Passage: 1 Corinthians 11:23-32
Last week we set the foundation for our summer series of sermons on the idea of faithful presence. I made the case that the Bible teaches us that God’s way of changing this world for the better is being faithfully present in the world, and the way he is faithfully present in the world is with his faithful people. Our primary task as his faithful people, the church, is to witness to the presence of God in our midst by word and deed. To do that, we must learn to discern the presence of God. That is, we must learn to see where God is at work among us, so we can proclaim that good news, and also so we can learn see where he is at work in the world, and join him there on mission.
We’ve been given certain practices or disciplines in the Bible that help us learn to see where God is at work. The first and most foundational discipline is the discipline of the Lord’s Table.
One of the things that first attracted me to the Anglican expression of Christianity was the emphasis placed on the Table of the Lord. See, even before I knew much about Anglicanism at all, I had been reading all about the history of the Church and I found that the church had always placed the practice of Holy Communion at the center of her worship.
I found this practice of giving thanks, of offering the bread and wine, of recounting Jesus’ words about his body broken for you and his new covenant that accomplishes forgiveness by his blood shed for you…this practice has always been at the core what it means to be part of follow Jesus in community.
The more I read about the practice of the early church, and indeed the practice of most Christians in the world today, the more I hungered and thirsted to join my brothers and sisters in the Eucharistic feast.
You know why? It wasn’t just because I think it’s important to be faithful to the historic practice of the church as such (although I do think that). It was because I became convinced the Christ himself is specially present when his people gather around his Table in faith, and I didn’t want to miss any opportunity to draw close to him as often as I could.
We call this discipline or practice a means of grace in our tradition.
In other words, the Lord’s Table is one way—a primary way—that Jesus gives us his life so we can be physically and spiritually nourished and renewed. It’s meant to be a beautiful gift, but we can’t read today’s Epistle passage and deny that there are serious consequences—spiritual and physical—of abusing that gift. In fact we read that many at Corinth not only got sick because of how they were approaching this discipline, they died!
See, the church at Corinth had been entertaining divisions among them.
Due to the space needed for the gatherings, it was mostly wealthy Christians that provided their homes for the common meal and the prayers. The Roman custom of the time would be to set up different rooms—one for the guests of honor, one for lesser guests, and one for those on the fringes and servants. This was a well-accepted model of hospitality at the time, but Jesus taught that all in the Kingdom are servants, and there should be no divisions in worship and hospitality along socioeconomic lines. There’s no pushing people out to fringes because they have less that you in the Kingdom of Jesus!
So, you can see what’s happening here. The church is failing to witness to the presence of the Christ in their midst in how they relate to each other! And in doing that, they had lost that very idea of tending to the presence of Christ as the central purpose of their gathering. Paul is livid.
“When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God [he’s not talking about a building here!] and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.” (1 Corinthians 11:20–22, ESV)
They were not discerning the body. They weren’t open the presence in Christ in one another, they had flatly refused to express that in relational unity, and so they weren’t going to find Jesus in the bread and wine either.
“When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.”
They had returned to trying to find life in the old ways instead of in Jesus, but the fact is that there’s life nowhere else. So of course they get sick and die. That’s what happens when you stop depending the presence of Christ. That’s why we are to “examine ourselves.” To make sure we discerning the presence of Christ in our midst.
“For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged.” (1 Corinthians 11:29–31, ESV)
“But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged.”
In other words, if the church does come together, discerning and open to the work of God the Holy Spirit expressing Jesus among us, we will come in contact with the life-giving presence of Jesus in one another and through the elements.
NT Wright says,
The ‘body’ which is to be recognized is both the presence of the Lord in the eucharistic elements and the unity of the church that shares the bread. The two belong together.
The two belong together because Jesus died not just for you or for me but for the whole church.
There’s no doubt that we each have individual relationship with God, but that relationship was always meant to be lived out in community. Paul writes in Colossians 1,
“[Jesus] is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you [THE CHURCH!] holy and blameless and above reproach before him,” (Colossians 1:18–22, ESV)
Jesus made peace by the blood of his cross and proved victory of death by being raised from the dead. His life, freely and graciously given as a gift to his church by the Spirit, animates us to join God on mission if we are will to have open eyes and hearts.
The discipline of coming together regularly around the Lord’s Table helps us return to Christ and trains us to tend to Christ’s presence not just here, but everywhere we find ourselves during the week.
Think about some of what we do every time we gather around the table:
First, we say the Creed. We renew our commitment to Christ and his kingdom by professing explicitly that we believe he is Lord, he God, he is alive and the fundamental implications of that.
Second, we exchange the peace. We externalize our desire and God’s plan that we would be at peace with one another because we are peace with God.
Third, we say prayers of thanks and blessing for the great works of God on our behalf, and we explicitly invite the Holy Spirit to empower us to be more like Jesus by allowing to us feed on him in our hearts by faith and with thanksgiving.
Fourth, we bring our material gifts to the table, offering back to God the first fruits of what he has blessed us with.
Fifth, we are energized as God gives gracious of himself to us in Jesus.
The idea is that in this time of discernment of Christ’s presence, we learn to live lives of commitment, forgiveness, reconciliation, worship, sacrificial generosity, and living by grace all the time. And we learn not just to live it all the time, but see it in any place. As we learn to discern Christ’s presence in these things, we join God on mission where he is at work.
So, I hope you can see how foundational what we do on Sunday morning is to a life of mission—because the discipline of the Table isn’t confined to Sunday Morning.
David Fitch suggests in his book Faithful Presence, that we think of the Discipline of the Lord’s Table has happening in three circles.
The first circle is the “close” circle. This is what happens on Sunday Morning. Here we gather as God’s faithful people. Christ is host and we are the guests at a family meal.
The second circle might be called the dotted circle. Here, we take the kind of life we discerned in and express in the close circle, and we live it out in our own homes, primarily among Christians but with a special space to welcome the stranger to a literal table, a real meal in the community. As people gather around the Christian’s table, Christ’s presence is brought into the neighborhood. Now, this still takes discernment! This isn’t just a fun barbeque but a time of intentional prayer, reconciliation, discussion, and explicit tending to the presence of Christ around a common meal.
We can think of the third circle as a half-circle or open circle. The half circle is the world where the hurting and broken people live their everyday lives. These are the corner coffee shops, the bars & pubs, the restaurants on busy streets. Fitch says,
“Into these half circles Christians go, imitating Christ as he enters the homes of the marginalized, the publicans, and the sinners.
Here, like Jesus, we go, not as hosts inviting people to our table, but as guests, submitting ourselves to the hospitality of others.”
In the half circle we are especially weak, vulnerable, and out of control. It is an opportunity to identify with Jesus and tend to his presence in a special way, the way he tended to our presence by visiting the homes of those estranged from God.
We need all three circles. If we only practice the close circle, we have gone into maintenance-mode, and we’ve lost the mission of table fellowship in and with the world. If we practice only the dotted circle, we lose the crucial space to connect people in our neighborhoods and areas of influence to the presence of Christ.
Finally, if we attempt to practice only the half circle, we quickly become exhausted from the effort with not renewal at the close circle and sustaining relationships in the dotted circle.
Each of us has an opportunity today to evaluate how we are practicing this discipline in all three circles.
Every Sunday we have an opportunity to tend to the presence of Christ in the close circle. This is a good to time to ask yourself if you are really aware and taking advantage of that to the fullest.
I think our church is growing into the dotted circle right now. I think of Fr. Scott and Kim’s Connect Group, I think of the men and women’s potlucks. I want you pray and think about you might be part of how we can continue to grow in that circle as a community.
I also want you think about the half-circle. Where are those places that you can bring Christ’s presence simply by being present yourself? For David Fitch it was McDonald’s near his church where we did sermon prep every Tuesday morning, and local bar where he would be present each Thursday evening. Where do you see God already at work? Where might he being calling you to extend your Eucharistic worship into the world?
We can’t afford to neglect this discipline. It’s absolutely foundational, because the discipline of the Table comes to us straight from Jesus and leads us straight to Jesus. It is the first place where his abundant life is expressed among his faithful people. It challenges our social, economic, and political order and reorients us back to Jesus and his Lordship in his upside-down kingdom, where the weak are strong, the last are first, the lost are found. And it is the discipline that makes way for us to invite others into that kingdom.
 1 Cor. 11:30
 Fitch. Faithful Presence, p. 61