1st Corinthians 11:2-34
I’ve been preaching my way this fall through Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians – largely because the Corinthian church is the textbook case of various cultural forces pulling the church in one direction after another; indeed, threatening to pull it completely onto the wrong track OR to pull it apart. Which is fairly similar to the case we find ourselves in today. In Chapter 11, Paul turns his attention to the conduct of worship in the Corinthian church, and he finds much to praise, but also much to correct.
Worship is the beating heart of the church. Under the tyranny of the Communist Party, the Soviet Union forbade the Russian Orthodox Church to evangelize, forbade it to conduct mission work, forbade it to teach classes to explain Christianity, forbade it to build new churches or repair old ones. In this way, it only carried to an extreme the policy of another autocratic regime, the Ottoman Empire, which for centuries had refused to allow the Greek Orthodox Church to do anything other than conduct worship.
In both cases, the regimes hostile to Christianity wondered how the Church could hang on – even grow – when they had placed so many obstacles in its way; but then, they had not forbidden the Church to gather and worship. And so, week by week, even under the most severe repression, the believers in Christ met and were strengthened and renewed, so that they were able to stand up under the disabilities and scorn heaped upon them.
Worship matters. We gather to give ourselves to Christ, and he meets with us, as he promised: to give us his Holy Spirit, and empower us to accomplish his will in our lives and in our world. When we encourage people to be regular in their attendance at worship, we do not do so because the church will be weakened if they don’t come. That may be so, but it is much less important a fact than that those who do not come will grow progressively weaker: less able to face the challenges the world throws at them, less able to carry the loads that are laid upon them by life, and more likely to be distracted from their path into folly that claims to be wisdom.
Paul lifts up two problems in the Corinthians’ worship in Chapter 11, but in order to assess his instructions properly, it would probably help to describe what worship looked like in the 1st Century. Paul opens this section by saying,
I commend you, because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you (11:2).Christianity was a new religion, but it had deep roots. There was no Book of Worship, no required form of words or copied order of service, yet worship was conducted in accordance with tradition. The tradition included, of course, the stories of Jesus and the teaching of the apostles, but the apostles didn’t sit down and create a new religion from scratch. They were all Jews, and still considered themselves to be Jews, so they took over the traditions of Judaism and ordered their new common life accordingly.
They were all used to attending the synagogue weekly, on Saturday. Meeting on Sundays with the Church, the first part of the worship service was basically the synagogue service. It consisted of a cycle of prayers and readings, psalms and hymns, and preaching. The first part of the worship service was what we call the Liturgy of the Word.
The Jewish believers had also grown up on the ritual meals of the temple, as when an animal was offered. Old Testament worship was a lot like our traditional Thanksgiving dinner: there was the gathering of friends and family, the ritual offering and giving of thanks, and then the feast. The temple meals were imitated in every Jewish home with the lighting of candles before sundown on the Sabbath and the family Sabbath dinner that evening. Even though the new Christian rite of communion was derived from the Passover, the Haggadah (the Passover seder liturgy) was not followed, but rather the more familiar form of temple offerings and Sabbath dinners. So the second part of the worship service was what we call the Liturgy of the Table.
Now, the reason we don’t do communion every week has more to do with the availability of ordained ministers on the American frontier - and with the rise of revival preaching services in the 19th Century - than with our theology, but lay that aside for a moment.
There was often a third part of the worship service in those early years of the 1st Century: a kind of Liturgy of the Spirit, as people lingered after the conclusion of the meal to share prophecy, and to speak in tongues and hear the interpretation of tongues and engage in other kinds of spontaneous religious expression. This eventually died out in most places. By the middle of the 2nd Century, it was mostly a memory, and “prophecy” usually meant preaching by authorized leaders rather than spontaneous speaking on behalf of God by whoever was so moved. The liturgy of the Spirit keeps coming back, from time to time, and I’ll have more to say about it next week when Paul discusses spiritual gifts, but for now, I just want you to grasp what a typical worship service looked like in a New Testament setting like Corinth.
The first “issue” Paul raises with the Corinthianss concerns women in leadership of the church's worship. Listen to what Paul says:
But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered [that was Jewish practice] dishonors his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head -- it is the same as if her head were shaven [a mark of shame in Judaism] (11:3-16).And so on. This sounds very negative. And, of course, Paul has a reputation as being very hostile to women, generally, telling them to keep silence in the churches – again, something that’s brought up in the next section. But the thing I want you to see is that Paul, in fact, is all for women speaking in church; otherwise, why is he giving instructions for what they should do concerning their head covering when they do it?
Now, most of us don’t get what he’s driving at it. "The head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” Our view of the universe is more likely anarchic rather than hierarchical. We see order in creation as a matter of random actions producing spontaneous patterns, rather than as expressions of a divine nature being re-imaged on level after level. So this seems like an imposition to us, based on a hostility to women engaging in certain activities.
But remember: Paul’s closest co-workers in Corinth had been Prisca and Aquila, a wife-and-husband team (in which the wife is always mentioned first in the New Testament). Paul refers to “Chloe’s people” as his informants about goings-on in Corinth. In his various letters, he mentions many fellow workers, about a third of whom are women, some referred to as deacons. There is even a case to be made that “Junia(s)” (mentioned in Romans), who is associated with the apostles, or may in fact be one, is a woman’s name rather than a man’s. Later on, in Acts 21, we read of Paul staying with Philip the Evangelist, who had four unmarried daughters who prophesied. The New Testament Church is full of spiritually mature, spirit-filled, capable women in leadership, and Paul was completely comfortable in their company.
Let me reiterate. When Paul says, If any one is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God (11:16), he is not just saying that all the churches think head-coverings are important. That might be true, but what he's also saying is that in all the churches of his day, women were in leadership. So why the thing about covering the head when prophesying or praying? Largely a cultural thing, I think, displaying the order-of-creation ideology which meant so much to the 1st Century believers. So Paul didn’t have a problem with women in leadership as such; in fact, it may only be some particular women he had in mind, who were going about things in a way that created some problems, but in order not to name names and embarrass people, he may be making a general statement in order to drive home the idea that leadership comes with some challenges.
“Just being yourself” is not something any of us in leadership can appeal to. All of us, men as well as women, have to take into account how we’re being processed by others. For instance, I wear an alb and stole, not because I really dig the ecclesiastical glad rags, but because I want people to be paying attention to what I'm saying, not trying to figure out what's on my tie. And when I walk into a funeral home wearing a suit (something I don't do every day), people aren't distracted by how I'm dressed; they receive me instantly as a minister of the gospel sent to their need. And, yeah, certain expectations laid upon how leaders act or dress may not be “fair,” but wanting to see things done fairly is not the most important thing; wanting to see things done effectively matters a whole lot more, or should, to those of us who have undertaken leadership roles.
I am glad that in the United Methodist Church, all leadership roles, among both clergy and laity, are open to women equally with men. That doesn’t mean that women and men are interchangeable, or that we are not processed by others apart from our sex, but simply that God can use anyone, man or woman, young or old to do his work and to speak his word.
The other issue Paul raises in this section with what’s going on in the Corinthian church has to do with the celebration of communion.
But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you assemble as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and i partly believe it, for there must be faction among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you meet together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not (11:17-22).Remember, the Lord’s Supper in those days was a full meal. It was also more a bring-your-own affair than a pitch-in. It was less structured, more open to what people made of it; and therefore, more open to disorder, especially for those who hadn’t been raised in the tradition of temple sacrifice and Sabbath dinners and the Passover seder. If you were a Gentile believer who had been raised on pagan religious banquets, your idea of what was proper behavior on such an occasion was probably in need of some fine-tuning.
Paul then talks about the meaning of communion:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes (11:23-26).And, he issues a warning:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world.Unworthiness in this regard is about the outward manners of the people taking part in the meal, not about one’s unworthiness before the Lord, which is quite another matter. All of us are unworthy of the Lord’s regard, not to mention his sacrifice upon the cross, and yet we are forgiven and welcomed to his table. But having been welcomed to his table, we ought to behave like it’s the Lord’s table, which we do by recognizing his body – that is, the Church - and showing heaven’s courtesy to each other.
So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another - if any one is hungry, let him eat at home - lest you come together to be condemned. About the other things I will give directions when I come (11:27-34).
When we so honor him by honoring each other, we line up rightly with him, and the Spirit is poured out in power upon us. Really, there is no separating what we believe or what we hope to accomplish from how we treat other people – especially how we treat each other. For not only is God watching, but so are those we would most like to reach for Jesus Christ and make disciples of.
Years ago, the small town church I was pastoring hired a new pianist, a high school girl from the big General Baptist Church in the county seat town. She played well, and she had a good feel for accompanying a worship service, and we all made much of her. One day, she said, "It really bugs me that I want to take communion with you guys, but I’m busy playing. Is there any way you can serve me after the service is over?"
I said, "Why serve you after? We’ll just serve you first, and then you can play while we serve the rest of the congregation."
She was floored. In her big, fancy church – her home church was the biggest congregation in her denomination – musicians vied for the privilege of playing, and if you got the job, you didn’t ask for any personal considerations, you were there to play for others.
I said, "Kristi, in the small membership church, participation counts for more than performance. We’re glad you’re here. You perform your duties very well, but you matter to us quite as much as what you do for us. Of course I’ll serve you during the distribution, just like I would anybody."
So, this is what I want to leave you with this morning. Anybody can be called upon to exercise leadership - in worship or in some other way – and that leadership may place certain demands on you that you will have to get used to, or grow into. But leaders are not just leaders only; leaders also belong, and need what everybody needs. Meanwhile, how we treat others, how we love each other, how we reverence and encourage everybody, determines how clear a channel there is for the Spirit to flow and fill us with the power of God. And every Sunday you and I get another chance to love and be loved, to fill others and be filled by God.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.