A sermon delivered by Howard Batson, Pastor of First Baptist Church, Amarillo, Tx., on March 14, 2010.
1 Corinthians 11:17-34
We’ve become accustomed to a world of haves and have-nots. For example, anyone of us who has flown knows there is a vast difference between flying first-class, being served lobster lying down in a bed-like recliner, when those in the bargain seats in the back are eating something that smells like a bad TV dinner while their knees are in their cheeks and as they swelter in a line of five passengers in a row. Or go on a cruise ship and see what difference it makes when you have the money. While some of us are below water where we go to bed at night, others are enjoying balconied-penthouses which overlook the salty sea.
But I found another place where the difference between the haves and the have-nots is reaching a pinnacle. Six Flags. Now, I’m not saying I would never do it, but I do want to challenge it philosophically. Where is the social justice in the Flash Pass? I mean, I am waiting in a two-hour line to get on a roller coaster, and here a guy walks up, flashes a card, walks right past through a private entrance, and never waits a moment in line. Oh, there are paper versions and electronic versions, but it’s basically the same. The guy who’s the “have”, the one who has paid the price for the Flash Pass, doesn’t wait in the hot-as-Hades line for two hours for a two minute roller coaster ride. In fact, the common folk, who can’t afford the sometimes $70 Gold Flash Pass (2 levels), will actually jeer at the patron in the polo shirt whose time is just too valuable to be wasted waiting in line with the rest of the common crowd. And of course, you don’t have to be a statistician or a mathematician to come to the conclusion that the man in the middle of the line is waiting longer because the Flash Pass patron is not waiting at all. He’s reserved his ride. He’s flashed his card.
There was at least one Flash Pass user with the conscience of a minor prophet, with caring for the crowds, who said, “You’re pulling a fast one when you sasshay up the special Fast Pass entrance and walk past the huddled masses to the front of the line, there’s a sense of guilt looking at the children who’ve been waiting 90 minutes to get on the roller coaster.” Children of working families, no doubt, whose fathers have struggled just to get to Six Flags, much less up the ante for a white-collar Flash Pass. Oh yeah, the guy with the Flash Pass also paid for the premium parking right outside the gate.
Another Flash Pass user recalls the nasty looks he gets from the non-Flash Pass users. One patron honestly declared the Flash Pass is simply legalized line-jumping. Call it what you will, these priviledged passes are simply a way of distinguishing between the patrons who are the haves and the patrons who are the have-nots.
You might expect such social economic slamming at a place like Six Flags. But would you ever expect it at church? The oddity of 1 Corinthians 11 is we have a Flash Pass system when it comes to the Lord’s Supper. Some of those attending the worship of the communion meal have the Flash Pass, and some are having to wait in line. And of all places, at all times, the class divisions are being intensified at the one time, during the one event, when the body is supposed to express unity like never before…during the Lord’s Supper. During the Agape feast. They’re having divisions according to class.
In verse 2 of chapter 11, Paul says, “I praise you….” Then he goes on to list why he praises them. He praises them for holding the traditions that he delivered to them.
But look how he changes his tone in verse 17
But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part, I believe it.
Paul is being a bit sarcastic when he says, “In part, I believe it.” He believes it fully, as he will show in the verses that follow. He is saying, tongue-in-cheek, “I can’t believe your conduct is as outrageous as I have heard that it is. You can’t possibly be doing what they have reported that you are doing, can you?”
We learn three things about the Lord’s Supper from this text.
I. The Lord’s table must, first of all, express the community’s unity as the new covenant people of God.
The Lord’s Supper expresses the unity of the church as the people of God. But that’s not what is happening in Corinth. Paul does a play on words. He says, “When you come together ….” Notice how many times he uses this language. It’s intentional.
When you come together, you come together not for the better, but for the worse.
When you come together as a church, there is division.
Therefore, when you meet together….
All these things ought to be bringing them together.
Look at verse 33
So then, my brethren, when you come together….
Or verse 34
It’s a five-fold repetition of the verb “come together.” This verb can mean to assemble, or it can mean to be united. And Paul means both of them here. When you come together, when you assemble together as a church to worship, you’re not really coming together in unity and peace, he says.
The specific problem is stated in verses 20-22
Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God, and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you.
Let me give you the setting. It was a full meal deal in the first century. It wasn’t just a little cup and a piece of bread. There was certainly a time when the bread was taken and the broken body was remembered. And a time when the cup was lifted, and the blood spilt was remembered. But in the setting
of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, there was a full meal.
Archaeological study of Roman houses show that the dining room would probably accommodate about nine persons in a well-to-do home. The other guests could sit or stand in the atrium, which might provide space for another thirty or forty people. The host at such a celebration of the Lord’s Table would, naturally, be among the wealthier members. It is reasonable to assume that the host invited his higher-status friends to eat in the dining room, while lower-status members of the church, such as the freedmen and the slaves, well – they just found a larger place outside.
And in Corinth, just like first class passengers on British Airways receive a five-course dinner and those in the back of the plane receive preheated TV dinners that taste almost as bad as they smell, it wouldn’t be unusual for those in the dining room to have much better food while those outside may have had little or no food at all.
Listen to this. Pliny the Younger describes his experience of dining as a guest of a man who boasted of the “elegant economy” of his hospitality. Same time period. Listen to the description of what took place. He is describing the behavior of Romans, and you remember that Corinth, after all, was a Roman colony.
“The best dishes were set in front of himself and a select few, and cheap scraps of food before the rest of the company. He had even put the wine into tiny little flasks, divided into three categories, not with the idea of giving his guests the opportunity of choosing, but to make it impossible for them to refuse what they were given. One lot was intended for himself and for us, another for his lesser friends (all his friends are graded), and the third for his and our freedmen.” (Letters 2.6)
What you have happening at the Lord’s Supper is that the rich show up while the other folks are still at work. They bring out their picnic baskets, and they eat well and drink well – to the point of being drunk. At the Lord’s Supper! They are puffed up and satisfied, while they provide no food for those who are poor. They have “shamed those who have nothing” (verse 22). “I can’t praise you for this,” Paul says.
There is a church member who invited me several times to a Dallas Cowboys game. It’s something I enjoyed very much. But even more than the game, I looked forward to dining in the end zone five star restaurant. When you arrive, you certainly have to show membership to get in (and he has such). Our table was right up against the glass and overlooked the playing field. You’re up there with the big wigs. Last time we were up there, Nate Newton was dining. Your party’s name is engraved upon the menu. You can choose between shrimp (which is presented on ice sculptures) or the carving of prime rib. There are salads galore. There is chicken, beef, fish – you name it, they have it. All that you want. Pasta. Even the mashed potatoes are shaped through pastry bags as fleur-de-lis. The dessert table is to die for.
One year, when I was sitting in the end zone facility, devouring my prime rib and having my plate loaded, literally, with four desserts, I looked out the window which overlooked the field, and there was a guy in the cheap seats – in the end zone seats – eating a corn dog on a stick. And I thought to myself, “Poor guy, if he only knew what was on the other side of this glass.”
That’s the way it was in Corinth. The fat cats were eating like I eat at the Dallas football game, while others were going away hungry. They had brought shame on the poor. They had heightened the class distinctions. They don’t wait (verse 21). The NIV translates it this way, “For when you eat, each one consumes his own supper.” They are not waiting for anybody else.
The church’s common meal, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, ought to represent the covenant unity of the people of God. And they’ve made it a moment of disunity. And, worse of all, they’ve shamed the poor. If you know anything about the Old and New Testament, God is the God of the poor. You don’t shame the poor.
How do I know that Jesus is the Christ? When John the Baptist asked this question, Jesus replied, “The poor have the gospel preached to them.” The God of the Old Testament was the God of the widow, the God of the orphan, the God of the alien, the stranger, the God of the poor, the outcast.
We, the covenant people, are bound together by responsibilities to God and responsibilities to one another. You and I have responsibilities to God. But in this covenant community called First Baptist Church, we have responsibilities to each other. And the character of this covenant we have with each other is represented in the unity of the common meal.
Put bluntly, by showing contempt for the poor, for those who have nothing, they were acting as though the death of Jesus had not changed the conditions of their relationships to each other. And the truth of the matter is that in Christ Jesus all of our relationships are changed to each other. We don’t value each other based upon our income statements. We value
each other based upon who we are in Christ Jesus.
This unity of the Corinthians was a hollow parody of the Lord’s Supper. Paul said, “Stop, stop. Open up your picnic baskets and share your food with those who have nothing.”
One Labor Day, we had a covered-dish at First Baptist that wasn’t. We had hundreds of you show up, and the instructions from Robby, our minister of education, were to bring your own food and eat your own food. Other than the sharing of the desserts, everybody spread out their own picnic blanket, everybody took out their own food and ate their own stuff. It was a covered-dish that wasn’t.
It was a great idea. It was simpler in some ways, and people could get what they wanted. But we planned to have a sack of hamburgers, because every time we have a picnic folks come by who have no food and want to join us. I can’t sit and enjoy my meal on my blanket if they have nothing. So, I think we had a sack of a dozen Whoppers ready for anybody who came by who didn’t have something to eat. In the end, a visit was made to the park and all of the burgers were passed out.
You have to always think about those who don’t have.
II. The Lord’s Supper focuses on the church’s memory of the death of Jesus.
When Jesus gave thanks (verse 24), He said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” And the cup also (verse 25), “This is my blood, the new covenant; do this in remembrance of Me.” And in verse 26, “For when you eat the bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”
The Lord’s Supper is about memory. We are going to gather on Good Friday evening to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as a church family. Be here. Powerful. We are going to remember. Don’t forget the cross.
Jesus’ death was not an accident. It was not a tragic mistake of the judicial system. Jesus freely gave himself up to death for us. By sharing the bread and the cup, we signify acceptance of the incalculably great gift of God. As Richard Hays has said, “To know Jesus rightly is to know Him through the Eucharistic story.” You’ve got to know Jesus through the story of the cross.
III. The Lord’s Supper is an occasion to ponder God’s judgment.
They were shaming the poor. And this was taken seriously enough that Paul says in verses 27-30, 33, “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the lord in an unworthy manner shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep…. So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.”
We have used this scripture as a passage of introspection, and that’s not a completely inappropriate use of the passage. But in the context of the passage, in the setting of what is happening socially between the haves and the have-nots, you have to be completely honest about what the passage is about. Paul’s call to self-scrutiny in verse 29 concerns how they are “discerning the body.” “Discerning the body” means recognizing the community of believers for what it really is – the one body of Christ, the unified body of Christ. And those who are acting selfishly are focusing on their own spirituality and exercising their own social privileges while remaining heedless to those who share with them in the new covenant inaugurated by the Lord’s death. Therefore, by mistreating the members of the church the Corinthians repeat the sort of sin that made the death of Christ necessary, and they are courting disaster.
Rather than finding grace at the Lord’s table, those who are bringing disunity to the church and those who are shaming the poor are falling sick, some falling dead. There is not another reference about what is taking place here. But I can tell you that it is a sign of God’s displeasure and discipline for the way they are treating the poor.
If you don’t think that’s the context, look at verse 30, “For this reason” Given the fact that some of you need to repent from the way you are treating the poor, you are weak and sick. No more covered-dishes that aren’t. Verse 33 – wait on each other!
We’re uncomfortable with this judgment as part of the Lord’s Supper. That’s just because we’re uncomfortable with the idea of judgment anyway. But that doesn’t take it away. You can’t stay away from the Lord’s table because you feel like it is there that your life is laid bare before God. Your life is laid bare before God anyway. And we come to the table not as perfect people, but, rather, people receiving grace.
But at the same time, we don’t want to come to the table in a way that brings dishonor to the poorer members of the community.
This passage tells us a lot about what a church is supposed to be – people encircling the cross, hand-in-hand, heart-in-heart, with kingdom values. It doesn’t matter what kind of car you drive. Doesn’t matter what your W-2 says. What matters is that Jesus Christ is your Lord.
I close with words from the pen of our Lord’s brother.
My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.
For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit there in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,”
Have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?
Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man.
Never disgrace a poor man. Never suppose you are better than anyone because you have more. I’m not really even sure, philosophically, where we ever got the idea that those who have more are somehow better than those who have less. Better in what way?
There is often a smug sense of superiority within those who have, within those who have the Flash Pass to the Lord’s Supper. In reality, your silver spoon may be the very thing that keeps you from ever having to develop any real depth of character or depth of Christianity. I dare you to go through scripture and read what it says, on the whole, about those who have wealth.
You can look at Proverbs 28, Matthew 6, Luke 6, Luke 12, Luke 16, 1 Timothy 6, James 1.
Those with a lot of money often live with a sense of expectation. They expect there’s a way around the rules by writing a check. They expect to face no inconvenience, and they are not accustomed to the word “no.” Give me what I want, the way I want it, and give it to me now.
It’s a subtle attitude.
Jesus is the Lord of the poor. It is only with much difficulty that the rich can ever enter the kingdom of God. Not my words, but the words of Jesus. Trying to follow Jesus with a lot of wealth in your wallet, is like trying to run a race with a ball and chain attached to your ankle. Just not many folks can do it. Shouldn’t the church have been the one place in the first century in Corinth where everyone was treated the same?
Shouldn’t First Baptist Church be the one place where power and prestige carry no weight? The grace of God has made the ground at the foot of the cross level for all who will come. First Baptist Church is being that kind of place. May we always be.