The following sermon was given at a Sunday service, at which we had changed our changed our seating arrangements. Before we had a familiar arrangement of speaker and lectern at the front and congregation facing the speaker. Our new format had us gathering in a circle, around a table laid with the communion elements. We wanted to emphasise that in the church there is no position of power; nobody is higher or lower than anyone else. On our little table we laid a loaf of bread, a cup of wine, a cross and the open Bible. All of us sit facing each other across these symbols. The changes in our meeting space were a physical representation of the symbolism which is at our core – that we gather around the communion table, Christ is at the centre, and we are united one with another.
1 Corinthians 10:14-22
We read 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 together in both the ESV and The Message.
Therefore my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
15-18 I assume I’m addressing believers now who are mature. Draw your own conclusions: When we drink the cup of blessing, aren’t we taking into ourselves the blood, the very life, of Christ? And isn’t it the same with the loaf of bread we break and eat? Don’t we take into ourselves the body, the very life, of Christ? Because there is one loaf, our many-ness becomes one-ness—Christ doesn’t become fragmented in us. Rather, we become unified in him. We don’t reduce Christ to what we are; he raises us to what he is. That’s basically what happened even in old Israel—those who ate the sacrifices offered on God’s altar entered into God’s action at the altar.
Why Chairs Matter
Firstly, we feel it was important to mention what the sacraments are for in order to give some context. They are all signs of covenant, that is, of God’s promises and his will for humanity. Augustine called the sacraments ‘visible words’. They are visible and tangible signs which bolster our weak faith. God imparts spiritual things through visible ones. We want to emphasise two things in particular – our participation in Christ when we take communion, and how we are joined with one another as we partake.
The signs – the cup and the bread – are symbolic, but they are also, mysteriously, far more than just symbols. A symbol that is nothing more than a symbol is dead. But when the symbol points us to something larger than ourselves, something eternal, the symbol has life.
We don’t know how, but by the holy spirit, we feed on Christ when we participate in the cup and loaf. Our minds can’t grasp how, but by faith we believe that something profound and beautiful and significant takes place when we take the cup. This seems to me so characteristic of biblical spirituality- the ordinary, the humdrum and the miraculous, supernatural are on a single continuum.
We want to emphasise that it is, of course, possible to participate in Christ without the sacrament, but that it is impoverished. The sacrament is central to all of our gatherings even when we don’t partake because the act makes Christ central. Communion is a moment of personal encounter with Jesus. John 6:56 say this: ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in Him.’ Our participation in the cup and loaf, our communion, is an intimate moment when each of us meets with Jesus and is wholly centred on Him. The reference to idolatry in first verse is a warning to keep God at the centre of our worship – at the centre of our individual lives, and common life.
When we participate in the cup, we are not only participating in Christ in the here and now, but we are on the cusp of eternity as ‘we proclaim Christ’s death until he comes’ as it says in 1 Corinthians 11:26. Communion is a taster of the redemption to come. It helps us to see what lies ahead and helps us to already participate in it in a limited way. As it was a Sunday in advent, we began our service by singing O come, O come Emmanuel. We expressed our longing for Jesus to come. We talked about being ‘hallelujah people’, living after Christ’s resurrection, but that we are also ‘advent people’, waiting and longing for Christ’s return in glory and victory. We live in that sure hope.
Having talked about what it means to participate in Christ, we move on to talk about what it means to participate with one another. Again, our new way of sitting together has symbolic significance. We want to emphasise that our participation in Christ is a communal activity. The various meanings of the key word, koinonia, are communion, fellowship, participation, sharing in, contribution/gift, and presence. All these facets of that one word express our joining with one another as we participate in Christ together.
Some traditions end their Eucharist service with these words: ‘Grant that we who are nourished by his body and blood, may be filled with his holy spirit and become one body, one spirit in Christ.’ There we touch the heart of the mystery of community.
In some mysterious way, when we participate in Christ’s cup, and have communion with Him, we are joined together as brothers and sisters. We participate in the feast together. It is joint participation. Thus, as Jean Vanier would say, community and family become closely intertwined, because aiming at a common unity strives to overcome brokenness, divisiveness, and, ultimately gaining wholeness with each of the members, with their environment, and with God.
So, as we are participating in Christ, communally, being somehow joined with one another, we are being built by the Holy Spirit into community, into the body.