Who is Truly Welcome at Your Table?

Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

October 3, 2021
World Communion Sunday
Scripture reading – 1st Corinthians 11: 17-22, 27-34

For the past 18 months, this church – and just about all others that I know of – has struggled to maintain worship, attendance, mission, Christian education, the management of our funds and bills, our community of faith, and so many other things that make up a church.  Despite the pandemic, an unbelievable freeze last February, multiple floods and hurricanes, two deaths in our church family, and even a chaotic transition from one president to another, we have continued to do our work.

I say boldly: “Good for us, Heritage Presbyterian Church!  Good for us!”

However…(you knew there was a catch, didn’t you?)

However, in this season of holding to what we hold dear in our church, here’s our first question for today:

Have we missed anything?

First of all, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was exactly the sort of letter that pointed out what was held dear and what was missing.  He began by complimenting them on maintaining traditional and consistent worship practices.  I highly doubt they had to deal with social distancing, masks on the membership (especially the choir), hand sanitizer, or Zoom…but they still had their own challenges.  In fact, every church in every part of the world and in every time has had challenges to face.  Paul recognized their challenges and called them out.  

Let’s understand Communion as the Corinthians practiced it.  There were no church buildings; believers met in private homes with the well-connected folks reclining near the main table, and the rest standing around them or even in other parts of the house where they could hear still what was going on.  Communion was a part of the main meal that was served as a part of any worship service. Reading from the Torah scroll, teaching, praying, singing the Psalms, and then the meal with Communion starting it off.  

That was the way they did it…but Paul called them out anyway!

The Corinthians were clannish, cliquish, and honored important guests more than the common folks.  In fact, as Paul noted, the folks near the table were served first and even went on with the rest of their meal while the fringes were still waiting for Communion.  Often, no food was left for the rest.

Doesn’t sound like Communion to us, does it?  Can you imagine if I served the elders and deacons first, followed by those who tithe the most to the church, and finally by everyone else on the fringes?  And what if we didn’t properly prepare the elements and we ran out before the “fringes” were served?

Paul also made it a common practice in each and every church he founded or nurtured to take care of those who were the lowest and weakest in the community.  Paul often talked about caring for the sick and the poor, and he specifically pointed out the need for care for the widows and orphans.  Paul recognized clearly how society treated little children and their mothers who had no husbands, no fathers to help them and no society that cared.  For Paul, all the prayers and tithes and Communion didn’t account for leaving anyone out of God’s grace and care. 

Their Communion  – but also their practices – left many out, and that didn’t work in Paul’s eyes.  I know we don’t do that in our practices, but here’s my second major question for today:  

Do we leave others out from our worship and our Communion table?

Often in the past, I have poked gentle fun at the notion of someone being DIFFERENT as a way to challenge your thoughts and feelings on this topic.  But let me get specific: 

What if someone joined us for worship and Communion that was truly different from what you are comfortable with?  

I’m talking about non-believers, others who belong to unique sects of the Christian faith, illegal immigrants, addicts, alcoholics, and even members of the LGBTQ community.  If these folks bother you to the point of excluding them from our table, let me point out in the ten years I have been here, we have had people from each group I just named who joined us for Communion here at Heritage…each and every group was represented at the table that you shared.

In another part from Paul’s letter, we find that Paul refers to “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.”  That’s quite a disturbing statement, but it is one that has been misunderstood for centuries.  Back in the day – and I would even say today, churches would interpret this in two ways:

  1.  Eating and drinking in an unworthy manner referred to a church not preparing or serving the Communion elements in a dignified, organized, prescribed manner. 
  2. Those who received Communion must be as close to perfect as humanly possible before they can participate publicly.

Both of these interpretations were used to divide the people into the authentic members of God’s people and unauthentic ones.  Both labels are human creations and do not account for what is in the heart.

When my great-great grandfather, a former pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Houston, would find out that some man from his church was passed out on the floor of some saloon instead of home with his family, Dr. Ebenezer Dickey Junkin would drive his buggy to that saloon, enter it and find the drunken sinner(!), drag the offender out of the bar by his collar, and deposit him into the buggy; but instead of taking this poor wretch home, Dr. Junkin would take him to church and make him sit near the front so all could see.  Part of this was public humiliation and shaming; but part of it was also the opportunity for this man to recognize what he had done wrong, to get right with his Lord, and to rejoin the community of faith.  Whether the community truly welcomed this man back into their community was not a matter for Dr. Junkin to decide…whether they were authentic members of God’s people or not, they had to confront it and their own feelings because that was how Dr. Junkin operated.

This is a favorite family legend, but the source of it heard it from Ebenezer Dickey’s own son…my grandfather’s father.

Finally, we arrive at my third and final question for this World Communion Sunday: Why do some people refuse to participate in the Lord’s Supper?

It’s not that they want some to be banned from it or left out until they straighten up; it’s their own sense of guilt and shame that keeps them from this sacrament.

When this occurs, it is contained within some deep emotion too; they realize they are shying away from the table, they want to participate, but they do not recognize that the Lord’s invitation is for all people, especially sinners…which is all people.

In the olden days of the Christian church, local pastors would make a point of visiting everyone in their church during the week to see if they were “living a life worthy” of Communion;   if they were, the pastor would give the father a Communion token allowing them to participate in the Lord’ Supper that following Sunday.  

But let’s ask ourselves the question:

Who is good enough, worthy enough, righteous enough to have earned the grace necessary to be allowed at the Communion table?  The answer is – of course – no one.  Christ’s grace was and is for all.  Paul recognized this long before even the other Apostles did; it was Paul who argued this point in Jerusalem before a council of early Christian leaders which included Peter.  The Eucharist, the Communion itself, is an offer of grace, not a judgment of condemnation.

Besides, none of us can avoid accountability to God by staying away from the Communion.  “I’m not worthy” is not a plea that will work in a truly obedient Christian community; rather, it is a starting point for a conversation about grace, sin, and the opportunity to be part of a community that follows Christ’s commandment to “love one another.”

On this World Communion Sunday, when at least portions of the world’s believers stand in unison, Paul’s words should resoundingly echo in our hearts and minds:

  • Disunity at the Communion table divides the people of God instead of reminding us to welcome and include all.
  • Paul understands that there is always some separation in our minds when it comes to others; Paul also calls us out on it and urges us to work to overcome it.  
  • The grace and healing and forgiveness that comes from our participation in the Lord’s Supper are there for anyone and everyone who wants it.

Let us truly welcome others to the table of the Lord…this day and always.