The Unavoidably Communal Part of Communion
Scriptures: I Corinthians 11:17-34; I Corinthians 12:12-13
This week in our church eNews I said that communion is one of the few things left that you can’t download from the internet. But apparently I was wrong. After submitting that article, I Googled “taking communion at home,” and I discovered there is a website called eHolyCommunion.com. Their home page says,
Come before God; attend our complete, private, and self-paced read through worship service. Prepare and be filled with our Lord Jesus Christ by receiving him in Holy Communion. … We are online 24-7 with easy access for you all day and all night by your PC, laptop, notebook, cell phone, and tablet in countries all over God’s good earth.
All you had to do was get a piece of bread, some grape juice or wine, and log on.
There you are. You could be home taking communion in your pajamas. Except it would not be communion. Listen again to what Paul says to the Corinthians:
When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.
Apparently when the Christians in Corinth had communion, they combined it with a full dinner, a kind of first century potluck. Only it wasn’t really a potluck. The richer Christians brought their own food and drink and consumed it before the poor Christians arrived so they did not have to share it. This explains what Paul says later in verses 33-34:
So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation.
Paul was furious because the Corinthians treated communion as their own private meal, and in the process they forgot about the community, especially the needs of the poor. Paul is so upset about this, in verse 27 he says, “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.” In other words, if we take communion in an unworthy manner, we are desecrating the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ and doing ourselves more harm than good.
Unfortunately people sometimes misunderstand what this means. I once talked to a church member who told me she never takes communion if she is mad at someone. If she is mad at someone and hasn’t forgiven them, she feels unworthy to take communion.
That might limit the number of us taking communion this morning. In fact we might not even bother passing the tray. If we must be worthy of communion before taking it, we might as well all go home.
But that is not what Paul means by taking communion in an unworthy manner. He explains what he means in verse 29: “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” In other words, to take communion in an unworthy manner means to take communion without discerning the body.
Okay, so what does it mean to discern the body? The context gives us the answer. In I Corinthians 10, Paul again talks communion and says, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” Then in the next chapter, chapter 12, he says, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.”
What does it mean to discern the body when taking communion? It means to recognize that communion makes us together the body of Christ. It means that communion is unavoidably communal. You can’t receive the body of Christ broken for you without sensitivity and concern for the greater body of which we are a part.
One evening a couple weeks ago, I was driving home past our church when I saw a group of about 10 youth sitting in a circle on the lawn in front of our building. I thought, “What’s going on?” So I turned around and came back. When I parked, they didn’t seem to notice me. Their heads were bowed as if reading or praying. But as I walked toward them I noticed they were all tapping away on their phones. It was a bizarre sight: ten youth in a circle on the church lawn heads bowed tapping away on their phones. I said, “Hi, I’m Pastor Ken. What’s up?” One of them finally looked up and said, “Pokemon Go!” Pokemon Go is a game you play on your phone where you capture various Pokemon characters by finding them in places around the neighborhood. When you go to a certain spot, these Pokemon characters show up on your phone. Our church is a Pokemon Go hot spot, where many different Pokemon characters will show up on your phone when you come here. Finally I said, “Do you guys know each other?” They looked around, shook their heads, then bent back down to their phones. I thought, “Wow, here is a group of youth, drawn to our church by Pokemon Go, and they don’t even know each other. Nor did they seem interested in knowing each other. They just came for what each of them could get on their own phone.
How tragic would it be if that is what happened this morning during communion. If we are here only to get Jesus for ourselves, we are missing part of the point of Jesus’ coming. Jesus gave his body for us, so that we could become a body in him. Jesus came to bring us together in a community that would embody his love, not only for each other but to the larger community around us, including the poor. That, by the way, is why we have a special offering for the Deacons on communion Sundays to help people in our church or community with emergency needs, like temporary housing, rent assistance, or assistance with utilities or handicap accessibility. We have a Deacons’ offering on communion Sundays to remember that communion makes us part of a community in Christ.
In a book called Alone Together, Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at MIT, tells about some children who are given a robot dog called AIBO. AIBO is programmed to do many things that a real dog would do. For example, it learns to come when called, to wag its tail when happy, and to sulk with its head down when neglected. An 11 year-old girl named Yolanda suggests that AIBO has advantages over a real dog. “AIBO,” she says, “doesn’t shed, doesn’t bite, doesn’t die,” and a 9 year-old named Lydia adds, “I might like [AIBO] more than a real living animal, like a real cat or a real dog, because, like if you had a bad day … then you could just turn this thing off and it wouldn’t bug you” (p. 59).
I wonder if that isn’t why many people prefer a virtual church to a real one. If your church is online and you’ve had a bad day, you just turn it off and it won’t bug you. But when you come to a real church with real people, then you are up against people who shed. We do it in our own peculiar ways, but we shed, and sometimes we bite, and sometimes people die and it hurts. Learning to live with real people in a real church family takes patience and sensitivity. It requires the effort to communicate and clear up misunderstandings, and sometimes it results in losing someone you have grown to care about, and it hurts.
But that is exactly what God did by sending Jesus. God did not just send us text messages in the form of commandments or emails through the prophets. God sent his Son in person, in the flesh, in the body, to show the depth of God’s love in human bodily life.
So welcome to communion. At this table we get not a virtual savior but a real one, not an on-line community but a community of flesh and blood.