Many of you know that I am a lectionary preacher, which means that I
don't select the basic scriptures that we read most Sundays but share
what is heard in millions of other places across the world on the same
day. I do this to be in solidarity with other churches and so that I
don't preach my own favorite sermon over and over again but even read
texts that I don't favor. Which leads to days like today. On Annual
Meeting Communion worship, I would not necessarily choose stories about
exorcising demons or arguing over food sacrificed to idols. These were
not pressing issues in 2008. But the truth is that they are powerful
stories, and they may be pressing issues next year or maybe even later
today. Especially this food issue, because we are just about to
celebrate Communion and then eat brunch and then digest our budget.
I mean no irreverence, but it is possible to make a case that from
one end of the scriptures to the other there are repeated food fights
in the Bible. Some of them are deadly. From Cain and Abel to Jacob and
Esau, from Joseph and the famine to the Jews and the shellfish, there
are a lot of struggles over food that reflect varying types of logic
and hugely high stakes. Matt Boulton, over at Harvard, recently wrote
to remind us that in the Gospel of Luke the Last Supper ends in a
fight. The first Communion caused an argument, just as Jesus had done
by eating with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners and feeding
hungry people on a hillside. Now the Apostle Paul writes to us about
the bad behavior in Corinth concerning food sacrificed to idols and
another fight, and I'm telling you all of this about forty five minutes
before our pot luck begins.
But let me go deeper, because the issue in Corinth was
multi-layered. It had to do with theology, liberty, intellectual
ability, and self understanding. It had to do with hunger, culture, and
Christ. This was a social issue, and this was a religious issue, which
is why it gets almost three chapters in Paul.
At its root, this meat sacrificed to idols had to do with meat
suppliers and the quality and character of their product. In Corinth
some of the best meat was pre-sacrificed, so if you wanted a
high-quality, safe product you likely got something already committed
to some Greek god. You got that at church pot lucks, and you got that
at the equivalent of Super Bowl parties -- the Isthmus games -- and
that represents the fullness of my reference to American football
Anyway, if you were poor the meat you got at church and at social
events was probably your only meat, so this had to do with health and
need and culture, and it wasn't a simple issue of this or that. In
church, the brightest and most articulate folks, the most progressive
and educated and reasonable, thought that at the end of the day this
was not a big theological issue for them, if you will, and it was OK to
eat this meat because these were false gods and the meat was just meat,
of a nice quality. These folks described themselves as knowledgeable,
and they were.
But not everyone was so knowledgeable, and some people were poor, as
I said. Some people were new Christians, too, and not so firm in their
faith -- not so sure these other gods didn't have a hold on them. These
people worried that this meat was tainted, like money donated to a
church by a drug lord, and that this taint was irrevocable.
So what did the knowledgeable people in church do? They ate the meat
anyway, because they were smart. They celebrated emancipatory
theological knowledge, knowing God had liberated them, as I so often
Enter Paul. Paul was not impressed. Because his sense of the Body of
Christ is not just the importance of each emancipated individual but of
the community sharing God's love together.
Paul introduced a revolutionary idea to the ancient world already so
replete with amazing ideas. Indeed, he introduced a counter-cultural
claim: to the culture that said "Know thyself," Paul said
knowledge must be subject to love. Imagine telling that to the CIA.
That's the rough equivalent of saying it to Greek intellectuals. You
may know more than someone else, but you can't be unloving to them. And
furthermore, you can't be exasperated or impatient with them. You can't
overpower them. You can't insult them. You are in solidarity with them.
Which does not just elicit the lowest common denominator in all
community action but the highest communion values in all creation.
Scholars say that Paul is working to unite the theoretical and the
practical for a new way of life.
Here's another dimension of his idea: freedom is an illusion, and
its pursuit can even result in enslavement as we go with our individual
inclinations. No man is an island, so to speak. Being in Christ has
corporate implications. Don't eat meat if it is injuring or troubling
those who are not where you are or new to the journey or simply weak.
Love them. Now, how do you run a church like that?
Well, basically Paul is asking for love, patience, unity, and
humility. These aren't such bad ingredients for Communion, brunch, or
annual business. Basically Paul is echoing Jesus saying not only what
goes into our body is important, but what comes forth from the body is
The way that we actually celebrate Communion here can reveal how we
receive all this. Our practice might seem casual to you at times, but
it has a deep meaning -- actually several deep meanings from which we
draw. I don't mean what happens to the bread and the cup: I mean what
happens to us.
Some weeks we serve Communion in the pews, and we pass around trays
with individual cups and cubes of bread. This reflects a layer of
meaning as the Elements are carried to the people -- God meeting us
where we are. Servers bring out trays to serve you, symbolically. As we
do this we have two choices where we are: we can serve ourselves first
or we can serve our neighbor first. And what we do makes a difference.
When we pass around these trays to the pews we have another choice,
too. We can eat as soon as we are served or we can wait and all eat
together. This parish asks folks to serve others first, and it asks
everyone to eat together, but there is no way to control how people act
Other weeks we come forward for Communion. It means something that
we get up and come forward, assuming that we can. Christianity is a
participatory sport. Which means lots of choices. We've chosen, here,
always to have lay people serve lay people: we don't generally have our
pastors serve the cup and plate. Even symbolically God is not uniquely
in our hands. God is in everyone's hands. Indeed, my own practice is to
walk to the back of the sanctuary and be served almost last. I do that
because in so many Christian families the priest or pastor is served
first by tradition, and I am not theologically accommodated to that,
even when it is house rules. So my little walk is intentional, too.
But there's more. What we say here is important. Even though we say
many different things -- which is fine. Some say "the bread of
life" or "the body of Christ" as they serve you. Some
say "the cup of blessing" or "the blood of Christ."
That's a longer sermon, but these are all correct. Sometimes deacons
ask me exactly what to say and I vaguely make a suggestion because
there isn't one exact thing to say that will make Jesus any more
present than another -- that would be idolatry. So I offer ideas, which
I put into your hands for new life.
But there's more. What do you say when you are served? Something.
Thank you is appropriate and literally a faith stance. Amen is
traditional and wonderful and almost Aramaic. I've always wanted to say
"wow." Or even "you're kidding." Not to be
irreverent, but what do you say when someone offers you the bread of
The way we act when we celebrate Communion means something, and
isn't just an accident. In the context of theology, liberty,
intellectual ability, and self-understandings, it is our quest for
love, patience, unity, and humility.
What if we led our whole lives this way?
What if we strove to make knowledge subject to love?
I wonder if there be fewer food fights and less hunger? I wonder if
we would be more alive?
Copyright © 2009
Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.