out of something bad?