Monday, October 7, 2013
The Politics of Communion: 1 Corinthians 11:17-34
*This sermon was presented on World Communion Sunday, October 6, 2013, at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon
World Communion Sunday began in 1933 as a celebration of a local Presbyterian church and then spread throughout the Presbyterian Church. It was observed on the first Sunday of October. It began in the context of a world of political strife and strong nationalism. In 1940 it was adopted by the Federal Council of Churches and was promoted as a celebration to churches worldwide. It is a day to celebrate, through sharing in communion, Christian unity and ecumenical cooperation.
Do we really need a special Sunday set aside to celebrate communion? Is it really important to have a special day to recognize within our isolated congregations our connection to the Christian church throughout the world by celebrating communion? Is this just another innocuous day that means very little in practice, but allows the church to symbolically join hands around the globe, sway and sing “We are the world”? So, why bother with celebrating World Communion Sunday? A pinch of bread, a thimble of juice. Remember Christ’s death. Remember the church is in other countries. Ho-hum. Is that all this is about? What’s the big deal with celebrating World Communion?
The church in Corinth didn’t quite understand the significance of celebrating communion for the unity of the church. The Apostle Paul’s primary text on communion is set within the context of an extremely divided church. The church at Corinth was divided over leadership, economics, spiritual gifts, and theology. If there were Democrats and Republicans back then, they probably would have been as divided as our Congress.
Paul used communion theology to address the issue of church politics. I’m speaking of “politics” not in the sense of partisan politics, or a secular government, but rather how we govern our lives together as a people. In other words, the politics of the church is how we seek, in all our diversity, to live together and share at a common table as citizens of God’s kingdom governed by our primary allegiance to Christ. The problem Paul addressed in his letter had to do with bringing the old separations of the divided table of the world into the celebration of Christ’s unifying table of communion.
When you come together as a church, I hear there are divisions among you. For Paul, coming to the Lord’s Table as a divided congregation was not only a spiritual and moral problem; it was a theological problem. To be the church and to be divided is a contradiction. To share at Christ’s table and to be divided is inconsistent with who we are and whose we are. Communion is not only a ritual of remembrance; it is an identity-marking ceremony that proclaims our allegiance to the one crucified Lord Jesus Christ. As those who share in communion with Christ, we are no longer divided by those things that mark off individuals and groups within the world. Using another identity-marking ritual, Paul said to the divided Galatians: As many of you as were baptized into Christ, have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Being in Christ, symbolized in both baptism and Eucharist, means human divisions and boundaries are no longer a priority in identifying who we are as a people.
The church is one in communion as it partakes in the one body and blood of Christ. Christ’s body is not divided. So, to partake of the bread and cup as one body, while still being divided, is to nullify the very meaning of the Lord’s Supper. When you come together it is really not to eat the Lord’s Supper. To eat bread and drink wine as a divided people is simply a supper. It is not the Lord’s Supper. I wonder if the church today has ever come to share the bread and the cup and it was simply a meager meal.
Paul points particularly to the economic division within the church that was manifest when the Lord’s Supper was celebrated. In the early church communion was not a separate liturgical practice within a worship service. It was a natural part of a shared meal, known as an agape or love feast, during which special prayers and blessings were offered over the bread and wine as part of the meal. It appears that at the church of Corinth the wealthier members would bring lots of food and wine to this common meal, which was not “common” in the true sense of the word. They would eat, drink, and be merry, while the poorer members went hungry and thirsty. They considered their food a private possession and not something to be offered up as a common possession of the one body of Christ, the church. It’s kind of like when a church member withholds their regular offerings to the church because they disagree with the pastor or a leader believing that what they have brought as an offering to Christ’s church is really their own private possession. Withholding money that is meant to benefit a body of people because of disagreements is not something we see happening today (House), is it?
The rich at Corinth considered what they brought to be a private meal and not a common meal and therefore, it was not 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? Do you show contempt for the church of God? Leave your divisions at the church door; the divisions of economics, class, race, gender, ideology, nationality, and partisan politics. In its essence, the church is undivided. Communion re-presents the church as one. It is a ritual of remembrance of our one Lord, who gave his body and blood to be our peace, as Ephesians says, “breaking down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:14). To celebrate the body and blood of Christ, our peace, with our divisions still on display and active is to turn the Eucharist into an empty and meaningless ritual.
It is for this reason that Paul admonishes the church not to eat the bread or drink the cup in an “unworthy manner,” that is, without first “examining yourselves” and “discerning the body.” Traditionally we have thought this means examining our personal lives for unconfessed sins before eating the elements. And “discerning the body” means understanding that the bread and cup represent Christ’s body and blood, which takes away our personal sins. In the context of Paul’s argument “the body” is primarily referring to the church as the body of Christ. To eat the supper in an “unworthy manner” is to eat and drink without discerning the one body of Christ, the church. For the rich members of the church to eat from their abundance, while the poor members went hungry, was to violate the essential unity of the body of Christ; to not “discern the body.” We do not partake of the Lord’s table when we come with our divisions still intact and intractable; clinging to my own possessions, holding to my own grudges, marking my own borders, affirming my group’s ethnic or racial privilege, excluding the gifts and calling of a certain gender, and asserting our own national boundaries. That’s what it means to partake of the Lord’s Supper in an “unworthy manner” and to not “discern the body,” the one body of Christ. This bread represents Christ’s one body, broken on the cross, but also signifies Christ’s one body, the church, spread like seed scattered across the hills and valleys, borders and boundaries, across nations and races, languages and political persuasions. Through this common meal we get a taste of the politics of communion.
Discerning the body is our difficult and delightful task in the midst of a diverse, global church and a divided, warring world. Communion has some rather radical implications, if we are to partake of it in a meaning-full manner. The church needs to explore the imaginative and practical consequences of a politics of communion. If communion celebrates one church united by its allegiance to one Lord, what does that mean for me and for the church today in the communities, nation, and world in which we live? What would a politics of communion look like for us today?
A politics of communion cultivates the unity of the local church. Conflict and divisions within a congregation are painful and disorienting, as we all know well. They are often based upon our differences, preferences, and personal convictions. And those differences are part of what it means to be human. But, sometimes those differences can rub up against each other until they cause divisions. What we must remember is that the differences in our family backgrounds, life experiences, ethnicity, race, class, age, gender, doctrinal perspectives, personal musical styles, or who leads our congregation are not the essence of what it means to be the church that celebrates communion. Those things are not what unite us. We are essentially and fundamentally united in Christ Jesus. In communion we remember the one body of Christ and celebrate the unity of the church.
At the same time, to be one in Christ, to cultivate unity, is not the same as enforcing uniformity. We don’t necessarily always have to agree with one another. And that’s okay. To expect the church to be a place where everybody thinks and acts like me is to be a church of one! We are not looking to make cookie cutter Christians, but diverse disciples of the one Lord Jesus Christ. The one bread of our communion can be “multigrain.” Our unity is not grounded in all our diverse and delightful differences, but rather in our one common Lord. Like a hundred different pianos tuned by one pitch fork are in tune with one another, so the church tuned to the one Christ is united. A politics of communion would cultivate the unity of the local church A politics of communion celebrates ecumenicity. Our unity as Christ’s church extends beyond our local congregation to other Christian congregations. The history of Christianity and the emergence of denominations seem to witness to the disunity of the church. Our differences have divided us into Catholics, Protestants, Reformed, Charismatic, Pentecostal, Baptist, non-denominational, Nazarene, and on and on we could go, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
With a history of denominational divisions the work of the church in our day is to continue the tough work of unity of the church across denominations. By that I do not mean organizational unity, as if Christ calls us to be one huge denomination. Rather, the church can be in unity even with our differences. Church unity through ecumenical cooperation does not mean we all become the same and lose our differences. We have to learn the difficult dance of affirming our unity amid our diversity. Why not think of the different Christian churches as the diverse hands, feet, eyes and ears of the body of Christ, each bringing its uniquely different gifts into one people?
Several hundred years ago, Augustine spoke of church unity when he said; "In faith unity. In doubtful things, liberty. In all things love". At the inception of the General Conference Mennonite Church it adapted and adopted this slogan to address their differences and diversity as they came together: “In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things love.” Herein lays a potential for unity not only among our own churches, but an ecumenical unity across denominations.
One place where ecumenical cooperation seems to happen naturally is on the mission field. It appears that when the church finds itself in an environment where it is in the minority and not at the center of society, it tends to focus less on its differences and to cooperate more.
As the church is decentered and becomes more marginal in a post-modern, post-Christian society, denominationalism will wane and be off less importance. There was a time when staunch denominational identity ran through generations of families. A real change regarding denominationalism started with the baby boom generation and has become even more the case with Generation X and the millennials. They have little concern for differences in denominations and denominational identity. Maybe this is an opportunity, like on the mission field, for the church to de-emphasize its non-essential differences and work at ecumenical cooperation. I wonder, is this move toward a more postmodern, post-Christian society God in cognito working through the world to force the church to reconsider its essential unity and its vocation of mission?
Jesus’ prayer to God in John 17 was that his followers “may be one, as we are one.” The politics of communion celebrates ecumenicity.
A politics of communion upholds the global church. The word “ecumenical” literally means “the whole world.” So, true ecumenicity transcends both our local and national boundaries to include the global church. We celebrate World Communion Sunday as a reminder that the church in its unity transcends the human boundaries of gender, race, economic class, language, and nationality. Those are nice words, but when the rubber hits the road in practice, the church may find itself having a hard time “discerning the body,” that is, the global body of Christ.
One ideology that blinds us to “discerning the body” is nationalism. Nationalism has become a religion that rivals Christianity, or should I say, takes over Christianity, its narrative, and symbols. American nationalism, sometimes hiding under the guise of “patriotism,” is a particularly pernicious religion. It pledges allegiance to “one nation under god,” a tribal god of a particular people. This parochial god has a divine mission for his favored child, America. That mission first emerged during the American Revolution from the Puritan John Winthrop in a 1630 sermon that imaged New England as a “City upon a Hill,” a shining example for everyone to see. This same image was used by President Reagan to speak of our nation. Unfortunately, this image from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount refers to his disciples. It has been misappropriated by politicians and applied to America. The mission of America was couched in sacred language and envisioned as a Manifest Destiny, a term coined by political writer John Sullivan in 1845. It was our divine destiny to conquer and settle this new land. Although, it was manifestly clear to the Native Americans, who lived in this land, that it was not their divine destiny to be victims of genocidal slaughter, displacement, and cultural robbery.
Our nation came to see itself as the “New Israel,” an image used of the church, whom God has chosen to be the emissary of freedom and democracy to the world. Our mission is to remake the world in our own image. Although the idea goes back to the early 1800’s, in modern politics and the sentiments of most Americans we see our role in the world defined by the idea of “American exceptionalism.” This doctrine holds that our nation, our “democracy,” has a special, and one might say “saving,” role to play in the world. We are not bound by international law or the interests of the global community. We are bound only by American interests.
Most recently President Obama intoned this doctrine of “American exceptionalism” to justify bombing Syria, which is a sovereign nation, and where, I might add, 10% of the population is part of the body of Christ. If we are “a city set on a hill” how could we bomb Syria for using chemical weapons, when we decimated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and turned a blind eye to Saddam Hussein when he used chemical weapons we supplied on his own people, just to name two brief examples? That’s because those situations involved “America’s interests.” America is excluded from hypocrisy and moral judgment, because we are “exceptional” within world history. The problem with “American exceptionalism” is that many nations have held to some form of “exceptionalism” and have justified all kinds of evil using it. Besides, everyone wants to think that their people, their culture, their form of government, are somehow special. The real difference is that America is an empire with the power to enforce its supposed “exceptionalism” onto others.
Like many religions, the nationalistic religion of “Americanism” calls for blood sacrifice; the bodies and blood of our young men and women sacrificed on the nation’s altar of freedom, or should we rather say, “America’s global interests.” It is this sacrifice that binds our nation together as one. The death of those offered for our nation abolishes our differences and brings us unity. The flag becomes a symbol of our blood sacrifices, as the cross is a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice. We unite around the flag like Christians gather around the communion table. And yet, for Christians it is the final and ultimate sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ remembered in communion, which binds the global church together as one.
At the conclusion of his book Between Babel and Beast, theologian Peter Leithart suggests:
American churches need to commemorate the final sacrifice of Jesus in regular eucharistic celebrations, and they need to work out the practicalities of a eucharistic politics—the end of sacred warfare, the formation of an international ecclesial imperium that includes all Christians, the cultivation of the virtues of martyrs, the forging of bonds of brotherhood (and sisterhood) that would inhibit Christians from shedding Christian blood (152).
Communion presents us with an alternative politics. Our politics of communion is shaped by a cosmic God and an international community of believers, over against a parochial god of a solitary nation state. As citizens of God’s realm we bear allegiance to Christ alone, which does not mean that we have no responsibility toward the state or that the state has no positive role to play or that we must hate everything about America. Nor does it mean that every expression of church in the world is faultless. It does mean that our allegiance to Christ and love for God’s global church takes precedence over allegiance to the state. So, when the state seeks our support to bomb places where our Christian brothers and sisters live, how can we in good conscience violate the body of Christ?
How ironic that it an Air Force chaplain shared communion with the crew of the Enola Gay before they bombed Hiroshima. How blind to the body were those Christians who used the Bible and just war theory to justify dropping the atomic bomb, a weapon of mass destruction? How tragic it was that an “all Christian” bomb crew dropped the bomb that decimated Nagasaki, which was not only targeted on innocent civilians, but ground zero was the largest Christian cathedral (Urakami) in Asia! Nagasaki had the largest concentration of baptized Christians in all of Japan! With those two bombs alone we sacrificed over 220,000 innocent civilians in the name of our nation, while still today we claim it was necessary to end the war. Allegiance to a nation took precedence over allegiance to Christ and his global church. Where was the “discernment of the body?”
Communion is a place for us to begin to rethink our politics. My old friend John Stoner said it well. His proposal became a popular Mennonite Central Committee poster, which reads: A modest proposal for peace; Let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other. This is only a first step. But, that simple proposal has radical and political implications. It’s as radical as the simple truth that our communion with Christ, remembered and celebrated in the bread and cup, makes the church one.
Simply put, our communion in Christ binds us together with Christians worldwide. The one church of Christ takes priority over our particular nations. That is what we celebrate on World Communion Sunday. The love of God has no boundaries. The gift of Christ’s body and blood is transnational. It cannot be contained within one nation. The Spirit of the church is universal. And so, with the second century Christians, we pray to God: As this broken bread was scattered over the mountains, and when brought together becomes one, so let your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom (Didache, 2nd century).
Like the church at Corinth, the community of Waxahachie, Texas of 1935, as depicted in the movie Places in the Heart, was divided. The story begins with death and desperation. Sheriff Royce Spalding is accidentally killed by a young black boy, Wylie, who has been drinking at the railway yards. White vigilantes drag Wylie through the streets with their truck and display his broken body in the view of Edna, the sheriff’s wife, and her children as the community’s blood sacrifice. Edna does not project her pain onto every black person she meets. She even covers for Moze, a black drifter and handyman, when he is caught by the law for stealing her silverware after asking her for work. She ends up hiring Moze to help her grow and market cotton in order to save her home from being repossessed. The banker, who holds the deed to her place, negotiates with Edna to also take in his blind brother-in-law, Will. Eventually after Moze is beaten by the Klan and defended by Will, he leaves this new makeshift family he has grown to love. A woman, her small children, a black man, and a man who was blind, see clearly what caring across their differences can mean. It created a diverse, loving community, sharing in the bread of peace and the wine of hope.
The final scene of the movie is a rather strange scene of communion. It is a service of communion taking place inside a small country church. The pastor reads 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter. Love is patient and kind…Love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. The elements of communion are passed down the pews from one member to the next. It looks like a regular communion service until….after Edna’s sister and brother-in-law take the cup, you see the men who dragged Wylie with the truck, then Klan members, the banker, then there is Will, Moze, Edna, her children, and oddly enough her dead husband, Royce, sharing in communion. Royce finally turns to the young Wylie, who shot him, and passes to him the cup of Christ’s blood. The final words of the movie are Wylie’s words to Royce….”Peace of God.” It is one of the most striking and thought-provoking depictions of communion I have ever seen.
Some interpret this final communion scene as an image of heaven, with everyone forgiven symbolized in Christ’s shed blood. That may be part of this final scene. But, it may also be a vision of what the church can be here and now: reconciled, at one, undivided by race, class, age, disability, gender, politics, ideology, nationality, and living in the peace of God.