Proper 17, Year C
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14
I was once in a congregation that took two-week turns with other area churches hosting a winter shelter for the homeless. One wintry Sunday morning, a parishioner came up to me in deep distress following the service. "There's a homeless man in the church," she said, "and we're not hosting the shelter this week. Could you do something about it?"
"Of course," I said, and I left my post on the greeting line, walked over to the man, introduced myself, and invited him to coffee hour.
I remember similar raised eyebrows in another congregation that had both a ministry of making bag lunches for homeless people and a group for people in their twenties and thirties when, after talking with a man who sometimes made use of the bag-lunch ministry that he was both Christian in his twenties, I invited him to the young adults' group. Sadly, several members of the group asked him to leave, telling him to come back when the bag lunches were out.
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you were being tortured. (Hebrews 13:1-3)
I don't know of a single parish that doesn't have what are usually called "Outreach" ministries -- programs such as bag lunches or soup kitchens for the homeless, or raising money to send to a charity overseas. It's good that we know to do at least that much. Sometimes, though, I think the "Outreach" label is a bit of a misnomer, and "Charities" might be more accurate.
Is it really reaching out, after all, if the "outreach ministry" doesn't cultivate a sense that Christians -- rich or poor, black or red or brown or yellow or white -- are members of a single Body of Christ, and all people are children of God and members of one human family? Is what we celebrate on Sunday really a Eucharist in remembrance of Jesus if we, by things done and left undone, cultivate and perpetuate congregational cultures that have a strong and nearly impermeable boundary between those who are recipients of "Outreach," who should take what they're given, be grateful, and leave before the service starts, and those who are members, and therefore invited to worship and fellowship throughout the parish's life?
Jesus tells us in this Sunday's gospel that when we have a dinner party, we shouldn't invite our friends, relatives, or rich neighbors; we should invite the poor, the diseased, the marginalized. Lest we think that we're fulfilling that command solely by sending food or money to other people, Luke pairs this command with another: that we are called not to seek places of honor for ourselves, but to seek to honor others more.
"Honor" is a word that doesn't mean much to a lot of us, so it's worth drawing out a bit of just what that might mean in a cultural context that doesn't give the word the kind of resonance it had in Jesus' culture and Luke's. In the first-century Mediterranean world, "honor" wasn't a rather quaint and abstract value of elites or soldiers. Honor was community esteem in a world in which that esteem was not just immeasurably valuable, but necessary under many circumstances for survival. If your family was seen as without honor (and honor was held collectively by families -- one person's dishonorable behavior blew it for all), people wouldn't do business with you. Members of your family would be poorly placed to enter into a decent marriage -- and in a culture in which having honorable children who could and would care for you when you were old or sick was the only form of social security or retirement, that damage to your family's marriage prospects could put or keep you in utter poverty.
And what kinds of behavior were seen as honorable?
There's a game I've used with people of all ages (and intergenerational groups, where I think it can be particularly fun and poignant) to illustrate this. The game goes like this: There are cards on which a label is written -- "Monarch," "Noble," "Servant," or "Beggar." Each person gets one card taped to her or his back. Your job in the game is to circulate as if you were all at a party (sometimes I'll actually put food and drink out for the purpose), to look at the cards on the back of those with whom you interact, and try to behave as you think a person with your status -- whatever you think the card on your back says -- would treat a person of their status, as indicated by the card on their back. As you talk with other people, you find out more about what your status might be. And you find out very quickly what the card on your back says according to how those of various rank treat you.
Most people find it very easy very quickly to guess what's on their card. I find that the game almost always within five minutes results in four groups of people standing closely together and mostly or entirely ignoring all others -- each group consisting of people with the same label on their back, and the only cross-group interaction being "Monarchs" and "Nobles" trying to get "Servants" to bring them food and to throw out the "Beggars." The "Beggars" find out their status most quickly, since at first nobody at all wants to talk with them; there's no point in begging from one another, after all, and members of all other groups treat them as an unwelcome intrusion at best and less than human at worst.
The game works well to illustrate some of what honor meant because central to "honor" in the first-century Mediterranean world was treating people in a manner appropriate to their status. People honored their betters by treating them as their betters, thereby showing themselves as honorable people -- people who knew their station. They kept their family's honor by treating family as family and outsiders as outsiders. By their behavior in public -- and in Jesus' culture and Luke's, banquets themselves as well as who was invited and how were publicly observed and assessed -- higher-status people declared their honor by treating those below them appropriately, that is, according to their lower status. In other words, honor was about knowing your place and everyone else's and making sure that you behaved according to that hierarchy.
And so when Jesus tells his followers that they should humble themselves by choosing the lowest seat, he's advocating behavior that for all but the lowest at the banquet would be DIShonorable -- not at all how respectable people should behave. Jesus was seriously messing up the game. How can anyone know their place in any society, large or small, if people start treating that society's "Beggars" as if they were "Monarchs"?
The answer, of course, is that they might not. Treat those whom our the group culture -- whether our the group in question in a parish, a neighborhood, a nation, or a world -- says are of no account as if they were not only human beings, but our sisters and brothers or even our betters, and this group's "Beggars" will start getting uppity ideas about their status. They'll start acting as if they belonged.
And before we start congratulating ourselves as to how egalitarian our culture is compared to those wacky people of the ancient world, it's worth noting, for example, that a recent study of a quarter of a million U.S. households (hat tip: A Guy in the Pew) suggests not only that we prefer to do the kinds of things people do in my little "Monarchs and Beggars at Banquet" game, but that we're willing to pony up one of the most ready indicators of value in our culture -- that is, money -- to do it. Furthermore, I've observed anecdotally and studies following "white flight" and commuting patterns suggest that we privileged people are also often willing to spend a lot more time commuting -- away from our families and stuck in traffic or on trains -- to live in communities that are more homogenous in income, education, and ethnicity.
Jesus has a word for us that could really mess up that game.
Jesus says that we who are privileged should seek to place others in positions of privilege. He says that we should treat the poor, the sick, and the marginalized as our friends and family as well as our honored dinner guests.
This is no game. It's radical behavior that, if done consistently will instill some radical ideas: outcasts will come to see themselves as God's insiders, and that kind of thinking will inspire movements that give them access to the center of our groups and our society. Things will change -- a great deal -- when we take the next step beyond charity to treat the lowest as the most honored.
Extreme poverty could be a memory by the year 2015 -- not only eliminating a great deal of senseless suffering and death, but giving this world the voices of millions of people and their dreams who in previous generations would have been denied an education if they survived at all.
Neighborhoods segregated not only by access to income and education, but also by access to hope and power, could become a distant memory too. Our children's lives could be enriched by learning and playing alongside friends from all cultures in a society in which every child has a chance. We could spend less time and energy running from problems belonging to "those people" and use it in fellowship in which we see God in the faces of our diverse communities as well as our families.
Big changes in our world brought about by one big change in our behavior we have seen modeled in Jesus' life, ministry, and death on a cross. Jesus, whom our faith holds as the human being most worthy of honor, the King of Kings, treated the most marginalized people he met as if they were monarchs. If he saw a card on their backs, it didn't say that they were beggars who don't belong; it had titles such as "Child of God," "Beloved," "God's Image," only a little lower than the angels, in Shakespeare's phrase.
It's a radical way of life that respectable people thought dishonorable.
It's the way of life that the God who created the universe vindicated by raising Jesus from the dead.
And that tells us that Jesus' way is the Way of Life, the very heartbeat of the universe God made and loves.
Thanks be to God!
August 30, 2007 in Community, Eucharist, Evangelism, Hebrews, Honor/Shame, Justice, Kinship/Family, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Power/Empowerment, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)
Proper 5, Year C
If I were preaching this Sunday, I think I'd do something that's rather unusual for me:
I'd be preaching on the epistle. I'd be preaching about something that springs to my mind every time I read Galatians, and especially the first half of the letter. It's something that is also prominent in my mind these days when my electronic deliveries of Anglican news arrive:
You can't read Galatians with anything approaching care without noticing that there were serious disagreements about serious matters in the earliest churches. Heck, you can't read any of Paul's letters with anything approaching care without noticing that much, but usually people think of most of those other conflicts as ones between Paul, who was clearly right (what with his being a saint and his letters getting in the canon and all), and anonymous nasty heretics, who were clearly wrong, and probably should not be thought of as being Christian at all.
Well, we can't quite do that with Galatians. In Galatians, Paul describes a very bitter fight he's had (and is having, I'd say; I see no indication in the letter that the disagreement has yet been resolved) with none other than Peter. I've occasionally heard people try to say something along the lines of, "well, they weren't fighting about anything important. It was just about dietary laws; of course Paul was right, but Peter came around to Paul's point of view in the end anyway, so it wasn't a huge deal." I personally wouldn't bet my life that Peter did end up agreeing with Paul, since the only indication that might be the case is the book of Acts, and Paul's practices of table fellowship as described in his letters don't follow the guidelines they supposedly agreed on in Acts 15 (e.g., there's no indication at all in Paul's letters that he thought Christians needed to avoid meat with blood in it). And in any case, at the point Paul writes Galatians, he thinks that Peter is completely wrong -- "self-condemned" and acting in "hypocrisy" in a manner such that others were "led astray" -- and on a matter that is, in Paul's view at least, about the very "truth of the gospel" (Galatians 2:11-14).
So who was the nasty heretic who should have been kicked out of the church, or at least out of all positions of leadership: Peter or Paul? Who is it who's not a real Christian: Peter or Paul?
The answer, I think most people would say, is neither. Most Christians I know today would say that Peter was mistaken on this matter. I wonder occasionally whether Peter ever regretted not being a more prolific letter-writer or being more intentional about cultivating a fan base, as Christians don't have any documents from Peter's pen to give his point of view directly. I'd be willing to bet that if we did have Peter's version of the conflict, there'd be some harsh words about Paul's point of view. And all of this makes me wonder:
If Peter and Paul can disagree passionately about something that Paul and perhaps even both of them thought was about the very "truth of the gospel," and if we can celebrate them both as apostles of Christ and heroes of the faith, why does it seem to happen so often in our churches today that any serious disagreement about an important matter of faith becomes an occasion to condemn one party as not only completely wrong, but outside the bounds of Christianity itself? And don't say that the difference is that money and property weren't at stake then; when famine befalls the Christians in Jerusalem, at least some of whom seem to have been on Peter's side of this conflict, Paul spends no small amount of political capital to get churches he founded to take up a collection for their sisters and brothers in Christ in Jerusalem. Who should have been expelled from the first-century communion of churches: Peter or Paul? Whose witness to Christ was superfluous? Whose ministry was not needed? And if these are silly questions to ask about Peter and Paul, what makes them any less silly to ask about any of our sisters or brothers today?
I think Paul was right about something in Galatians that we often gloss over. I think he was right about the dietary laws; he was right that while Jesus himself seems to have kept those laws, it's a logical extension of his practices of table fellowship (e.g., his feeding of the five thousand, as I talk about in more depth here) to say that "the truth of the gospel" Jesus proclaimed with his words, his life, and his death, and which the God of Israel affirmed in raising Jesus from the dead, is that all of us, having been made one Body, not only can but must live out that truth in the breaking of the bread. We are Christ's Body, called to give of ourselves to and for the world as Christ gave himself; as the Body of Christ, we are to be the presence of the Bread of Life in the world. Breaking bread with one another is an excellent warm-up exercise in that vocation, and if we won't do that with one another, our vocation in the world is in serious trouble.
Someone in a Sunday morning adult formation class once said to me that she missed the altar calls of her youth, and thought that Episcopal congregations were remiss in not offering them at least a couple of times a year. My answer was that we have an altar call every single week, and many congregations multiple times per week. We are called to the altar every time we celebrate the Eucharist. We come together, we confess our sins and ask God's forgiveness, we hear the Good News that we're forgiven and we proclaim words of peace to one another, and then we approach the altar and, as sign and symbol of our conversion and the reconciliation that Christ has effected and is effecting with and among us, we receive Christ. We literally take Christ in as we receive the bread and wine. We have an altar call every time we break bread together because we're called to conversion, to reconciliation with God and one another in Christ, and to live more deeply and fully into that conversion in everything we do. We have an altar call at least once a week because we need that kind of conversion, that sign of reconciliation, not once in a lifetime but countless times. I think of it as a good day if I experience conversion several times before noon. I don't think I'm speaking only for myself when I talk about needing that.
So this Sunday, this altar call, let's be intentional about what we're doing. When we speak words of peace to one another, I pray we're particularly mindful of what it is we're saying -- not "peace be with you, as long as we agree on the important stuff," but "peace be with you." Let's be mindful that as we do this, we're enacting among one another what we believe God is doing in the world. Reconciliation of the whole of Creation in Christ is God's mission, God's program, and as we receive the bread this Sunday, let's be mindful of the call to us as Christ's Body, the very "truth of the gospel" we have received from the apostles, to get with the program.
Thanks be to God!
Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
Our Hebrew bible reading for this Sunday just might win some kind of prize for "most tenuous connection to the gospel reading in a Christian lectionary" -- at least, if the intended connection is that bit at the end: "For as a young man married a young woman, / so shall your builder marry you, / and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, / so shall your God rejoice over you." If that's the intended connection, than this Sunday our lectionary implies that John's story of Jesus at the wedding in Cana is somehow about marriage -- much as our current Book of Common Prayer liturgies for marriage imply, and equally unhelpfully. What a ridiculous line of reasoning, to say that because Jesus went to a wedding once, he meant to proclaim marriage as a particularly preferable or blessed state! There's a great deal in scripture to suggest that, as Genesis puts it, "it is not good for the human being to be alone," and that marriage is a vocation for many that is a blessing not just to the couple, but to the world, as their relationship energizes them for ministry. But the focus of this bit of John 2 we're reading this Sunday isn't about commending marriage any more than it is about commending drunkenness (which also happened at that gathering in Cana, and -- unlike the marriage, was actually facilitated by Jesus' actions).
I'd like to think, though, that our lectionary editors had more than a superficial word association around weddings in mind when selecting this portion of Isaiah 62 for this Sunday, and I think a connection is there that can be made with a great deal more integrity.
This Sunday's reading from Isaiah comes from a section ("Third Isaiah") that's difficult to locate precisely in time or circumstance; especially as someone whose speciality is in New Testament, I'm loathe to depend too much on any of its proposed locations when reading the text. But some things about its concerns are clear enough from internal evidence. Third Isaiah speaks to people seeking to honor the God of Israel, but the world of the text is populated also by foreigners. Enemies who threaten are present in cultural memory if not in immediate time and space, but we also see an audacious vision of God, "coming to gather all nations and tongues" (Isaiah 66:18). We see hope.
I'm not talking about the kind of hope we often mean when we use the word; I'm not talking about an idle kind of wishing for something that we dare not invest too much in emotionally, let alone order our lives around. I'm talking about a vision focused on God's intention with such intensity that it reads all human history in the context of God's action. That sounds a little abstract, but I'm talking about something that speaks so powerfully to godly imagination that it's got truly compelling consequences in the tangible world. When I talk about hope this week, I'm talking about the choice -- and in my experience, it's a conscious choice -- to embrace God's vision for the world with conviction that reorders our priorities on every level, making choices that would otherwise seem difficult or nonsensical not merely intelligible, but powerful to the point of being contagious in community. I'm talking about choosing expectation that orders action.
I'm talking about it this week after ruminating a great deal about the connections Isaiah (and not just Third Isaiah) makes between expectation and action. Those of us who spend time in churches over Advent and Christmas hear a fair amount of prophetic expectation. The longing of God's people for redemption is a major theme in many an Advent sermon. But I'm often left thinking that we underplay how God's people were called to respond to that expectation, despite how strong that is as a theme in the prophetic writings we're reading. Isaiah doesn't present hope as something that prompts sighs of powerlessness, but as something that inspires powerful action. When we enter into prophetic hope, our choice to look for God's coming redemption prompts us in the present to live more deeply into what we proclaim as the future God intends and is bringing about among us. In other words, Isaiah's hope for peace is strongly connected to embrace of God's sabbath now. The prophetic vision we share of God gathering all nations and all tongues calls upon God's people in the present to remove vengeance from the realm of human responsibility, to go amongst the nations only to invite and gather. That's hardly what the kings of the world consider sensible foreign policy, but prophetic vision doesn't place trust in or order lives around worldly kings; it calls upon us to stake our very lives on God's rule.
New Testament texts pick up this prophetic vision, often picking up a theme that will pop up a lot in the weeks to come: that NOW, in Jesus' work among us, that rule of God has come upon and is seeping through this world. I think John's story of the wedding at Cana belongs in that tradition. Normally, wedding guests would have not only provided the wine for the celebration, but also would have sent it ahead of time. The family that lacked the resources, in terms of extended family and friends at least as much as any other kind, to provide for the feasting would be left to their shame. But Mary has a thought that's crazy by conventional reckoning: what if the authority Jesus is already starting to exercise in calling followers is a sign that the feasting we anticipated at the redemption of God's people -- the redemption Isaiah metaphorically compares to the joy and freely shared plenty of a wedding feast -- is something that starts NOW?
And so Mary has a word with her son. It's a risk; this is not a private setting by any stretch, Jesus could be left in a compromised position, and as Jesus' mother, Mary's own standing is tied to her son's. She speaks up, and we get our first "sign" in the Gospel According to John. It's not just a sign of Jesus' identity; it's a sign of the times, a sign that God's redemption is happening here and now in Jesus' work.
It's a prophetic sign that, like Isaiah's prophetic vision, calls for action. It calls followers of Jesus in Corinth divided along lines that few could cross -- of ethnicity, wealth, social status, and gender, for starters -- to break bread together and work to support and empower one another as members of one body, united in one Holy Spirit to engage in one mission, God's mission. The challenge of living together in this way is no small task, with challenges not only from within, of uniting such different people, but from without, as such free association across traditional divisions inspired Christians' neighbors and sometimes even family members to see these gatherings as subversive of social order, or even of God's intent. That kind of living brought persecution as well as deep joy.
But if, as prophets like Isaiah proclaimed, the future God intends will gather people of all nations, and if, as Christian prophets were saying, Jesus' eating and drinking as well as his teaching and healing, his death and his resurrection, were signs of God's future breaking into our present, then what other way of life could make sense? And if we know and are seeking to follow Jesus, if we have tasted the wine that God's anointed brings to the feast and have seen his glory, how else would we live? We pray, and we seek to live into what we pray: that we and all God's people may be so illumined, so set afire to live as God's people in our sharing of God's word and sacraments, that our life together may be a proclamation of the Word and a sacrament of God's redemption to the very ends of the earth. Let our lifting of Jesus' cup in our worship remind us that our whole lives are to celebrate our Lord's work in the present until the day of its full realization.
Thanks be to God!
Maundy Thursday, Year B
I had a chance to explore the issues that I think are core to our Maundy Thursday texts recently and experientially at the Provnce V young adults' retreat in Indiana, which took as its theme Micah 6:8's key instruction that what God requires of us is to do justice, to love mercy, and top walk humbly with God.
We spent a lot of our time wrestling with just what that last instruction to "walk humbly" means. We went at it from many different angles. We thought about people we'd met or knew of who we understood to be exemplars of Christian humility (Desmond Tutu was by far the name most frequently mentioned), and tried to figure out just what it was about this person that drew us as we encountered them not toward them as individual personalities but toward God, and towards God's call to the best in us. We struggled together with what the difference might be between the kind of instruction to "be humble" we might have heard as women, or as gay people, or as young people, or as people of color, or in any number of other ways, that simply boiled down to "I'm in power, and I don't want you to upset that; sit down and shut up." And we also played a game.
It's a game I've blogged about before. We print up labels ahead of time that can be stuck on each person's back. Each label says "monarch," "nobility," "guest" (someone suggested "merchant" might be clearer), or "beggar." Before the game starts, each person gets one of these labels on their back. The object of the game is to interact with everyone else you meet in a way that helps them guess what the label is on their back, so what you do is, once the game starts -- and the scene for the game is a social hour at the start of a grand banquet -- treat every person you meet as you think someone with the label you THINK is on your back would treat someone with the label you actually see on the other person's back.
It doesn't usually take more than a few minutes for pretty much everyone in the room the be able to guess accurately what label is on his or her back, though the more I do this game, the more I get out of observing how people behave toward one another when the object of the game is to help the other person figure out just where in a hierarchy s/he fits. I always ask people afterward to talk about how the game felt to play -- how it felt treating people whose labels said "beggar" like trash, how it felt having to bow and scrape before someone whose label said "monarch," what we all noticed about what people could freely associate with whom and under what circumstances.
This last time I played the game was particularly interesting in some ways for me because it was the first time I'd played it with a group of people I didn't know well, and who didn't know me. I was the guest speaker -- an honored guest in a group of people who were truly gifted at helping someone feel honored -- and my label said "beggar." Everyone was trying to play the game well, and so most people there were obliged to treat me pretty badly in the context of the game -- and yet for so many of them, it clearly wasn't a comfortable relationship to act out. One "monarch" charged past me nearly knocking me over as his role demanded, but apologized to me as soon as the game was over. Others couldn't even play out the domination of lordship for the five minutes or so that the game demanded, and started exploring right away how a Christian member of the "nobility" might be able to break some of the unspoken rules that would help me guess I was a "beggar."
It's a good game to try sometime, and I particularly love to try it -- and to talk about what playing it was like -- in intergenerational groups. Children love to meet their parents when their parents are "beggars" and they are "monarchs," and I think in some ways it does both sets of people good to try out the roles.
My mind always goes back to that game on Maundy Thursday, when we do this strange game of washing one another's feet. On Maundy Thursday, it's the person with the most high and institutionally stable status -- the bishop or the rector -- who starts the game, kneeling at the feet of someone (often someone who's visibly uncomfortable with the relationship being acted out) to play the slave (let's skip the nicer word here -- we're talking about a power relationship, with all its discomforting aspects) and wash her or his feet.
And then we wash one another's feet. My favorite moments in this sacred and solemn game are the ones that upend our usually hierarchies, but it often -- when I can manage to be fully present, to play my role and to understand everyone else's role fully -- is a moving experience throughout.
It's an experience designed to invite us to try on a role of Christian humility.
"Humility" is a hard word for many of us -- me included -- to appreciate. Too often, it sounds like "humiliation" -- a word for which my working definition is "what it feels like when someone higher in the hierarchy makes someone lower realize just how low they're supposed to be." But it doesn't have to be this way. Imagine what it would look like if it was more like this:
Your job in the game is to treat other people in a way that will help them realize what the label on their back is -- what their true identity is. And what would our lives look like if our whole lives were that game ... and if we treated every interaction with another person as an opportunity to let them know what their real label, their true identity, was:
God's child. Beloved sister or brother. Gifted member of the Body whose gifts I -- we -- need to do what we were born to do, what will make us whole.
Doing that doesn't mean treating ourselves as if we were crap. God doesn't make crap, and Jesus didn't understand himself to be crap. Heck, the Gospel According to John, the one that features the footwashing, has Jesus being just about as clear about his own identity as any person ever was.
Jesus washed his disciples' feet not because he thought he was crap, but because he wanted each one of them to know just how precious, how deeply beloved and highly valued s/he was, that the Son of God, the Word of God through whom all the world was made, would without hesitation and with complete and unfeigned adoration wash her or his feet.
Jesus didn't do that only by footwashing. Every time Jesus broke bread -- and I think it's safe to assume that Jesus, being human as all of us are, broke bread at least twice on every day of his life -- he did it with other people in such a way as to help them realize not only who he was -- which is, to be sure, a profoundly important thing to understand -- but who they were:
Beloved child of God. Sister or brother to God's Son, the Anointed. Of more value than countless banquets or footwashings could demonstrate ... so it's a very, very good thing indeed that we've got an eternity at the messianic banquet to demonstrate that to one another.
But anything of eternal importance is far, far too important to put off to eternity: Jesus invites us to start tonight, start to play with and live more deeply into the threefold truth of who Jesus is, who we are, and who the person before us, behind us, beside us, whether in the pew or in the grocery store or on the interstate in our morning commute is.
The Gospel According to John teaches us with Jesus' washing his followers' feet on his last night before death. The Gospel According to Luke makes the same point by showing Jesus instructing his followers in what it meant every time they saw him break bread: You're invited. You're valued. The King of the Universe sees you as having dignity worth serving even beyond his own.
Come to the table. Come to the basin. And Jesus will know when you've got the game, when you know who you are in relationship to who he is and who others are, when you share his love for others, and serve and empower them as he did -- and does.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 13, Year A
Have you ever wondered why it is that, when we gather as the church to remember Jesus, we do it with a meal? If you think about it, it could have been anything. We could have built statues to remember Jesus, or held a dance. We could have made it a poetry reading, a teach-in, a weekly golf tournament -- but we didn't. When we gather as the church, our central act together in remembrance of Jesus is to have a meal -- the Eucharistic meal.
I know, it doesn't seem like much. I have a friend who likes to say that when he receives one of those communion wafers, he finds it easier to believe that it's really Jesus' body than he finds it trying to believe it's really bread. But this is supposed to be a meal -- a feast, even. An abundant and lavish one, held in remembrance of someone -- Jesus of Nazareth -- who had a reputation for being, as the Irish scholar John Dominic Crossan puts it, "a party animal." We have a feast to remember Jesus, complete with breaking out the wine (which really ought to be our best stuff) before noon on a Sunday, because Jesus was remembered as "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (Matthew 11:19 -- and by the way, I've already lodged with my next of kin that if I have an epitaph of any kind, it's going to be that verse) -- in other words, a party animal.
This is not the Jesus a lot of us grew up with, whose hair may have been a little long for our parents' taste, but whose name came up mostly when our parents wanted us to behave, hang out with the right kind of people, behave like the good citizens they may have (rather naively) thought we were. So how could I justify saying that Jesus was well-known as a party animal?
For starters, there's Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:34, the source of that quote I gave earlier calling Jesus "a glutton and a drunkard" in the company of the wrong sort of person. And then there's this Sunday's gospel as a case in point.
I know that this isn't what people usually talk about when they talk about the feeding of the five thousand. When people talk about this story, they usually talk about the miracle, by which they mean the multiplication of the loaves. Admittedly, that part of the story is pretty impressive. Not only did God's power produce enough food to feed five thousand people -- not counting the women and children, as Matthew emphatically points out (Matthew 14:21) -- but there were twelve baskets of leftovers. Twelve baskets, like twelve tribes of Israel -- in effect, this story tells us that there was such plenty represented in this feast that there were enough leftovers to fill doggie bags for all of God's people. Truly impressive stuff!
But I'm not going to say much more about that miracle of the multiplying loaves because there are a couple of miracles in this story that I think are even more impressive, even more miraculous demonstrations of God's power acting in Jesus' ministry.
To set the scene for those, it's important to know that in Jesus' culture, people really took seriously the old maxim that "you are what you eat," and not from a nutritional viewpoint. I'm talking about purity, about keeping kosher. You are what you eat; if you want to be seen as a kosher kind of guy, the right kind of person, you've got to eat the right kind of food. This might initially sound like a fairly simple matter: if it's pork for dinner, you just keep passing the plate. But if you've ever had a serious food allergy -- or if you've ever had a guest who did -- you know just how complicated things can get. Who knew that peanut oil was in some brands of ice cream?
If it's really important to you, there are only two ways to be sure that what you're getting is kosher. One is to be in the kitchen, not only hovering over everything on the ingredient list, but making sure beforehand that no surface has been contaminated. The other is dicier: if you know your host family very, very well, and if you know for SURE that they know how to keep their kitchen and what you can and can't eat, you just might be able to trust them to prepare a meal you can safely eat.
So there it is: keep a close eye on every ingredient and how it's prepared, or at the very least make absolutely sure that you don't eat with anyone who really knows how to prepare it all AND who really understands how important it is to do it right, and you just might be able to share a meal.
And then think of this with respect to the story in this Sunday's gospel:
NOBODY KNEW WHERE THE FOOD CAME FROM.
Imagine those five thousand people at Jesus' spontaneous dinner party whispering: does anyone know who baked the bread? What kind of fish was this? Was it cleaned? This was some kid's lunch??! Does anyone know who his mother is? That would say something about whether the food is OK ...
But that didn't happen. Five thousand people took one guy's word for it -- not a family member, not their best friend, not even someone they knew well, and sat down to eat food when -- I mean this literally -- God only knows where it came from. That's what makes me say that this Jesus wasn't just some guy, and breaking bread with Jesus isn't just a midmorning snack. Jesus is someone who changes lives when we encounter them. Five thousand people -- not counting the women and children -- found their lives so transformed in encountering Jesus that all of their fears of dangers to be avoided gave way to enthusiasm for sharing the feast before them.
Think about the kind of trust Jesus must have engendered in people to get that kind of response. That's real, life-changing spiritual power in Jesus' presence, a miracle at least as impressive as the multiplying loaves.
But that isn't the end of it. There's one more miracle in this story, and I think it's the most impressive one of all. The first miracle was the one we usually talk about -- the mutiplication of the loaves. The second one was the kind of miraculous trust Jesus inspired in those who came to him, the trust that made everyone there willing to forget about years of "you are what you eat" conditioning to accept bread from Jesus without knowing or asking about where it came from and whether it was safe or kosher.
The third miracle is in some ways an extension of the second one, from a rule extended from the rule that the second miracle made moot. In Jesus' culture, it wasn't just "you are what you eat"; it was also "you are who you eat with." Some of that was just a logical extension of purity observance. Imagine the scene of that spontaneous dinner party in this Sunday's gospel, and imagine that you'd just experienced that second miracle of being able to trust Jesus to provide you with food that's good. But Jesus isn't the peanut vendor at the ballpark; he didn't hurl individual portions with miraculous accuracy directly to you. Strangers brought the bread to Jesus, who blessed and broke them ... and handed them to the disciples, who handed them to others in the crowd, who handed them to others, and so on across countless pairs of hands before it got to you. Take that bread, and you're taking into yourself not just whatever was in the field where the wheat was grown and in the kitchen when it was baked, but also what was on the hands of every other person in that crowd.
That's reason enough to be skittish about who you eat with, but that's not all. There's also the business of honor, crucial in Jesus' culture. People's perception of how honorable you and your family were determined whether were willing to do business with you, to consider allowing their daughter to marry your son, to acknowledge you as a person worth acknowledging. And "you are who you eat with" was the operative rule that said that your character would be assumed to be the same as that of those you ate with. Eat impure food, and you're impure. Eat with a rebellious son or a tax collector and you're not going to be seen as being any more honorable than they are.
But along that hillside, over five thousand people were willing to receive not only Jesus and the bread that he blessed, but also the strangers with whom they shared it. Every one of them became, on that dusty hillside, one with every other. This was a completely spontaneous dinner, so there was no checking the guest list or asking for credentials. Distinctions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, priest and tax collector -- indeed, all the distinctions around which wars were fought between nations, families, and brothers -- just didn't count any more.
And I'm not just saying that in the kind of naive way that lets a college-educated white person wear a t-shirt that says "Love Sees No Color" because the privilege accorded to her because of the color of her skin means she doesn't have to pay attention to race. I'm talking about that radical force that turns mountains and valleys to plains, bringing down the mighty and raising the lowly. I'm talking about real change, a world in which a child from any neighborhood in Baltimore has the same chance at education, self-esteem, and all of the privileges we so often take for granted as a child from the suburbs. I'm talking about a world in which a child from any village in the Sudan has access to the running water and lights to read by at night that children from across Baltimore take for granted.
That's what I'm talking about when I talk about a world in which we experience that third miracle from Jesus' lakeside feast. We have been called to Jesus' table to meet and trust Jesus, to accept all of the gifts offered and blessed by Jesus, and then to take in all that Jesus offers us -- the bread that not only heals and nourishes us as individuals, but binds us indissolubly with everyone whom Jesus calls to the feast. We're called to trust that God's power has blessed us with not only the gifts we need to build up this community, but with the power to see that ALL of God's children are fed.
That's what we're doing when we come to this table, and it gives us the strength and courage that we need to be bread for the world, the Body of Christ given for the world. One sermon can't lay out how each one of us is called to live into that mystery, that miracle. It may be in working for racial reconciliation and real empowerment for the poor in Baltimore, banding together with Christians across the city to use the power that privilege gives us to end some of the injustice of white privilege. Perhaps we're called to learn more about what we could do to further Millennium Development Goals, calling on our government to deliver on promises to provide what's needed -- less than ONE percent of our nation's budget -- to end extreme poverty in this generation -- or to Make Trade Fair for farmers in developing countries who aren't allowed to compete on even ground.
Of course, that would take a miracle. But we break bread in remembrance of Jesus, who with God's power, with every time he broke bread, and with his life and ministry brought people together in miraculous ways. Five thousand people, not counting the women and children, experienced that miraculous power in the breaking of the bread. In our breaking of the bread at Jesus' table, we are made one with and called out not only for the hungry thousands counted, but for the ones not counted by those in power. This feast is for every woman and child and man, and it's happening NOW.
Thanks be to God!
Third Sunday of Easter, Year A
Sorry this is so late, by the way -- it's been a crazy week!
By the way, this week's entry gives a good idea of the theology behind Connect, a formation program that John de Beer and I designed as part of a three-part arc of programs called Klesis: Called to Full Humanity (Klesis is the Greek for “calling,” both in the New Testament sense of “vocation,” and also more generally in the sense of “invitation,” especially invitation to a feast). Connect has been running at the parish where I work for two years, and is ready to be tested at other congregations; we're working on the logistics for that now!
O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the
breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him
in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity
of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Have you ever stopped to wonder why it is that the central act we perform to remember Jesus, namely the Eucharist, is a meal? In theory, it could have been anything -- a special dance, erecting statues, you name it. Heck, it could have been a golf tournament (which no doubt would boost church attendance in some circles!). But it isn't. It's a meal.
This Sunday's gospel and epistle are a partial answer to that. Jesus was made known to the disciples in the breaking of bread, and central to the worship and community life of Jesus' earliest followers was gathering for “the breaking of the bread and the prayers” in the Temple courts. But this phenomenon of Jesus being made known in the breaking of bread goes back further than Acts, further than Jesus' resurrection appearances: it was the fullest way prior to the Cross in which Jesus showed what he's about and what should characterize the lives of his followers. Indeed, it would have been a lot more difficult for us to see how Jesus' death could be a means in which he was “lifted up,” drawing all people to him, if Jesus' life -- and particularly, his practice of table fellowship -- hadn't been remembered or recorded.
But it was, and now every time we break bread, we are invited to do so in remembrance of Jesus. So did Jesus' table fellowship signify that we remember when we gather?
At Jesus' table, all are invited to join the feast. Jesus ate with prostitutes and Pharisees, treating them with equal dignity, and we are called to do the same. Personally, the only reason I want a memorial marker (after I day -- a long, long time from now, God willing!) is so that I can have Luke 7:34 as an epitaph -- “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend to tax collectors and sinners.” Jesus had that reputation because he was known for being completely indiscriminate about with whom he ate -- even to the point of sitting down with over five thousand people spontaneously for a meal -- and I hope that my own practice of table fellowship gives me the same kind of reputation.
At Jesus' table, there is a balance between abundance and need. Those who have means share what they have, so that all are invited and no one goes hungry. A central image in both Luke's gospel and Paul's theology is that of the Exodus, and when we gather to break bread, we are invited to take God's feeding of the people of Israel in the wilderness as a model. Paul explicitly cites Exodus 16:18's note that “... when they measured [the amount of manna gathered] with an omer, those who gathered had nothing left over, and those who gathered little had no shortage” in 2 Corinthians 8 as a model for what it means to be a community gathered around Jesus' table. When we share the Eucharist with one another, we remember Jesus' table fellowship in stories like that of the Feeding of the Five Thousand; we give thanks to God for providing good things in such abundance that all might be fed, and we remember our baptismal call to strive for God's justice and love our neighbors around the world as ourselves, seeing that all are fed. In the breaking of the bread, Jesus makes known to us that this is not just a possibility, but a mandate for God's people.
And at Jesus' table, the walls between people come down. When Jesus sat down with five thousand strangers for a meal, slave and free, Jew and Greek, male and female sat down together, in one place, to eat -- something unheard of in the ancient world. Indeed, how common is it for us to have people from many different socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities gathered around the altar in our congregations? I tremble when I read 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, knowing how common it is in the church to gather at separate tables as rich and poor, and for the poor to lie awake hungry at night. I think (and props to S. Scott Bartchy for introducing me to the idea) that when Paul talked about those who partake of the Lord's Meal without “discerning the body” (1 Corinthians 11:29), he was using “body” in the way he usually did, meaning the Body of Christ. When we eat and drink without discerning and serving the Body of Christ, Christ's presence in all of our sisters and brothers around the world, it isn't the Lord's Meal that we eat, and we eat and drink judgment upon ourselves.
Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the bread. Around the Eucharistic table and our dinner tables at home, teach us to discern and serve the full Body of Christ. Let every time we break bread be a remembrance and a proclamation of the Lord Jesus, who welcomed all to his table and served them with equal dignity, who saw at his table that all had enough and none had too much, and who at his table saw sinners and saints, rich and poor of any ethnicity become sisters and brothers, called to love and serve one another as such.
Amen, and thanks be to God!
Maundy Thursday, Year AThe Simpsons, Season 2 called "One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish." In it, Homer Simpson, the bumbling father of the family, is told that the blowfish he has eaten was not properly prepared, and so is poisonous -- he has 24 hours to live.
What would you do if that happened to you?
I think Homer does what most of us would do. He makes a long list -- a list that's probably been growing in the back of his mind for a long time -- of things he'd wanted to do before he died, and he hadn't done. He has to cross off the major achievements -- climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, make millions, win an Oscar, that sort of thing -- immediately. There's no time to do those.
But there are a lot of important things he hasn't done yet that he could do, or at least start. He teaches his son to shave. He tells those he loves how he feels about them. He calls his long-neglected father in the nursing home and tries to renew their relationship. And the guy who would rather stay home making his famous ultra-sweet "moon-waffles" wrapped around sticks of butter than go to church gets a recording of Larry King reading the entire bible, and he listens to the whole thing after his family has gone to sleep. He finally gets to some of the most crucial items on his very long list of "things ... left undone," and in the process, lives out what might be the best day of his life.
What would you do, if you thought you were going to die tomorrow? Jesus faces that question on the night we now call Maundy Thursday.
I do believe that Jesus performed miracles, but he could have known without a hint of the miraculous what was coming. It was Passovertide, when all pious Jews were commanded to offer sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. There were about six million Jews spread across the Roman Empire, and a significant percentage of them headed for Jerusalem. The city was clogged with pilgrims (ever seen footage of what Mecca looks like during the Haj? Jerusalem probably looked something like that during Passover) there to celebrate the liberation of God's people from unjust foreign rule.
That's a situation that would make any governor in the empire jumpy. Pilate stood to lose his job if there was trouble, and he was not a man to take chances. During Passover, Pilate lined the pilgrims' way into the city with crosses, the victims on them serving as an endless and unspeakably horrific living tableau of what would happen to any who dared disrupt the peace of the empire.
Even then, Pilate made sure that his guards could keep careful watch over the Temple, where streetcorner prophets proclaimed a God who was more powerful even than the armies of Rome. Guards stationed in the taller building next to the Temple could see directly into its courts and be ready to respond if there was a disturbance.
Days before, Jesus had entered the city surrounded by crowds who loudly proclaimed him, and not Caesar, as king. And then he made his way to the Temple, where -- in the midst of vast and easily agitated crowds -- he was shouting, overturning tables, pushing people.
And so he knew what was coming. Jesus and his friends had walked by those crosses on their way to Jerusalem, the city toward which Jesus, transfigured and in the company of Moses, set his face to accomplish a new exodus. I do believe that Jesus worked miracles by God's power, but no supernatural knowledge would have been needed to see that Jesus was headed for a cross. Jesus knew that this night was probably the last before his death.
What would you do, if it were you?
Here's what Jesus did:
He put on a dinner.
He did what he did every night: he invited people to eat with him. He invited his friends; he also invited the man whom he knew would betray him. He gathered friends and enemies, righteous and wicked and places in between, and he broke bread with them, and offered them wine. He ate with them, as he had countless times before. He celebrated the Passover with them, as he did every year.
That's a life lived with absolute integrity. Jesus knows that in all likelihood, he's going to die tomorrow. This is the time for any unfinished business -- to say anything that needs saying, to do whatever has been left undone, put off.
But Jesus does what he always does, because what he always does, his entire career -- his healings, his parables, his wonder-working -- was doing what he does this night, what he does every time he sits down to a meal. When people want to talk about Jesus' power, they often talk about the spectacular, the stilling of the storm, the raising of the dead. But Jesus' power is demonstrated at least as clearly in what happens when he breaks bread.
When Jesus broke bread, everyone -- the Pharisee and the leper, the rich and the poor, righteous and sinners -- experienced God's welcome at his table. When Jesus broke bread, the hungry were fed. When Jesus broke bread, serving any who came to him, people experienced what REAL power, God's power, does:
The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
-- Luke 22:25-27
Jesus, having lived with integrity to his last meal, does what he always does: he issues an invitation in the breaking of the bread. On this night, as Jesus invites us to his table, he invites us to live with that kind of integrity, to remember him EVERY time we break bread -- at the altar, certainly, but also in the lunchroom and the dorm cafeteria, the family dinner table or the counter at the diner. Whenever we break bread, or draw breath, we are invited to do so in remembrance of Jesus, until he comes to complete the redemption of the world for which God anointed him.
And there is another invitation, in this breaking of bread. For on this night, on the night he was betrayed, on the night before he died for us, Jesus broke bread, and said to those gathered, "This is my Body." Not just the bread, but the company who gather to share it: this is Jesus' Body, given for the world. And whenever we gather with others made in God's image, other for whom Christ gave himself, Jesus invites us to do so in remembrance of him, aware of and honoring his presence.
It's a solemn charge Jesus gives us tonight. Paul cites Jesus' words on this night to back up his contention that those who fail to "discern the Body" gathered for the Lord's meal, those who fail to recognize everyone Jesus invites to his table as being members of the Body of Christ, are "eating and drinking judgment upon themselves" (1 Cor. 11:29).
But what an opportunity, to encounter and receive Christ in the homeless veteran in the Winter Shelter where we volunteer, in a client with whom we're having a business lunch, in a daughter as we share a snack before bedtime. What an opportunity, to live every moment as an invitation to feast with Jesus, who held every meal as if it were the Messianic banquet.
That's the invitation we receive tonight, to approach this table as if it were the Last Supper, to break bread in the presence of the one who celebrated his last supper as he did every meal, to be the Body of the one whose body was broken for us.
Thanks be to God!
Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C
John 13:31-35 - link to NRSV text
If I were preaching this Sunday, I think I might be tempted to make this one of the shortest and most repetitive sermons ever by simply stepping up to the pulpit and reciting John 13:34 three times. If I wanted to make it a little longer, perhaps I'd make it John 13:34-35:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
I'm not preaching this Sunday at St. Martin's, though; the graduating seniors from the high school youth group have that duty, and I don't doubt theirs will be a sermon that, in the words of the current youth group president, "rox my sox." I hope that as they move on to where God calls them next, they deliver a charge to the congregation like the one that Jesus gives his friends in the gospel passage they'll be preaching on. I hope they deliver it in terms as strong as Jesus'.
I think we need a strong reminder. Too often, we churchy people live as though Jesus had said something more to the effect that the world will know whose disciples we are by the bumper stickers we buy, or by our prosperity, or by the indignation with which we condemn others, or by how much we avoid controversy and increase pledging units, or worst of all, by our respectability.
Our gospel for this Sunday says none of those things. it says that the world will know whose disciples we are by our love for one another -- for each member of Christ's Body.
I have 1 Corinthians 11 and sacramental theology on my brain at the moment, and here's what I'm thinking:
Like it or not, for better or for worse, the quality of our life together declares loudly and, in some cases, more clearly than we'd like whose meal it is we celebrate when we celebrate the Eucharist. What does your congregation celebrate when you gather?
Last Sunday, I listened to someone at St. Martin's say that she was saddened our liturgy didn't allow for an altar call. But we have an altar call every Sunday, and every other day we celebrate the Eucharist. The invitation to the altar is an invitation to Jesus' table, an invitation to remember with our own breaking of bread what Jesus did with his invitation to feast.
In what ways are our celebrations of the Eucharist a celebration of what Jesus did in his meals, in feasts like the feeding of the five thousand? To what extent do we break bread with whoever is gathered, and bless whatever gifts are offered?
To what extent are we more concerned with screening, with determining whether the guests are the right sort of people and the gifts the right sort of food?
To what extent do our celebrations of the Eucharist proclaim the Good News that St. Paul proclaimed, that there are no barriers of gender, or social class, or ethnicity in Christ Jesus? And to what extent do our celebrations of the Eucharist proclaim that "there must be factions among you," and to what extent do we make use of Jesus' table to affirm what our culture blesses and despise those who, in official or worldly terms at least, have nothing?
Every invitation to Eucharist, to the meal Jesus instituted in remembrance of him of and his ministry, is an altar call, an invitation to conversion. And it's more than an invitation to conversion; it's an invitation to inversion. It's an invitation to give honor to the lowly, riches to the poor, honor to those our world thinks of as shameless. If we don't do that with our Eucharistic altar calls, it's not Jesus' meal we eat, regardless of the vestments we wear, the words we say, or the building we gather in.
I feel called to say that it's time that those of us who assemble to break bread in Jesus' name take that seriously enough that the whole world notices us for that, instead of for whom we despise and how much we affirm what any respectable American thinks is respectable.
But whether we take it seriously or not, whether we are worthy of his name or not, Jesus is present when we gather in his name.
Thanks be to God!
One of my favorite episodes ("One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish") of The Simpsons shows Homer Simpson, the father of the family, eating sushi made with a rare blowfish that, if not prepared properly, is deadly within 24 hours to those who ingest it. After he's eaten the fish, Homer is told that it wasn't prepared as it should have been, and therefore he is a goner within a day. So Homer answers for himself a question I have occasionally asked myself hypothetically: if this were your last day on earth, how would you want to spend it?
I think that asking myself that question is a good gauge of to what extent I'm living into my vocation and my truest self. When I'm most in touch with who I am in Christ, and when my life is expressing that most fully, my answer to the question is that I would, for the most part, do the kinds of things I do anyway: eat a good dinner with my family, let those I love know how deeply I know and love them and how much I want good things for them, engage in meaningful work, enjoy something chocolate and a really good wine.
On Maundy Thursday, we remember the night before Jesus died, and how he chose to spend it. As someone who lived fully, he chose to spend what he knew might be his last night the way he spent his life throughout his public ministry.
In Luke, it is in breaking bread, not only with his friends, but with the one other person in the room who might have anticipated that this night would be Jesus' last: with Judas, the friend whose betrayal Jesus anticipates. Luke has gone out of his way throughout the gospel to show Jesus breaking bread with any who would eat with him, accepting invitations from Zaccheas and the Pharisees who looked down on him, and in throughout Luke's passion narrative, Jesus continues to do what he has done since he returned to Nazareth from his sojourn and temptation in the desert. He heals the ear of the high priest's slave in the garden. He prophesies against the powers that oppress, and speaks of a true and radically different kind of power that lifts the lowly over the mighty. He mourns for the women of Jerusalem. To his last breath, he speaks forgiveness. Throughout, Jesus demonstrates what he teaches his followers at his last meal with them: that in God's kingdom, the greater one is the one who serves.
Was it Bultmann who said that in the Gospel of John, Jesus is the Revealer, and what he reveals is that he is the Revealer? That sells the gospel far short. Jesus' self-revelation in John isn't solely about his status as the Word, the logos, become flesh and living among us; it is that the logos through whom all things were made, the only Son of the Father, shows his glory not by his might but by his service, lifted up not to a throne but on a cross. So on Jesus' last night, he does what he has done all along: he teaches and encourages, and specifically he teaches his followers to do as he does, to love and serve one another as they have been loved and served by him.
I don't know what written sources, if any, Paul had access to as he sought to understand the ministry and character of the one who called him as apostle, but his words in 1 Corinthians 11 show his profound understanding of the heart of Jesus' ministry, and how profound a perversion it is to make use of Jesus' name to humiliate the poor, whom Jesus called "honored" in the Beatitudes. Some of the harshest language we have preserved from Paul shows up in this passage -- and in light of how strong some other passages in Paul's letters are, that's really saying something. Those who eat without "discerning the body," Paul says, eat and drink judgment upon themselves. Actually, I think that phrase has a missing capital, and would be clearer if it said, "discerning the Body." As S. Scott Bartchy has convincingly argued (no references handy, but a good place to start for his views is his article on "table fellowship" in InterVarsity Press' Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, "the body" is one of Paul's two favorite metaphors for what we are in Christ ("brothers and sisters" being the other), and a strong case can be made that when Paul speaks of "discerning the Body" in 1 Corinthians 11, he is talking about discerning the Body of Christ -- i.e., treating all members of Christ's Body with the honor and care Christ shows them.
Jesus lived that message in all he did, in how he lived as much as in how he died. As one who lived his vocation fully, his last night wasn't spent in trying to change course; he spent it helping his followers understand better how best to remember him. And we act in remembrance of Jesus not only when we break bread around the Eucharistic table, but also as we live into the grace of which Eucharist is a sign: our call to love and serve and forgive and Jesus loves and serves and forgives, and Jesus' continuing presence with us to heal and strengthen and encourage us as we strive to do so.