Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Tuesday in Lent 4: Scandal in Corinth

Opening Sentence
Rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil. Joel 2:13

Commemoration: Cuthbert
Almighty God, who called Cuthbert from following the flock to be a shepherd of your people: Mercifully grant that, as he sought in dangerous and remote places those who had erred and strayed from your ways, so we may seek the indifferent and the lost, and lead them back to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Psalter: Psalm 97, 99, 100

Lessons: Genesis 49:29-50:14, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Mark 8:1-10

Of all the churches with which Paul corresponded, the church in Corinth was the most contentious, the most fractious, and the least spiritually mature. As Paul notes in today’s reading, there were divisions among the Corinthian believers. Yet, even in rebuking them for separating into factions, he notes the ultimate good which comes from such divisions, saying, “for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” Earlier in his letter, Paul had noted some of the Corinthian congregation’s more grievous offenses, such as “sexual immorality . . . of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife” (5.1) and disputes between fellow believers being settled by going “to law before the unrighteous” (6.1).

Perhaps the worst scandal taking place in Corinth, however, was the defilement of the body and blood of Christ by those who were indulging their insatiable appetite for food and drink. This appears to have been a case of economic disparity. The rich, who didn’t have to work for a living, arrived early and consumed all the bread and wine. The poor, who had to work for a living, arrived later and were thus denied the opportunity of sharing in what was supposed to be a communal meal. This, according to to Paul, undermines the meaning of the Lord’s Supper so much so that “it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat.”

Yet, were it not for this sacramental scandal in Corinth, much of what the church has come to understand about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper might not have been committed to writing. For Paul uses the occasion of the Corinthians’ transgression to teach them about the meaning behind the bread and the wine, a teaching he received directly from the Lord and faithfully delivered to the congregation in Corinth. Apparently, this teaching had originally been communicated orally, but Paul reiterates it in writing here. The bread is the body, the cup is the blood of Jesus Christ. On the night our Lord was betrayed, he instituted this meal as a perpetual memory of his suffering and death. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,” Paul writes, “you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

What, then, of the admonition to avoid eating and drinking “in an unworthy manner?” Down through the years, many well-meaning but misguided souls have denied themselves the gift of the body and blood of Christ on the grounds that they are “unworthy.” Yet, if worthiness were the criterion, no human being would be welcome at the Lord’s Table. It is not the person, but the manner in which the person partakes that is Paul’s concern here, and he has already described exactly what is meant by partaking “in an unworthy manner.” It is the manner in which one exalts oneself over others, failing to see another as a brother or sister in Christ, thinking oneself more entitled to the physical nourishment while denying another of the spiritual nourishment which is the true purpose of the sacrament.

No one is “worthy,” but that is the whole point. The Eucharist is a means of grace, not a provision of law. Indeed, the false piety so often at the root of the attitude of those who deny themselves the sacrament is more akin to the same kind of self-centered arrogance exhibited by the over-indulgent Corinthians whom Paul warned were eating and drinking judgment upon themselves.


Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast