05 April 2007

Sermon for Maundy Thursday - "Commendable Community"

Sometime during the year 53 A.D., the apostle Paul wrote a letter to a church he had founded in the Greek city of Corinth. The city of Corinth had a “reputation for wealth without culture and for abuse of the poor by the wealthy…”[1] The Greek author Alciphron described the “disgusting, coarse and objectionable”[2] behavior of Corinth’s wealthy class, and Alciphron also “detailed the groveling of the abject, wretched poor for the smallest morsels of food.”[3]

It seems that the people of Corinth had a problem, and the church Paul had founded fell victim to that problem as well. The notion of class distinction is hardly breaking news, but to see it so clearly in the tales of the early church can be a bit unsettling. To give you a better grasp of the problem to which Paul refers, allow me to read our New Testament reading for tonight in its wider, more natural setting from I Corinthians:

17 Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. 19Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. 20When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. 21For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. 22What! 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? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!

23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 25In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

27 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.

Paul was faced with a community that was breaking itself apart when it came together as a church. It seems that when the Corinthian church gathered for what they called “the Lord’s Supper,” it took place within the context of a regular evening meal. Biblical scholar J. Paul Sampley says that “one of the members with a large enough house – and this inevitably entails a commensurate servant staff – hosts the dinner in which the Lord’s supper is observed. Some persons – this apparently breaks along economic lines also - are free to come early, and they have (the choice?) food and drink. Some get drunk. Others (Paul characterizes them as “those having nothing”) perhaps get there late(r) and find, along with tipsy coworshipers, leftover food at best.”[4]

Paul was right to say, “I do not commend you in this.” The Corinthian church was not a commendable community. They were fractured – separated – partial in their treatment of one another and sorely lacking in love and respect for one another. This was not, as Paul said, the body Christ had intended to create in His supper, nor was it a body worthy of the gift of Christ’s body and blood.

Twenty years earlier, a much smaller body gathered with their rabbi and friend to share a meal together. The gospel of John tells us that Jesus gathered with “his own” on the night before Passover for a last meal together before he was betrayed and led away to be crucified. In the course of that meal, Jesus, the person of highest honor and most respect and authority, took on the role of a slave and washed the feet of his disciples and followers. A proper dinner host was expected to provide guests with basins and towels for washing their feet, but not slaves to actually do the washing. On the rare occasion when a slave was available, even that slave had the right to refuse to wash feet. When Jesus bent to wash the feet of his friends, he shattered cultural expectations and social structures in order to make a statement about the nature of the community he intended to create.

In our readings tonight, both communities fall short of the vision Christ had for the body he intended to create. In Corinth Paul criticized the people of highest standing for abusing their position: those of higher social distinction felt their position granted them entitlements the lower classes did not deserve. In Jerusalem with Jesus, Peter was horrified that his teacher and friend took on the role reserved for the lowliest slave; Peter felt that his own position, in relation to Jesus, made him unworthy of the gift of love Jesus was offering. So Peter refused the gift Jesus freely offered. The Corinthians valued their position too highly. Peter and the disciples valued their master’s love too little. Neither community was commendable in the moment Scripture describes.

What we do here tonight is no different. We come to the table our Lord prepares for us. Some of you come feeling your position has granted you an entitlement here. You could not be more wrong. Some of you come feeling your master’s love is not truly so great that he would offer his life to save yours. You could not be more wrong. Read Paul’s words, hear the story of Jesus’ loving and humble service to his friends and hear in both the creation of a commendable community. A “commendable community” is a community centered in and defined by love for one another, regardless of social structure or cultural expectation. A “commendable community” is one that obeys the new commandment Jesus gives to us, his disciples: love one another. A “commendable community” understands that Paul exhorted the Corinthians to come together for the betterment of the entire community, not just for private forgiveness and private entitlement to God’s grace. A “commendable community” senses the body of Christ in the meal he offers AND in the church the Spirit gathers to receive that meal. A “commendable community” rejects social structures and cultural expectations and seeks to love one another as Christ has loved us.

On this Commandment Thursday, we hear again Jesus’ call to loving community, to humble service, to proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus in our thoughts, words and deeds. The meal is prepared for you by a loving Savior who stoops to serve you so that you may be strengthened to serve your neighbor. Remember, from this night forward, the love that Christ has given you; be commendable, community of God, and love one another. In Christ’s name, Amen.

[1] Sampley, J. Paul. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume X, © 2002 by Abingdon Press, Nashville. p. 775

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 934

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