Discerning the Body
I Corinthians 11:17-22, 27-32
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For the past several weeks we’ve been considering what biblical hospitality looks like. We’ve heard how welcoming the stranger and being welcomed as a stranger offers us a particular way of knowing God, and what it is that God is about. Elijah is received by the widow woman who is not of the tribes of Israel. She shares the last of what she has with him, and it is replenished- such that she does not run out. Jesus tells a story in which the hero and neighbor turns out to be a Samaritan- a people group usually reviled by the those hearing his story. The disciples try to get away from it all only to be met by a large crowd of strangers who need to be fed. And with Jesus it is so. Then there is Ruth, who subverts the trope about the dangerous foreign woman to become, instead, the great grandmother of King David. Time and again we see in the bible this pattern where people who are considered outsiders and others are not only welcomed in, but often play a pivotal role in saving the lives of God’s people. It’s almost as if God goes out of God’s way to show us that this is what salvation looks like. Salvation looks like opening our hearts, our doors, maybe even our borders to those who are not like us; that one of the things that we are being saved from is the sin of making our world too small through our own narrow constructions that unnecessarily limit the saving grace of God.
But here in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians we face an entirely different sort of challenge to our understanding of hospitality. Namely, how do we welcome and make room for those who are our own. You see, It’s one thing to welcome the stranger. That can be challenging enough. It can require letting go of some preconceived notions about people, stereotypes and fears. But it’s another thing to face the challenge of truly welcoming and embracing the person next to us, the one that we see every week, the one who is already a part of the mix. As the saying goes, familiarity can breed contempt. And contempt isn’t good for anyone. It isn’t good for us, and it certainly isn’t good for the person that we hold in contempt. There are a whole lot of people in this world with whom I disagree. But there is no disagreement more heated than the ones that I have with the people closest to me, the members of my own family; whether that’s my biological family, or my church family. It’s one thing to welcome the stranger or the outsider, it’s something else altogether to welcome the familiar or the insider who feels like they are so far from us.
This first letter to the church in Corinth is one of those good news/bad news sort of things. The bad news is that straight out of the gate you have a church in conflict. From the the very beginning of the letter Paul names his overriding concern, that it’s been reported to him that they are quarreling. And he proceeds, point by point, to address some of the quarrels and divisions that have been brought to his attention. They are sorting themselves into camps and setting themselves in opposition to each other. It can be a little disheartening to come to this letter and realize that since its inception the church has always been a place of some contention. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Humans are a contentious lot after all. Even when they were hanging out with Jesus, the disciples would get into arguments about which of them was the greatest. And when Jesus spoke honestly about how the path he was on would lead to death on a cross, Peter was having none of it. But if we’re suffer under the illusion that church should be some kind of idealized place full of rainbows and unicorns where all is well and everyone gets along, then it can be pretty painful to have that illusion shattered by the reality of conflict.
Of course the good news, if you want to call it that, comes from the same realization. Since its inception the church has been a place of contention. How is that good news? Well, it’s good news precisely because it means that whatever conflicts we might be facing with those closest to us in this space, there’s truly nothing new under the sun. That’s the very nature of community. Where two people come together, you are bound to have different ideas about what’s important, and how to proceed. For some people that is reason enough to stay away. But if avoiding conflict with other people is one’s highest priority, then what you are left with is either a very lonely existence, or a very limited one as a doormat or an echo in an effort to appease any potential disagreement. Neither of which sound like the fullness of life. As I often counsel couples who are preparing to be married- if two people agree about everything, one of them is irrelevant.
What that means is that conflict in and of itself isn’t bad, it’s what we do with it, how we work through it, that matters. If we allow it to simply divide us, to become a point of departure and a source of strife, then we not only do one another a disservice, we do violence to the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace. That’s what Paul is getting at here. When the Corinthian church gathers to celebrate their understanding of the Lord’s Supper, some of them bring their own food and drink to enjoy for themselves. But because this gathering is not simply of the like-minded, or the like resourced some of them have a lot more to enjoy than others, while some may not have anything at all.
You may have heard me share this before, but the late President of Austin Seminary, Bob Shelton was a Willie Nelson fan. Bob was from Tennessee, and when he went off to Princeton to study, he was told by a well-meaning friend that he’d need to leave his country music records out of sight. But he could never forsake good old Willie. In fact he worked up his very own Gospel According to Willie Nelson. The cornerstone of which was this observation, that the only two places where true democracy exists- that is the only two places where people of all kinds come and are welcomed as equal- are at a Willie Nelson concert and the Lord’s Table. At a Willie concert, why you could see people in both formal wear and blue jean, and it didn’t matter. And Bob contended that the same was true of the Lord’s Table. The table that Jesus sets for us, and invites us to doesn’t have an entrance requirement You don’t need to make a reservation, or know the right people to get in. It is a place where people with no other good reason to know, talk, or associate with one other are made equal in the eyes of God.
And we come to the table as often as we can to be reminded that we are not just made one with Christ there, we are made one with one another. In fact, the only thing that can make us unworthy of the Table is the very thing that Paul calls the church out on. The only thing that can make us unworthy of the invitation that is put before us is our unwillingness to come to the Table in the Spirit of that invitation. That is to say that if we are still clinging to some notion of our own greatness or potential greatness, some notion of our own exceptionalism over and against someone else for whatever reason, the very elements of the meal itself become a judgement against us, because we have failed to receive the gift that we are being offered. We have failed to discern the body. Meaning, we have failed to enter into the Spirit of oneness that comes from understanding that we belong to each other. Some may have more while others have less. But that does not make either one better, or worth more than the other. Some may vote one way, while others vote another. And the conversation we have about the reasons for that may be vigorous, but at the table we are stripped of any sort of political righteousness and reminded that because there is one loaf, so too we are one body . As the writer Brené Brown puts it in her latest book, Braving the Wilderness, “People are hard to hate close up, move in.” There is no better place to move in than at the Lord’s Table.
All our best practices of hospitality begin there. They begin with discerning the body and recognizing that both the stranger that we do not know, and the brother or sister that we do know who holds a different position, or different resources, or some other difference is every bit as worthy of this gift as we are. And hospitality practiced in the way of Jesus Christ makes sure that we don’t just come to the table for ourselves, we come to the table discerning the whole body, welcoming one another, seeing the gift of one another. It means being able to say to one another, the way the wonderful Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers did to a generation of children and adults alike, “it’s you that I like, just as you are.”