One Lord, One Faith, One Table
1 Corinthians 10: 16-17, 27-31
October 6, 2013, World Communion Sunday
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?
17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
27 If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience.
28 But if someone says to you, "This has been offered in sacrifice," then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—
29 I mean the other's conscience, not your own.
For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else's conscience?
30 If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks?
31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.
Maybe I should have a name-that-sermon contest more often.
The last time I did it, a few weeks back, several folks said that looking for a title helped them listen better! You don’t have to come up with a title this week, though you can if you want, but I do think that I have a better one than the one in the bulletin: “Table Manners.” You see what you think.
As you probably know by now, today is World Communion Sunday, a celebration that originated at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh way back in 1933. The practice was adopted by what was then the United Presbyterian Church – the Northern church at the time, in 1936, and was adopted by what is now the National Council of Churches in 1940. So World Communion Sunday is in our Presbyterian DNA, as it were. World Communion Sunday has been around for as long as our building – ninety years, this year! -- and the practice of the Lord’s Supper has been a part of the church for as long as there has been a church.
When we celebrate this sacrament, we celebrate the essential joy of the Lord’s Supper, the best symbol we have of God’s abundance, love, and grace. When we celebrate this day, we celebrate the eternal unity of Christ’s church, the community made one in Christ Jesus, just as many grains make one bread and many grapes make one cup.
Jesus talked about grains and grapes fairly often, and he was fond of using them as metaphors for our lives. He said that he was the vine, and we are the branches. He said that unless a grain falls to the ground and dies, it can’t become the seed of new life and a bountiful harvest. There are so many layers of meaning in communion, then, that we mostly just have to pick one to focus on, and acknowledge that what we say is incomplete.
The Apostle Paul, addressing table fellowship in this letter to the church at Corinth, does just that. His attention is on our table manners. Many of us, if not most of us, learned manners at the family dinner table. The supper table was where we caught up on the news of the day, shared information, tattled on each other, encountered new foods, and had our behavior shaped as members of a family.
My family was unique even in the sixties in that we had almost every meal together at the kitchen table. Even then, the demands of work and multiple schedules were changing the family. Dinner was no longer a gathering time – people began to eat different meals at different times, when sports and jobs and plans permitted. Kids didn’t have to learn to cook anymore, they only had to learn to work the microwave.
But back then, in many good and important ways, families like ours did some of their best work at the supper table. And we learned some important rules.
- Wash your hands before you come to the table.
- Pray before you eat.
- Break your bread before you eat it.
- Cut your meat – don’t stab the whole piece with your fork and eat like a caveman.
- Say please and thank you.
- Even if you do not like broccoli, you must take some and eat it.
- You cannot hide broccoli in a glass of milk.
- Broccoli drenched with milk tastes awful.
- Even the dog does not like broccoli.
- Don’t spit your broccoli out on your plate.
This was all very important information, mother said, because someday you are going to be at table with someone else, and you need to know how to behave properly, so as not to offend them. If you are invited to a meal with a friend, you must eat what is served. You may not turn up your nose, or ask “what IS that?” or attempt to give your food to the dog, if there is one, or hide it under the rim of your plate. You may not spit food out. Even if it is broccoli. Even if it is calves’ liver.
I think I’ve shared with you before that one of the nicest things a little friend ever did for me was to eat an entire slab of dry overcooked liver off my plate, sneaking bite after bite when her mother wasn’t looking. Greater love has no kid than this…
The issue that Paul is addressing in the second part of our reading is similar, but much more serious. Not unlike today, but for different reasons, people sitting down at the dinner table wanted to know where the meat came from. Had it been sacrificed to idols? Was it offered up to pagan gods?
Paul has spent a good bit of this letter describing Christian freedom – the truth that just as God freed the people of Israel from slavery to Egypt, God in Christ has freed us from slavery to sin. Because we have this freedom, lots of things that used to be forbidden are no longer any big deal – like meat offered to idols. BUT our freedom has its limits!
This was serious business then, and may be even more serious now. Our freedom is limited by conscience – the conscience of others. This is not political, constitutionally guaranteed freedom, not the freedom of worldly governments and powers. As Christians, when our exercise of freedom infringes on the conscience of another, when our free expression wounds the body, we are called to limit that freedom, so as not to offend, so as not to create an embarrassing moral dilemma for a brother or sister!
Paul is saying that there is no problem of conscience with eating meat sacrificed to idols, unless doing so offends those at the table with you. And if you are offended by the prospect of eating that meat, and the person serving you is not, it is like that darn calves’ liver – you are supposed to politely take it and eat it and NOT SAY ANYTHING!
So we come to this table, this bountiful, generous table, spilling over with good things, with foods from every place, bread from every land, foods both familiar and strange, comforting and challenging. We come to this table to receive the bread and the cup, but also to be received as a member of Christ’s body, the church. We come to remember and also to be re-membered – to be put back together.
It is no accident that our Peacemaking Offering is brought to the table on this Sunday when we envision all the world coming to the feast. The heart of peacemaking is that our first concern is for the other, that our actions and words are focused on loving our neighbor, and that our faith in Jesus Christ, the host at this table, commands us not only to love our neighbor, but to love our enemies. In a time when people are divided over politics and policy, when conversations disintegrate into rhetoric and sound bites, when positions are taken and compromise is seen as capitulation, when individuals suffer loss because of a group’s desire to WIN, we as Christians are called to a higher charge:
To love as Christ loved, in order to bring glory to God.
So this feast Christ has spread for us is both a gift and a challenge.
We gather symbolically at this table with the great communion of saints.
We gather symbolically at this table with all of our ecumenical partners.
We gather symbolically at this table even with those who do not welcome us!
And here there is plenty for all, and everyone is bid a welcome, even if they disagree with us, even if they do not like us, even if we do not like them, even if we think they are dead wrong.
Because the driving force of our lives, the purpose of our community, the most powerful law we have been given, and the widest freedom we can imagine all spring from one source: Jesus Christ. In him we are commanded to love and to live for God’s glory. We obey that commandment when we love one another, when we love our neighbors, when we love even our enemies, and we fulfill that purpose when we gather at the bountiful and varied feast given to us by the love of God in Christ Jesus, welcoming all who would come and blessing even those who do not partake.
So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.
It is just good table manners.
Thanks be to God!