The Feast that Unites or the Feast that Divides?
Should Communion be open to all?
Morning Service led by our Minister
This sermon is taken from 1 Corinthians 11, verses 23-34
The Feast that Unites or the Feast that Divides?
Many years ago, I was asked by a colleague in the health service if I would conduct a Service of Marriage Blessing for a couple he knew. They wanted a church service as well as the civil ceremony already booked in the Registrar’s Office and they had been let down rather badly at the last minute by another church. I met with them, satisfied myself that this was a service I should do in the name of our church and in the name of Jesus Christ and the preparations went ahead.
Four days before the service I had a phone call from someone who felt that I was doing the wrong thing and who told me so at some length. Now in Christian ministry, as in life, you encounter people who have different opinions to your own and this does not necessarily stop you from doing what you feel to be right. But one thing this person said disturbed me because it was clear that someone, somewhere was lying. Either the caller was lying to me or one of the partners was lying to the other or both partners were lying to me. And it was only four days to the service…..
There was not time to gather all parties together and try to get to the bottom of this and I suspected that I would get three contradictory explanations anyway. If I simply pulled the plug on the whole thing, this would cause huge distress to a large number of people and would hardly place the church in a favourable light. In the end I telephoned the Moderator and asked his advice. He listened carefully and said something very wise, which I have never forgotten. He said that people only receive as much blessing as they are in a fit state to gain. In other words, no matter how many prayers of blessing I uttered over this couple on Saturday, if they were really deceiving each other or lying to me, their relationship would not be blessed. Not because God was out to punish them but because this is how life and love and faith work. That which is built on deceit does not survive. So go ahead, conduct the service, was his advice. If the couple concerned are actually being honest and open to God’s truth, they will be blessed. If not, there is nothing you can do for them.
Those words of St Paul warning us about receiving Holy Communion “unworthily” have been used a powerful weapon of spiritual blackmail for centuries. Leaders in the church have used it to exclude anyone they believe not to be “worthy” from the Communion Table.
Do you know, there was a time in some branches of the Presbyterian Church (our immediate ancestors) when one of the duties of the Elders in the church was each to be given a list of church members, keep a careful eye on their behaviour, give them a ticket to the quarterly Communion Service if they were “worthy” but, if they had committed any serious sins, deny them that ticket until they had made a confession to the Elders’ meeting, asked forgiveness and been reinstated. As you might imagine, some relationships within local churches never survived this process…..
In other traditions, the receiving of Communion is seen as the ultimate preparation for death and entry into heaven. So to be excluded from Communion would put people in terror that they were going to hell. Not nice…
But as for examining ourselves, as Paul suggests, to see if we think we are worthy to receive Communion, I rather suspect we would end up next Sunday with no-one here at all. For which of us truly thinks we are perfect, ticket or no ticket?
I never like walking away from difficult passages in the Bible so I looked again at what Paul is actually saying. As we heard last week, his distress was that the Communion had become a means of dividing the rich from the poor. It was celebrated as part of a meal in someone’s house and, as social customs of that time dictated, the rich ate lavish food in one part of the house while the poor ate small rations in another. This was not what Christ’s table was about. When Jesus broke bread and shared wine at the Last Supper, he made it clear that his was a sacrificial death- he was offering his life so that men and women might be reconciled to God. And if they were reconciled to God as their Father, then they would become reconciled to each other as brothers and sisters. Eating as they were doing in Corinth was erecting barriers between brothers and sisters and dividing them from each other. In doing this, the whole act of redemption was put “into reverse.” If there was no reconciliation between brothers and sisters, then there was no reconciliation with God. And if there was no reconciliation with God, then they were denying the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. They were, in effect throwing it back in his face. “You are wasting your time, Lord. This is not going to make any difference to us.”
And so the Sacrament of Holy Communion became, in effect, worthless and the blessing which might have been given was not given. Not because God was sitting up there sulking but because they themselves were denying the blessing of Christ’s sacrificial death and their peace with God.
The verse about sickness and death coming as a direct result of this sin is not easy to hear either. I have seen too many people in serious pain and deep distress ask, “what have I done to deserve this?” And I say, as Jesus himself said more than once, that sickness and distress are not a deliberate punishment. I could never bring myself to tell anyone that they deserved tragic bereavement or excruciating pain.
But, looking at this again, I found just two things which helped me understand what Paul might have been trying to say here.
First: it is widely acknowledged now that stress is a high contributor to many diseases, mental and physical. And stress can come from things outside ourselves- like violence, abuse, loss of job, breakdown of relationship; and it can come from what is going on inside ourselves: guilt, deceit, anger, isolation. Whatever the cause, this stress can make us very ill. Once again, this is not about God inflicting punishment upon us but about the way our bodies, minds and spirits work. So if the people in Corinth were living in an unjust society, with many innocent victims of poverty and hunger; if the people in Corinth were either over-eating or under-eating; if the people in Corinth were denying their humanity, their responsibility to each other in their opportunity to form relationships with those different to themselves; if the people of Corinth were worshipping false gods rather than the true God then this would all become a source of stress, which could easily lead to sickness. The “judgement” Paul speaks of is more what we would call “cause and effect.”
Second: Paul was talking not only about individual sin but about the “body” which is the church. He calls the church “the body of Christ.” It is a community called together to “be Christ “ in the world. We are here to do the work of Jesus and to proclaim the message of Jesus.
Now, if this “body” is malfunctioning; if it is proclaiming the wrong messages and doing the wrong things, it will become sick in itself. It won’t work effectively. And eventually it will cease to exist as Christ’s body. It might live on as a “cosy club” for its more fortunate members but it will not be the living, growing, healing, inspiring body of Jesus Christ.
Not because God has pronounced “doom” upon us but because God’s people are shutting themselves off from the dynamic blessings of the Holy Spirit. “We are quite happy as we are, thank-you. We do not want to be disturbed.”
Paul is not in the business of calling down the wrath of God on this congregation in Corinth; nor is he in the business of excluding them from the Sacrament of Holy Communion. The stress-induced sickness either of individuals or of the church as a whole is a discipline, a wake-up call. The people are not being invited to “examine themselves” in the sense of ten-out-of-ten for good behaviour but to think carefully and pray seriously that they may be in a fit state to receive God’s blessing through their sharing of bread and wine in the name of Jesus Christ. For, as the Moderator said, people only receive as much blessing as they are in a fit state to gain. And this does not only apply to Holy Communion but to the whole of life and faith. No matter how fervent the prayers of priests and Ministers, or how regularly we attend church, or how much money we give to good causes, we receive only as much blessing as we are in a fit state to gain.
So the final burning question is what constitutes a “fit state?” What opens us up to God’s blessing and what shuts us away? Let me tell you another little story: in many churches, just before taking Communion, the people are invited to share “The Peace” with each other. They go around the church greeting as many people as possible with a warm hand-shake and the words “the peace of the Lord be with you.” They make a public declaration of their unity with each other. Now a friend of mine who was a church organist and Choirmaster, had a disagreement with a member of the choir at Choir Practice. He won the argument but she could not forgive him. When it came to sharing the peace at the next service, although she was sitting near him, she quite deliberately turned away and shared the peace with the people on the other side. And this went on for many services. I don’t know if she ever got over it.
No-one can help feeling hurt and angry when someone upsets them. And to try to twist those hurt and angry feelings into a show of friendship with a forced smile does not convince anyone. But “The peace” when shared at Communion is a sign of God’s peace; that peace which, Jesus said, is not as the world gives. To deny that peace to another is to deny the forgiving power of God and the peace which comes with that forgiveness. No-one can help feeling hurt and angry. No-one can force themselves into forgiving. But to deny that forgiveness is even possible, is to deny God and to shut yourself off from his blessing.
Someone once said to me quite forcefully that “despair” is a sin. And this surprised me. I had never thought of despair as a sin but as more of a “bad mood.” But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that this man was right. Despair is a sin because total despair- giving up on yourself, on another person, on life, on goodness, on truth - denies the possibility of healing, of forgiveness, of renewal, of salvation; it actually denies God. It denies God, denies the sacrificial, saving death of Jesus Christ and denies the power of the living Holy Spirit. And how can you receive blessing if you are denying God?
No-one is expected to live their life, come to worship, receive Communion in a state of total bliss and personal perfection. All that is asked of us is that we do not give up on God; that we do not quite deny altogether his power to love, to forgive and to save.
The late Dag Hammarskjold, Secretary General of the United Nations- a job almost guaranteed to drive a good man to the depths of despair, acknowledged this in a short poem : Tired, and lonely. So tired the heart aches, meltwater trickles down the rocks, the fingers are numb, the knees tremble. It is now, now that you must not give in……
To me, this sums up the state of grace required in those who seek God’s blessing: that no matter what our pain, no matter what our struggles, no matter what our failings, no matter what our fears, no matter what our discouragements, we never quite give in. We leave just that tiniest spark of hope for God to bless and to transform into a burning flame.
And finally, I am not criticising other traditions who do things differently but for myself I am proud to be Minister of a church whose Communion Table is open, echoing the invitation of Jesus for all who are hungry to come to him and to receive the bread of life. For me, it shows that not only have we not quite given up on ourselves but we have also not quite given up on others, no matter who or what they are. So I close with some words of invitation from the Congregational Tradition:
Come to the Table of the Lord not because you must but because you may;
Come, not to proclaim that you are righteous but that you love the Lord Jesus
Come, not because you are strong but because you are weak; not because you feel any claim on heaven’s rewards but because in your frailty you stand in need of heaven’s mercy;
Come, not to express an opinion but to seek God’s blessing and to pray for his Spirit.