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TEXT: I Corinthians 11:17-34
SUBJECT: God is Not Mocked
Twenty years ago, the first President Bush proposed a Constitutional Amendment to ban the burning of the American flag. Critics laughed at his low demagoguery, but it seems to me he was more right than he was wrong.
What is the American flag? Some say it's a piece of cloth, and depending on the size, not much different than a bed sheet or a beach towel or a handkerchief. Are they right? No they're not: all they've told is what the flag is made of, not what it is. The American flag is a symbol of freedom and justice and opportunity. Our country has not always lived up to the ideals, of course, but the flag keeps on reminding us that we ought to, keeps on promising that we will. If this sounds cornball to you, there are millions of people all over the world who think otherwise. A Russian friend told me everyone in his country dreams of living here--and this was after the fall of the Soviet Union. And maybe you remember the Marielitos, illegal Cuban immigrants who rioted to stay in an American prison rather than to go home to the warm embrace of Fidel Castro.
This is why burning the flag is different than burning a blanket--because the flag stands for something beyond itself. The flag is a symbol of our country and ties us together with the Puritans and the founding fathers, the men who fought to abolish slavery, and the ones who died to save the world from Hitler.
This is why ordinary Americans get mad when they see some fool burning the flag. It's not that red, white and blue are their favorite colors, or that they oppose cruelty to cloth! It's because they love their country, and, whether they can explain it or not, they know the flag burners don't!
The American flag matters because symbols matter. They connect us to things bigger and better than ourselves, and when we lose the symbol, it won't be long until we lose what it symbolizes.
This brings us to the second half of I Corinthians 11, and to one of the great symbols of Christianity: the Lord's Supper.
Before I say another word, let me assure you I feel no superstition about the Lord's Supper. I buy the bread and wine, and what we don't eat at the Lord's Table, I eat at my own table. I love Matzos, and when I'm eating them at home, I feel no holier than when I'm eating a slice of white bread or a corn tortilla. Of course, I wouldn't want to drop the bread or wine in the service, but if I did, I'd only feel clumsy, not irreverent, and I'd take no more care to clean up the mess than if I'd dropped a sandwich or a glass of ice tea.
But if the bread and wine themselves strike no godly fear into my heart, the Lord's Supper does. Like the American flag, it is only a symbol, but what it symbolizes is worth more than every thing in the world put together.
This is not only a personal belief, it is what the Church has always felt about the Supper, and what Paul teaches us in today's text.
He starts with a mild rebuke, 'mild', I say, because the more he says, the harsher he becomes. Paul is working himself into a lather of righteous indignation, v.17--
Now in giving these instructions, I do not praise you, since you come together, not for the better, but for the worse.
This is the second time he's used the word, praise, in the chapter. Back in v.2, he praised the ladies of the church for showing respect for their husbands. On this point, the Corinthians are doing very well. But when it comes to the Lord's Supper, they're not doing so well.
It's gotten so bad, Paul says, that celebrating it is doing more harm than good! It would be better to cancel the Communion service than to keep on doing it the way they are.
THE PROBLEM IN GENERAL
The problem is division in the church; v.18 says so, and this is not the first time Paul has brought it up. It is the first problem he names, back in Chapter 1, and it seems to underlie all the other problems they're having.
The division is somewhat personal, but mostly, it is doctrinal. Some in the church think they've got a special knowledge of God, a wisdom that others don't have because they're not smart--or spiritual-- enough.
Who are the 'wise ones'? They're the ones who have a lot a free time on their hands, the people who have the leisure to speculate on things that are none of their business, things that cannot be known. What kind of person has this much time?
A rich person.
Slaves and other manual laborers don't have a lot of time or energy to put into the so-called 'deep things of God'. They get up early, come home late, and after dinner, they've got things to do around the house, and then it's straight to bed. They're too tired to think 'great thoughts'; they don't have time to plumb the depths of Divine mysteries. And thank God they don't! Speculation is a waste of time and often leads to stupid doctrines, and sometimes, heresy.
THE LORD'S SUPPER PERVERTED
In Corinth, the better-off people were causing all kinds of problems, and nowhere were they doing more harm than at the Lord's Table.
Because of their pride and folly, the Lord's Supper had become something else altogether, v.20--
Therefore, when you come together in one place it is not to eat the Lord's Supper.
What? They were eating bread and drinking wine; they were reading or reciting the words of Jesus; if they had a bulletin, it said, 'Lord's Supper'. But for all this, what they were doing was not the Lord's Supper; they were not communing with Christ or each other--and that's what the Lord's Supper is--communing with Christ and each other!
What were they doing wrong?
Paul tells us in v.21--
For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk!
The Lord's Supper, it seems, was eaten alongside of or as part of the Love Feast. There is nothing wrong with this: most churches today separate the two, but it's a matter of liberty. They combined the two and Paul is okay with it.
What he's not okay with is how they were doing it. People with money brought a lot of food, enough to feed the whole church. But they didn't feed the whole church; they fed only themselves.
They made pigs of themselves, stuffing their fat bellies with food and drinking to the point of intoxication. The poor members, people who didn't have anything to bring to the Supper, had nothing. They went away hungry, perhaps not even having the sip of wine and the bite of bread we have at the Lord's Table.
This is disgraceful! It makes a mockery of the Lord's Table. It's like burning the American flag! And here's how: The Lord's Supper stands for the fellowship we have with Christ and one another. But what fellowship is there in Corinth? What sharing? What common life? If everyone partakes of Christ at His Table, why are some people excluded from the bread and wine which symbolize that fellowship?
No wonder Paul is so angry! In the name of wisdom, they're making fools of themselves.
THE LORD'S SUPPER RESTORED
Some in the church--and the leaders, apparently, more than anyone else--had forgotten what the Lord's Supper is. Paul reminds them--and us--in vv.23-26.
It is the gift of Jesus Christ to His church. It wasn't Paul who dreamed up the Lord's Supper; it was our Lord Himself. Paul delivered the message to the Corinthians, but it was the Lord's message. The Lord's Supper is about Jesus and under the supervision and authority of Jesus.
This means, we're not free to observe it any way we want to. Of course, there is some liberty, as to how often we celebrate it, or when, or how we organize the service. But the basics are fixed and unchangeable.
Jesus didn't give His Supper to groups in the church; He gave it to the whole church, and we're to celebrate it together as His people--as One people--and not as little clubs in the church based on personality or education, age, styles of worship, or whatever.
The elements are bread and wine, and they correspond to the body and blood of Christ, the body broken for our salvation, the blood spilled for the remission of our sins.
The Corinthians know this, of course, but Paul brings it up to reprove them for what they're doing at the Lord's Table. By hoarding the wine and food for themselves, and leaving nothing for others, the well-off members of the church were symbolically denying the poor their parts in Christ and salvation.
This precisely fits what's going on in the church. The better off people are also the ones bragging about their knowledge, and looking down on the ones who don't have it. When we start looking down on brothers and sisters for not knowing as much as we do, it won't be long until we start wondering if they're brothers and sisters at all. This is what happened in Corinth!
This makes the Lord's Supper into a farce. The Supper is a kind of sermon, Paul says, it--
Proclaims the Lord's death till He comes.
When Jesus died, He died to sin and to worldly ways of thinking. But this is just what the Corinthians have not died to! They're thinking like everyone else in town, putting the learned above the illiterate and assuming the rich are better than the poor! But, if they were eating the Lord's Supper in the right way, they'd remember that all of us are in need of a Savior, because we're all sinners, nobody one speck better than anyone else.
THE FEAR OF GOD
In vv.27ff., Paul reminds them of something he had hinted at before, but now spells out for them--and us. The Lord's Supper is under the authority of Jesus Christ, and if we abuse it, He'll do something about it!
What is the 'abuse' he refers to? Many Christians have misread v.27; they think they're not worthy to partake of the Lord's Supper, and so they don't. In one way they're right: they're not worthy to commune with Christ and His people--no one is worthy of this honor. But, for all our personal unworthiness, the Lord bids us eat and drink with Him. So, what does the verse mean, v.27--
Whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord?
Sorry for being pedantic, but you notice the adjective unworthy modifies the noun, manner. Thus, Paul is not thinking of unworthy men coming to the Lord's Table, but coming to the Lord's table in a unworthy way. And what's that? The whole context makes that clear: it means coming with pride in yourself and your friends and with contempt for others in the church.
This makes you complicit in the murder of Christ Himself, for whoever hates His People hates Jesus! Should a man who despises Jesus come to the Lord's Table? Of course not. And neither should a man who despises members of His Body, the church.
Will the Lord stand by and let you do this, get away with it forever? No He won't. Whoever eats and drinks this way, Paul says--
Eats and drinks judgment to himself.
Is this judgment now or in the future? That's up to the Lord. Some people commune at the Lord's Table all their lives while harboring hateful feelings in their hearts, and seem to get away with it. They don't. In the Last Judgment, they'll answer for what they've done, and they'll wish they had done otherwise.
But even though the final judgment is still future, the Lord is free to visit His judgments on us any time He wants to. In Corinth, He struck some of the divisive people with sickness, and some of them He killed.
This needs to be said in today's church. God is our Father, but that's not all He is: He is also our Judge. This means we should both love Him and fear Him, and the fear we feel for Him has to be more than 'respect'; there has to be a real fear--a trembling--at the prospect of making Him mad. Otherwise, what does the Bible mean when it calls Him a consuming fire? When He comes down in a hurricane? When men who knew and loved and served Him trembled in His presence and fell at His feet as a dead man?
This 'fear of God' is going to do something for you: it's going to make you examine yourself or judge yourself, and repent of the pride your feel for yourself and the contempt you feel for others. This godly fear is going to qualify you to come to the Lord's Table, and receive the blessing it is designed to give you. More than that, it's going to make you a true member of Christ's Body and a channel of grace to others.
Therefore, wait for each other at the Lord's Table, share what you have with others: be the church and not a 'special interest' in the church.
If you want to make a pig of yourself and let no one within fifty feet of your delicious three bean soup, fine--but do it at home. Church meals are for sharing.
I wonder if anyone here has been to the Lord's Table more often than I have. Some of the services were not as edifying as others, but I've never experienced anything approaching what Paul describes here. I've never seen anyone drunk at the Lord's Table; I've never seen anyone grab the whole loaf and gobble it down leaving the others unfed. I bet you haven't either.
So what does it say to us? It says the same thing it did to the Corinthians. The Lord's Supper is a symbol of the fellowship we have with Christ and each other. If we really belong together, we have to love and respect one another, and when we don't, we fail to love and respect Christ. Because He loves us all--not just the brainy ones, the 'mature' ones, the ones who do the most in the church, or give the most, or do the most important things; Jesus loves us all, and not one of His people more than any other.
We need to remember this when we come to the Lord's Table, and when we don't. We need to love one another with a fervent love; we need to pray for each other; we need to help each other, and enter into each other's lives. It is only when we do these things that the Lord's Supper becomes for us what it really is.
Let us, therefore, commit ourselves to being the kind of churchmen we ought to be, and let us remember that we can become a blessing to each other, and will become that because the Gospel makes us Abraham's seed, and in doing that it makes us a channel of God's grace to His people and the world.
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