1 Corinthians 11:23-29
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This month I’m preaching a series on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and other than today, Galatians is one of our readings each week. So today some background about Paul and how we might relate to him.
The first thing to keep in mind about Paul is his conversion. It’s such a big deal Acts describes it three times, and Paul refers to it repeatedly in his letters. Paul was on the road to Damascus, heading there to persecute and arrest people who were following Jesus, and a great light appeared to him, and he heard a voice say, “Saul, Saul, why are you out to get me?” And he replied, “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus, the one you are hounding.” In this flash of light, Paul saw that he had it all wrong, everything upside down; he was deeply religious and devout, but he was working directly against God.
There’s a medical diagnosis called “conversion disorder.” When a person experiences extreme emotional or psychological distress, the brain may react by causing physical symptoms, like loss of vision. The Bible says after Jesus appeared to him, Paul was blind for three days. The intense anxiety, the horror, Paul felt about persecuting his Lord was converted into a physical symptom, blindness. It was a tremendously humbling and confusing experience, but it helped him blossom into one of the greatest Christian heroes.
Imagine yourself as Paul discovering you’ve got it all wrong and faced with having to make serious changes in your life. You may know about this. It’s happened to me… and more than once.
Paul became a follower of Jesus, a disciple. He came to see himself differently, to have different standards, and he became aware of how intensely competitive he was.[i] He boasted to the Galatians about how early in his life, he had so much zeal for religious traditions, how he had advanced in Judaism beyond his peers. (Gal 1:14) But once he started following Jesus, Paul understood that competition is often an expression of self-reliance, a desire to be better than others, apart from others, wholly independent.
Paul considered his conversion experience, moving closer to God, to be an act of grace: entirely a gift from God, not something he had earned, not something he had deserved, not something he had won. There’s no quid pro quo with God, no you do this, and I’ll do that. Everything is gift. This is the way God works.
Paul’s conversion marked a break, a turning point in his identity. His conversion changed his identity so that he consciously identified with Jesus, an identity that restrained his competitiveness. He no longer saw his accomplishments as his own, but as something God had done through him, the Holy Spirit working through him.
Competition is one of the great virtues of our world. We’re saturated in it, and it’s so much a part of our world we usually don’t see it. Our world’s cathedrals, sports stadiums, are temples of competition, dedicated to winning; our economic life about getting more; our politics about getting more power and influence; our social lives about getting prestige. The way of the world: through competition, we get more, and that gives us the good life, competition as the way to feel good about ourselves.
God operates in a different way.[ii] The goal is not about getting more, but about giving, sharing. When we share the things the world values: our winnings, our wealth, our influence, our prestige, then we have less. When we share the things God gives – life, love, hope, faith, friendship – when we share these, we don’t have less. We have more. With the things of God, the more I share, the more I have. The realm of God, God’s Kingdom, the body of Christ, operates not according to competition, but according to sharing, according to cooperation.
Two ways of life, two stories to guide our lives, our sense of self. There’s the way of competition, and the way of cooperation; the way of rivalry, and the way of sharing; the way of self-interest, and the way of the common good; the way of earning, and the way of grace. Two ways of life. I think of the Frost poem: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by.”
What do you choose? I find myself on the wrong road a lot. Through grace, occasionally I take the right road. The good news helps us have perspective to know, to become aware of where we are, to act as compass to re-direct us.
Paul thought that the Corinthians had chosen the wrong road, the road to competition, not the road to Damascus, to conversion, to transformation. Paul wrote the bit from today’s epistle to re-direct them to God’s way. Paul wrote that they were not really eating the Lord’s Supper.
In the early days of the church, the Lord’s Supper probably felt not so much like a worship service, but more of a communal meal. The problem for Paul was that social hierarchies of Corinthian society, the way of the world, were part of their gatherings. The wealthy and powerful showed up, occupied the best seats, consumed their own food and drink, and sometimes got drunk. The poor had little or no food and drink. It was haves and have nots. Christians met in someone’s home, and the hosts at Corinth shared their finer food and drink with the well-heeled members and cut out the others. They did not even wait to eat together. The gathering perpetuated the inequality of the society, the gap between the rich and the poor. It did not reflect the reality of life with God, the Kingdom of God.
Paul made two essential points in today’s epistle. First, the Eucharist has to express our unity, our unity with God and with each other, that we live in a new relationship as beloved children of God, children without hierarchies of preference. When Christians gather, there’s not supposed to be division according to social, economic, political status.
In the epistle, we heard Paul demand that everyone eat and drink while discerning the body. He means caring for our brothers and sisters, that together we form the body of Christ. He was telling us that the Eucharist is not a private act of piety, not just about you and God, not just you and your friends, but rather a public, communal event, a coming together. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper not to please God, not to escape from the world, not to give us thrills, but to unite us, to strengthen us to live the gospel, to send us out in mission.
Second, we eat the bread and drink the cup to proclaim the Lord’s death and resurrection. It helps us to remember and be part of the story of Jesus. The Eucharist is story and meal. The first half of mass we have readings and a sermon where we tell stories about God acting to give us life, and then we have a meal that also recalls Jesus’ story, his death and resurrection. We remember, and thereby identify with Jesus’ story. It shapes who we are, what road we choose in life.
In communion: Jesus gives himself to us and receives us into him, and we receive him and give ourselves back to him. It’s sharing – everyone sharing. There’s mutuality, interdependence, giving and receiving – the shape of all healthy relationships, the surest sign of life and growth.
For me, the task of this church is found in Jesus saying, “I came that [you] may have life, and have it abundantly.” The surest sign of life, an essential sign of life, is growth. If the Eucharist is real and meaningful, if our worship is real and meaningful, then we don’t remain the same. We grow as human beings, become more mature Christians, deepen our relationship with God.
Spiritual growth means we don’t have the same view of Jesus, the same relationship with God, as we did ten years ago, or five years ago, maybe even a year ago. Having life means we continue evolving, renewing, and deepening in the awareness of God’s love for me, God’s desire for me, God’s delight in me. That’s Paul’s story, and it’s ours.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Terrance Callan, “Psychological Perspectives on the Life of Paul,” Psychological Insight into the Bible, Eerdmans (2007), pp. 127-136, on Paul’s competitiveness.
[ii] Jonathan Sacks, The Relationship between the People of God, Address to Lambeth Conference, 2008.