Sermon: Proclaiming the Lord’s Death

Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
April 17, 2014: Maundy Thursday
1 Corinthians 11:17-16

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is written to a squabbling, divided congregation that doesn’t seem to be able to agree about much of anything. There’s a lot of finger pointing, a lot of self-congratulation; little factions abound, each one thinking it is better than the others. Now, in the early church the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was the central act; it was a weekly event. And it wasn’t a brief ritual, but instead a complete meal in which the breaking of the bread and pouring of the wine was the culmination. Everyone who was able would have brought provisions for this table. Those who had plenty brought enough for those who had little so that everyone was able to participate. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was remembered, re-enacted and re-experienced.

At least that was the way it was supposed to be. But in Corinth, when this congregation gathered to remember Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, the great divisions within their church were obvious. The food and drink were not a reminder to them of Christ’s sacrifice. Instead, they forgot the Lord’s Supper and began to treat it as their own supper. It became apparently a buffet for the hungry and an open bar for the party goers. They came to eat and get drunk, and Christ was forgotten.

This is how Paul describes what he’s heard about their activities:

I am getting the picture that when you meet together it brings out your worst side instead of your best! First I get this report of your divisiveness, competing with and criticizing each other. Iam am reluctant to believe it, but there it i. . . . And then I find that you bring your divisions to worship—you bring in a lot of food from the outside and make pigs of yourselves. Some are left out, and go home hungry. Others have to be carried out, too drunk to walk. I can’t believe it! Don’t you have your own homes to eat and drink in? Why would you stoop to desecrating God’s church? Why would you actually shame God’s poor? I never would have believed you would stoop to this. And I’m not going to stand by and say nothing. (1Cor. 11:17-22, The Message)

After this indictment, he then describes for them one more time the foundation of their worship. He tells them again the story of Jesus’ last night with his disciples, how Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them saying:

“This is my body broken for you. Do this in Remembrance of me.” And how after the supper, he did the same thing with the cup, saying: “This cup is my blood, my new covenant with you. Each time you drink this cup, remember me.”

Then Paul concludes:

What you must solemnly realize is that every time you eat this bread and every time you drink this cup, you re-enact in your words and actions the death of the Master. You will be drawn back to this meal again and again until the master returns. You must never let familiarity breed contempt. (1Cor 11:25-26, The Message)

What’s happened with the Corinthians is that instead of proclaiming the Lord’s death, their behavior at the table simple proclaims their own sinfulness and selfishness. Who knows why this perversion of the Supper evolved. Some have suggested that perhaps the Corinthians were harking back to their pagan roots and confused the Lord’s Supper with sacred meals in their former religions. “In the mystery cults, sacred food was eaten in an attempt by the person to achieve personal immortality by gulping down this supposedly magic substance. Holy bread and holy wine were consumed, and sometimes blood was drunk, in hopes of filling the body with life-preserving magic food. In other words, the purpose of these sacred meals in the pagan cults was to eat lots of holy food in order to be fulfilled, to be saved from death and evil, to live forever.”[i]

But the Lord’s Supper is not a magical “get out of jail free” or “escape from death” card. It reminds us that if Jesus did not escape death, then neither shall we. It reminds us that some things are worth dying for, worth giving our lives for. It reminds us of Jesus’ self-giving love that was obedient, and steadfast even in the midst of betrayal, even in the midst of the greed and self-seeking he saw in his friends around the table. The Lord’s Supper points us toward the cross, and reminds us that the one we call the Christ, lived in this world, confronted with integrity and humility the evils of this world, suffered because of them, and died as we all must.

In this meal that we shared together, we are reminded that today we are the Body of Christ, that we are called to serve God and one another. And when we take the bread and the cup we are to remember that as the body of Christ everything we do must stretch beyond our individual good to be for the good of all. Although we take these elements with gratitude for what Christ has done for us and means to us as individuals, it is also an opportunity for us as a church, as we share bread and cup, to remember once again, that it’s not all about us individually – it’s about how we together can become the Body of Christ for this corner of God’s kingdom right here, right now. And it is also an opportunity for us to ask ourselves about how well we love – what the extent of our love is. We know the extent of Jesus’ love – he held nothing back; he emptied himself; he became a servant, he remained true to his calling, and was obedient unto death. And now we are invited to live into this Christ-life and recommit ourselves as we participate in the holy meal to walk with Christ and be his presence for others.

Thomas a Kempis, wrote in the fourteenth century:

Jesus now hath many lovers of His celestial kingdom: but few bearers of His Cross.
He hath many who are desirous of consolations: but few of tribulation.
He findeth many companions at His table: but few of his abstinence.
All desire to rejoice with Him: few wish to endure anything for Him.
Many follow Jesus to the breaking of the bread: but few to the drinking of the Cup of his Passion.
Many reverence his miracles: few follow the shame of His Cross.

That’s what Paul was trying to tell the Corinthians one more time. And that is what we are reminded of tonight.

[i] Will Willimon, Sunday Dinner, 1981, 85.