2010-01-10 (am) 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 Communion
This morning, we’re going to look at three things that come from our text, first, the communion of the saints with God and with one another, second, the peculiar situation in Corinth, which prompted Paul to write his letter, and third, what we learn from this letter.
First, and of great importance is communion. Now this can be a confusing and tricky concept because in English the word communion has come to mean many things. Not only does it describe the meal we just had, Lord’s Supper, but it also refers to the fellowship of believers with one another. The word communion shares its root with community.
So when we think of the word communion, there are different levels to consider. We live in the great community called earth. We live in the North American community. We live in the community of Canada, province of Alberta, county of Yellowhead, town of Edson, Wildwood, Peers, Carrot Creek, Niton, Rosevear, etc. Even in Edson we can get more specific, Tiffin, Old Tiffin, Hillendale, Glenwood, you get the picture.
Even though we don’t know, and it would be impossible to know everyone on Earth, there’s a sense that when you meet a stranger, at least you have being human beings in common.
There’s a communion that weaves through all of these different communities, the communion of the saints. There’s a connection, it is a spiritual connection reaching through all the other communities, the unity of faith in Christ. Jesus himself gathers individuals and brings them into communion with himself, and with one another. Truly, there is no community on earth like the church.
There are different ways to experience the communion of the saints, the feeling of belonging to Jesus, belonging to his people. Have you ever had it where you meet a total stranger, and immediately you sense that they are a Christian? Then, as the conversation progresses, you realise that yes, they are a believer!
Have you ever felt a connection to people you hardly know when worshipping with another congregation? The Holy Spirit creates these connections! The Holy Spirit builds Christians into the church. Like a builder assembling a house using concrete, wood, glass, etc, the Holy Spirit takes individual Christians and builds them to become his temple, the place where he resides.
This happens in our individual hearts, it happens in the universal church—the church of all time and history, all over the world, it happens in communities like Edson when we get together for ecumenical services and services like the one coming up on Friday, January 22nd at 7:00pm, during the week of Christian Unity. That service, which we are hosting, will honour this communion, this unity that exists even though we don’t always recognise it.
Now, what exactly do we celebrate in communion, specifically in the Lord’s Supper service? We celebrate Christ’s completed work on the cross. We remember his death, in which Christ took upon himself, willingly, the full weight of God’s punishment for sin. Christ bore the curse. Christ, 2000 years ago, made the perfect atoning sacrifice. All we have to do is believe it and receive it.
What we receive from Christ is his righteousness. Paul in Ephesians, puts it this way, “by grace you have been saved through faith, this is not of yourselves, it is a gift of God” (Eph. 2.8). God’s gift, given in his grace, in his loving kindness, is faith in Christ. Jesus himself is a gift, the gift of salvation to all who believe.
It is a gift; we do nothing to receive it. We do nothing to earn it. Christ and all his benefits are freely given.
The communion of the saints, the unity of Christians is the same. It is a gift of God. It is there when we recognise it, such as when you have that connection with someone right away, only to realise later that they are a Christian. It is there even when Christians, churches and denominations don’t get along.
This reality caused Paul to preach the good news to the Gentiles. In the early church, there were people who thought that because Jesus was a Jew, that Christianity was only for the Jews. God made it clear to Paul that it is for all people. Many of Paul’s writings deal with the friction that came up between Jews and Gentiles, Galatians especially.
The situation in Corinth, as I mentioned already was specific. So for those keeping notes, whether mentally or physically, we’re now on our second point. What was the specific situation in Corinth which prompted Paul to write this letter?
Paul, you probably already know, planted the church in Corinth. It grew quickly. Paul, being a travelling missionary, moved on to plant other churches. Eventually reports reached him that things were happening in Corinth that shouldn’t be happening within God’s body, the church.
Here is the reality facing every church. Disunity, a lack of fellowship, can creep in. As long as we are living in this fallen world, that is, until Christ returns, division will threaten the communion of the saints.
That’s what was happening in Corinth. At one time, people were getting along fine. But sometime after Paul left, some wicked teachers and leaders came and started to create divisions within the church. Paul wrote this letter, 1 Corinthians in order to address and heal the divisions happening in the church.
So, what were they? Specifically, in our passage this morning, the rich Christians were not treating the poor Christians as equals in the faith. In those days, the church and Lord’s Supper looked different from now. Churches would meet in homes. Churches included people from all ethnic and social classes. In this, it was exceptional, unlike any institution on earth. You had rich and poor together, which was great, as the rich could afford to host the church services in their homes.
Now, when you think of the house church, don’t think of a North American home with excellent walls and central heating. Being in a sub-tropical climate, as much time was spent outside as inside, the enclosed spaces were reserved as bedrooms. So, a rich Corinthian house would have been a large property with at least two courtyards, a larger outer courtyard, and a smaller, more intimate inner courtyard. The church would gather in one of the courtyards, depending on the size of the church. If the church was very large, the gatherings would spill out of the smaller courtyard into the larger one.
When Lord’s Supper was celebrated back then, it was part of a feast. Think of our annual church supper.
What ended up happening is the rich began to resent the poor. Maybe they thought, “they didn’t contribute anything to this meal, why should I feed them?” Whatever the motivation was, eventually only the rich were allowed in the inner courtyard, while the poor were kept to the outer courtyard. The rich got the best food; the poor got the table scraps. The rich indulged themselves and sometimes the poor got nothing.
Paul’s instruction is blunt and clear. They were not honouring the unity of the Church. This unity exists totally apart from social and economic lines. All believers are part of one body. I thoroughly encourage you to read through, skim even, this letter. Observe how he writes to the Corinthians. He reminds them of their unity in Christ, how this unity is from Christ, it is outside of them. He reveals how silly they were being in creating distinctions between rich and poor, ethnicity and so on.
It makes no sense to create a human distinction where there is no Godly distinction. That is to say, we cannot categorically deny fellowship with anyone based on how they look, how they dress, or what race they are. If they deny Christ, if they say he is not God’s son, if they say that he is a created being as the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim, then we will not have fellowship with them, because they are not in Christ. But anyone who truly confesses Christ must be welcomed based on that confession alone.
What the Corinthians did was fall into the temptation that is faced by everyone. It was the temptation for individuals, then groups within the church to consider themselves more highly than they ought. They considered their ethnic, social and economic status as the defining factor for their spirituality, resulting in privileges for themselves.
This temptation persists. A person might think that because they are rich, God favours them more, and therefore they deserve special treatment.
Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church was to eliminate that which encouraged divisions. Instead of having the feasts, which, by the way, led to all kinds of other temptations—his instruction was, “eat at home.” Celebrate the Lord’s Supper with the focus being on Christ, not on the food! This is why we use such small portions. The focus is on Christ, his completed work on the cross, not on the physical wine and bread. The wine and bread symbolise the spiritual nourishment.
And that leads well into our third point—what does that mean for us today? We still must be on guard against the temptation to consider ourselves more highly than we ought. We can be tempted to judge other people based on physical things rather than on simple faith.
It doesn’t take much to think of ways this can manifest itself today. We might not have the same ethnic and socio-economic situation, but there are others. What we need to do is examine ourselves. We need to ask ourselves if we might be prejudiced toward others. Do we treat others the way we want to be treated? Do we seek to honour others above ourselves? Do we consistently remind ourselves that all who believe, regardless of how well they might be living now, all nevertheless are saved by grace through faith, a gift from God, not earned by anyone so that no one may boast?
The week of Christian unity approaches. We have opportunity to be as gracious toward others as God has been to us. Let us seize whatever opportunities that might come our way to foster unity. One simple way is to attend the service. Attend the town-wide worship service, which we will host here on the last Sunday of the month. Foster unity by inviting people over after church; skip the second service, if necessary.
Seriously, we are saved by grace through faith! We earn nothing. Rather, we strive diligently toward obedience as an expression of gratitude and love for Christ who saves us. The Holy Spirit empowers you to do this! As you depart from this place, be mindful of the Spirit within you. Look for opportunities to obey. Look for opportunities to bless others. Amen.