Factions and Unity

Pastor Carrie Baylis
16 September 2020 
Wednesday a.m. worship 
1 Corinthians 11: 17-34 

Brothers and sisters in Christ grace, peace and mercy to you from Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. 

The Corinthians were a pretty divided people.  Paul wrote his letter to them about six decades after the death of Jesus, and it’s safe to say that they were not one cohesive community.  Most would say that they worshiped money and all that it could buy, though not everyone had money in this sprawling town that was second in size and affluence only to Rome.  Paul came here on a mission to convert this crossroads of a town to Christianity, believing that if conversion could take hold here, it could be viable anywhere. 

While Paul was able to bring Christianity to life in his mission, the Corinthian believers had to try to figure out what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ in their particular cultural context.  In a city where competition for status and privilege governs social relationships, Paul was trying to help them understand and practice a religion in which the embodiment of love is called the highest of the “spiritual gifts.”  It was going to be a new understanding of love, love for the neighbor, love of Christ, love that was not inward or self-centered that idolized money and status, that separated the haves and the have nots and that couldn’t see past schisms to find common ground. 

Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul is dealing with fractured communal unity caused by the attitudes and actions of various groups within the Corinthian congregation. The letter’s overarching theme involves his appeal that there not to be divisions, factions and schisms among the Corinthians, but that they be continuously united in the same attitude and the same resolve for each other through Christ. Many were practicing Christianity, gathering in house churches, and celebrating the Eucharist.  But the ways in which they are doing it draw upon or call differences to what their status is in society and all the things that entails politically, socially, economically.  All are welcome at the table, but not every table is set the same. 

Paul is able to find the Lord’s Supper as the place to both call us out for making it about us and in the next breath call us to unity in what God has given us in this meal. If factions and division and status are going to be a part of gathering Paul was not going give thanks for the fact that they simply gathered, he was a truth teller. He tells them that their gathering is not for better but for worse. That’s a tough pill to swallow in itself when they believe they have gathered to share in Christ’s meal for them, but he goes on and tells them that gathering together with factions and division among them and status to even further separate them is in contempt for the church of God.  It makes me nervous to hear Paul call them in contempt.  I had to stop and think about why that makes me nervous today, is it because we still live in a world of haves and have nots, is it because we are divided on so many things in this world yet make claims of righteousness and unity in the church, is it because we come to the table and receive God’s meal of grace despite ourselves.  Maybe it’s all of these things. 

Paul saw the Corinthians gathering to share in the Lord’s Supper and criticizes them for problems associated with their practice of the Lord’s Supper. The Corinthians, it seems, were allowing the divisions that characterized their culture to shape the way they celebrated their common meal. Paul was not happy about it. 

The Greco Roman culture was divided into social levels. Status is always relative: my high status only has meaning when juxtaposed to your low status (or the other way around).  

Virtually all social interaction was shaped by this hierarchy of status. The church at Corinth had members of relatively high status, with the power and wealth that went along with such position, as well as people of relatively low status. This mixing of status then posed challenges for the Christians at Corinth. 

Status often showed it’s ways, if a host had guests for dinner, perhaps gathering for house church, it was common for guests of high status to be served more and better food and drink than others, and for guests of lower status to be served less food and drink of poorer quality. Differences in status resulted in differences in treatment. While not everyone was happy with these differences, most accepted them as a part of how the world worked. 

This status driven culture was so taken for granted that it shaped the practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper at Corinth. So, Paul takes the Corinthians to task for what was happening when they met for the Lord’s Supper. The Corinthians observed the Eucharist in conjunction with a common meal, and at that meal social divisions were visible in a way that Paul believed compromised the Gospel. “For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk”. 

For Paul it is unacceptable, especially since the Lord’s Supper was intended to demonstrate the unity of the church in the mutual dependence on the grace of God shown in the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

Paul’s response to this situation was not to abolish the system of status. That task would have been impossible and ultimately out of the control of the Christians at Corinth. Rather, he instructs the Corinthians to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a way that doesn’t marginalize the poor among them. 

Instead of turning the Lord’s Supper into an occasion to exhibit social distinctions, the Corinthians needed to be reminded of what the Eucharist is for: remembering Jesus and proclaiming his death until he comes. They ought to partake in the Lord’s Supper in a way that demonstrates their unity rather than their divisions. 

Perhaps the question we ought to be asking ourselves is how do we come to the table today, is it in unity with all our brothers and sisters in Christ or do we take our divisions to the table and home with us again. 

The supper’s purpose is to remember Jesus. The church gathering together in fellowship and coming to the table is to remember Jesus.  This meal is a time to reflect on what Jesus has done in giving his life for others. It is a time, Paul later explains, for self-examination, not a cross examination of others who join us. The Corinthians are to discern the body — both Christ’s earthly, human body and the corporate body of believers — so they can overcome division and re-member the body of Christ to which they belong. One of the things that I’ve learned from Paul is that overcoming division is not the same as giving in to someone else’s truth.  As we come together at Christ’s table, we are reminded that we are shaped by the self-giving love of Christ and it is only through him that we are made whole.  As we live into the gospel truth, we repent our sins, and we come to the table of grace with a thankful heart, we are made whole. 

Paul’s concern is not (or at least not primarily) about the proper understanding of the sacramental presence of Jesus in the bread and wine, but about the recognition of the body of Christ in our brothers and sisters. To properly discern the body at the table means that we cannot come while leaving others uninvited and unwelcomed, or without mourning their absence. We cannot leave the table and be content to leave anyone hungry for it is a table where all are welcomed and our fellowship proclaims the scandalous message of God’s grace. To discern the body in the Supper will send us into the world with new eyes and new hearts, to encounter Christ there again and again.  Amen. 

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