Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. Amen. I Corinthians 11:27-29
As many of you know, I was raised a Southern Baptist. (As an aside, it has been my observation that Southern Baptists make wonderful Episcopal priests, but that is another story for a future sermon on humility!). What I want to share with you tonight is my experience of the celebration of Holy Communion as a Southern Baptist. In my childhood we celebrated the Sacrament four times per year at most, and many churches did so only twice each year (whether you needed it or not, as it were).
The reception of the Sacrament was, for me, shrouded in fear and trepidation. There was a great deal of emphasis on being ready and worthy to receive. “Had I thoroughly repented of my sins? Was I worthy to receive? What will happen if I’m not?” These are the questions that plagued me as a young Christian.
It seemed to me at the time that sinners were not welcome at the table of the Lord. Only those who were “right with Jesus” were invited, and this text from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was quoted as proof. It was never clear to me, however, how I could know for certain that I was “right with Jesus.” Moral purity, which I believed was the requirement for reception of the Sacrament, was an ever receding horizon that I never quite reached.
My fear of being ostracized as a sinner, was greater, however, than my fear of Jesus: so I received along with everybody else. While I was correct in fearing rejection by others more than rejection by Jesus, I paid a high price for my fear. In believing that Paul’s argument is about moral purity, I actually reinforced the very tendency which Paul is here criticizing. I failed to “discern the body.”
“Discerning the body” is, to my knowledge, the only biblical requirement for reception of the sacrament. Our failure to acknowledge this requirement does have dire consequences, as Paul points out. Many are weak and ill and some have even died, because of our failure to discern the body. And so our celebration of this Holy Sacrament, the institution of which we remember tonight, is a serious matter.
What, then, does it mean to “discern the body”?
Earlier in his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote, 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? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. I Corinthians 10:16-17
Paul is writing to a Christian community torn apart by various factions, with some considering themselves superior to others: more wise, more spiritually gifted, more socially acceptable. Paul goes to great lengths to remind the Corinthians that the basis of their unity is not their social status, but rather their sharing together in the body of Christ. Their divisions betray their failure to discern the body.
The word here translated “sharing” is koinōnia, which in Greek has a much stronger connotation; not mere sharing, but communion, mutual participation and indwelling in one another. Notice that, for Paul, koinōnia moves in two directions: one vertical and one horizontal, so to speak. On the vertical plane, there is communion between the individual and God through Christ. Similarly, on the horizontal plane there is communion between individuals through Christ. The body of Christ encompasses both realities. “Discerning the body,” then, means seeing Christ both in our selves and in one another, separately and collectively.
Paul goes on to reprimand the Corinthians in the passage we heard this evening. What we didn’t hear was the specific instance of failing to discern the body that Paul is criticizing: a failure of the rich to see the body of Christ in the poor.
When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper, Paul admonishes them. 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? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? I Corinthians 11:20-22b
Rather than exemplifying authentic communion, the Corinthians’ celebration of the Lord’s Supper became a basis for the rich to exercise their privilege and humiliate the poor in the process. The meal had become a means to reinforce social hierarchies that divide the community against itself, allowing some to revel in excess while others have nothing. The rich had confused their economic power with moral superiority, treating the poor with contempt for failing to “measure up.”
Paul argues that the vulnerability of the poor, their weakness, illness, and death, serves as a judgment against the rich for their failure to discern the body of Christ. I can not help but recall in this context my experience during the palm procession last Sunday as we circled the block around the church: a crack addict splayed out on the sidewalk with paramedics attending to her, a woman shivering under a blanket in the alley, the smell of human urine mixed with the scent of incense, the sound of police sirens and tinkling bells.
Where did we discern the body of Christ during that walk? It was there, everywhere, in each and all. Can we see that body, broken for us? Can we bear to be broken open, made vulnerable in our union with that body? It is because of our failure to discern the body that some people grow fat while other’s starve; some enjoy the security of gated communities while others are victims of violence and torture; some have the freedom to choose among a variety of lifestyles, while others struggle to choose between life and death. Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians sits heavily upon me as I consider the limits of my own capacity to discern the body.
Moral purity, however, is not the issue here. Discerning the body is not a matter of becoming “good enough” to see it. Discerning the body is about becoming vulnerable enough to become united with Christ’s crucified and risen body. Paul rightly reminds the Corinthians of Jesus’ institution of Holy Communion, his last, sacramental meal with his own disciples. This was not a communion of the morally pure, but rather a collection of peasants, tax collectors, renegades, prostitutes and guys who just didn’t get it. The worst of them would betray Jesus, the best would deny him, and all of them would abandon him (except, it seems, the women).
In his last supper we see the summation and pattern of Jesus’ table fellowship throughout his ministry: including everyone, especially outcasts and sinners, in meals celebrating the arrival of God’s kingdom. We see how he discerned the body: without limit and without exclusion. There were no scapegoats over against which Jesus defined the unity of his circle of followers. All were welcome. All were included. And all were changed because of their experience of radical, crucified love; a love willing to die in solidarity even with scapegoats; a love willing to die in solidarity with you and me.
The only requirement for reception of this Holy Sacrament is a willingness to be united with the body of Christ, a willingness to refuse participation in the dynamic of exclusion that makes our salvation dependent upon someone else’s condemnation. Our union with God in the body of Christ is not based on our moral superiority. It is based upon our reception of the gift of grace whereby we are given new eyes to see the body of Christ in ourselves and in others; especially in the most unlikely people.
Our participation in the body of Christ is a being drawn into union with God through a process of mutual self-giving in love. This mutual self-giving operates in two ways: through meditation in solitude and through service in community. In meditation we let go of the self constructed from the expectations, fantasies, and projections of others, to discern our true self in the light of God’s love. Offering our entire self to God, warts and all, we discover how completely and without limit God loves us as we are, and how much God desires us to become much more than we could imagine. We begin to discern the body of Christ in us, and ourselves as part of the body.
In service to others, we make space for compassion to expand our awareness of the body of Christ in the brokenness of the world, as well as in ourselves. In giving of ourselves for others, and receiving from them in return, we make love concrete in daily life. Every act of service, however small, is part of our self offering to God. Every such act deepens our capacity to discern the body of Christ and to give it form and definition.
The Sacrament of Holy Communion brings both of these dimensions together. Christ is truly present in the bread and wine, and in receiving them we realize our union with Christ in his self-offering to God. At the same time, our reception of the Sacrament together embodies our union with each other in Christ. We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. The grace of the Sacrament is the renewing of our capacity to see ourselves and others as part of one body, the body of Christ.
More than that, we are given the grace to offer ourselves in union with Christ’s self-offering to God for the sake of the salvation of the world. We become the means of God’s peace and justice-making, the means whereby the whole creation is reconciled with God. The church as the body of Christ does not exist for its own sake, but as a Sacrament of crucified love for the world.
As St. Augustine said, If you are the body and members of Christ, it is your mystery which is placed on the Lord’s table; it is your mystery your receive. It is to that which you are that you answer, ‘Amen,’ and by that response you make your assent. You hear the words ‘the body of Christ’; you answer, ‘Amen.’ Be a member of Christ, so that the ‘Amen’ may be true. (Sermon 272 cited in Crockett, Eucharist: Symbol of Transformation, p. 94.)
In receiving this holy Sacrament we say “yes” to who we truly are: the body of Christ; and we are given the grace to live our lives in such a way that our “yes” will prove true. May we bear witness to that “yes” through daily surrender to God in prayer and humble service to our neighbors, and thus rightly discern the body. Amen.