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. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. 1 Corinthians 11:27-29, NRSV
I can imagine there are some people in our church for whom taking communion was shrouded in fear. If you took communion, and your soul was not in a state of grace, look out! For while, I went to a church where the minister put a lot of emphasis on being worthy to take the Lord’s Supper. “Had I thoroughly repented of my sins? Was I even worthy to take communion?” I received the message loud and clear from my church: unrepentant sinners were not welcome at the table of the Lord. Only those who were “right with Jesus” were invited. The text I just read from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was quoted as proof. It was never clear, however, how I could know for certain that I was “right with Jesus” or what makes a person worthy. Moral purity, which I believed was the requirement for being worthy, was an ever-receding horizon that I never felt I could reach.
Paul writes to a Christian community torn apart by various factions. Some members of the church in Corinth consider themselves superior to others. They are wiser, more spiritually gifted, more socially acceptable, and they have more money. They look down on others whom they see as less. They take all of the good pews at church. At the church potluck suppers, they go first in line and take all of the best food. They grab all the homemade fried chicken for themselves (which was probably lovingly prepared by one of the people who was seen as less wise, led, spiritual and less acceptable). Those who are poorer get stuck at the end of the line and eat whatever is always left over at potluck dinners – probably the ancient equivalent of greasy green bean casserole cooked in that gray sludge.
At their potlucks, the Corinthian church also serves communion. But their meal reinforces social hierarchies that divide the community against itself. While some to revel in excess, others get nothing. The rich confuse their economic power with moral superiority. The rich exercise their privilege and humiliate the poor in the process. Paul says that the vulnerability of the poor church members -- their weakness, illness, and death -- serves as a judgment against the rich for their failure to “discern the body of Christ.”
It’s an odd phrase to me, “discerning the Body of Christ.” Let’s think about it for a minute.
There are all types of people who have been excluded from communion -- those who have been historically branded as sinners. The UCC believes something different. All are welcome. All are invited. Period. Discerning the body is about becoming vulnerable enough to unite with those have been excluded from communion. As far as I’m concerned, we are worthy to receive communion when we refuse to participate in faith-based exclusion – we don’t make one person’s salvation dependent upon another person’s condemnation. Our union with God is not based on the moral superiority of a powerful few, but with how we receive God’s gifts and experience Jesus in the most improbable people.
How do we know if we are doing it right? Paul has another interesting phrase. He tells the Corinthian Church to to examine themselves. The word “examine” comes from the Greek word dokimos. Dokimos is related to our English word “decent”. To understand what Paul is saying, we have to understand how money worked in Paul’s day.
In the ancient world there was no banking system as we know it today, and no paper money. All money was made from melted precious metal, which was poured into molds and allowed to cool. When the coins cooled, money makers shaved off the uneven edges to make them smooth. Some money makers went too far and practiced something called clipping -- shaving off an extra portion of the precious metal coin for profit. Over time, the precious metal shavings could be saved up and melted into bullion or used to make new coins.
Some money changers had integrity. They refused to accept underweight money. They put only genuine, full weighted money into circulation. Such men were called "dokimos" or "approved".
Paul uses a form of that same word when he talks about eating at the communion table. Be dokimos, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. We must be dokimos, checking and double-checking our integrity, asking, “Is our celebration trustworthy, excellent, and pleasing?” If we are not dokimos, if we are not circulating with integrity, then we eat and drink judgment on ourselves.
We eat and drink judgment on ourselves when anyone is excluded by the so-called morally superior members among us.
We eat and drink judgment on ourselves when we reserve the best for ourselves and don’t share with others.
We eat and drink judgment on ourselves when the pursuit of false purity dupes us into thinking that we get to tell God who is in and who is out, or who is first and who is last.
The great preacher Fred Craddock told about the first church he served in the eastern Tennessee hills, not too far from Oak Ridge.
When Oak Ridge began to boom with atomic energy, that little bitty town became a booming city just overnight. . . . People came in from everywhere and pitched tents, lived in wagons. . . . Our church was not far away. We had a beautiful little church—white frame building, one hundred and twelve years old. After church one morning, I asked the leaders to stay. I said to them, “Now we need to launch a calling campaign and an invitational campaign in all those trailer parks to invite those people to church.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think they’d fit in here,” one of them said. “They’re just here temporarily, just construction people. They’ll be leaving pretty soon.”
“Well, we ought to invite them, make them feel at home,” I said.
We argued about it, time ran out, and we said we’d vote next Sunday. The next Sunday, we all sat down after the service. “I move,” said one of them, “I move that in order to be a member of this church, you must own property in the county.” Someone else said, “I second that.” It passed. I voted against it, but they reminded me that I was just a kid preacher and I didn’t have a vote. It passed.
When we moved back to those parts, I took my wife to see that little church, because I had told her that painful, painful story. The roads have changed. The interstate goes through that part of the country, so I had a hard time finding it, but I finally did. . . . there, back among the pines, was that building shining white. . . . The parking lot was full … And out front, a great big sign: “Barbecue, all you can eat.” It’s a restaurant … The pews are against a wall … the organ pushed over into the corner. There are all these aluminum and plastic tables, and people sitting there eating barbecued pork and chicken and ribs—all kinds of people. I said to [my wife] Nettie, “It’s a good thing this is not still a church, otherwise these people couldn’t be in here.”
In the UCC, we don’t like to talk about who doesn’t belong. We don’t prefer language like insider and outsider. Everyone belongs. All are welcome. No matter who you are or where you come from, you are welcome here. That’s what gives our communion table legitimacy. That’s what gives our Table integrity.
Our table has integrity when people of all races, cultures, ages, abilities, sexual orientations, gender identities, and people of all spiritual, emotional wellbeing find welcome here, as they would find welcome by Jesus.
Our table is trustworthy when those who have been excluded by other religious traditions know that divisions can be overcome and all have a home here.
Our table is pleasing when the last come first, and the first serve the last.
Our welcome is extravagant when we our celebration is marked by justice, peace, and mutual, self-giving love.