On the Journey: Discerning the Body of Christ: Communion and Community in a Polarized Culture

In his letter to the Corinthian Church, Paul has quite a bit to say about Communion.  Unfortunately he says, “… it sounds as if more harm than good is done when you meet together” (I Corinthians 11:17b).  Ouch.

What had been happening is that instead of eating together and sharing the same meal (the early church celebrated the Lord’s Supper as a true meal), people brought their own food and wine.  The wealthy members of the church gorged themselves while others went hungry.

That’s just how things go: those that have, enjoy.  Those that don’t, don’t.  All they were doing was bringing the way things are in the world into the church.  But that’s precisely why Paul is upset, warning them, “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgment against themselves” (I Corinthians 11:29).  The body Paul is referring to is Jesus ‑ not the bread and the cup, but the body of Jesus which is the church (I Corinthians 12). 

In other words, to be a Christian that lives and acts in such a way that treats others with contempt is denying the reality that Christ saves us into a new community that tears down the dividing walls our world and culture build up.  Economic walls.  Racial and cultural walls.  Gender walls.  Walls of status.   The Corinthian Christians were simply echoing their culture.  But the patterns of the world are not to be the patterns of the life of the church.  Instead, we are to be a living witness to the character, love and purposes of God in Jesus Christ.

One of the present challenges of the church is how we respond to the deep and often painful divides in our nation around our political views.  Just recently, I read of a woman who had grown up in a particular kind of church being amazed at hearing a pastor say that Democrats can be genuinely Christian.  And I know of others who express wonder at the idea Republicans might actually try to follow Jesus.

The church is sorely tempted, and far too often has given in to the temptation, to simply choose a political side, embrace it, and condemn whoever else happens to be on the other end.  We can do this because whatever “side” we most identify with, we can find plenty of people who see things our way and plenty of ammunition to use against whomever we disagree with.

Yet when the church allows the political divisions in the world to invade and shape the character of the community that is called to embody the presence of Jesus, several incredibly harmful things happen.

First, we diminish and tarnish our witness.  When the church merely reflects the polarization of the culture, it doesn’t matter how loudly we say “Jesus!”  Either the world doesn’t hear – or worse, they believe us, and reject the partisan Jesus who looks just like any other politician.

Second, we allow the church to be defined by the political stances of our time instead of seeking out what it means to faithfully follow Jesus in ways that will lead us to stand both with and against facets of our culture and politics.  Whenever the church sides too closely with any earthly political party or system, we lose our prophetic voice.  We also find ourselves tempted to use worldly methods and power to try to force into being what God brings about through transformation of the heart and mind.

Third, we diminish the community Jesus died to create.  We create an artificial “us” and “them” – often blithely assuming that Jesus is on our side, while cutting ourselves off from others who may disagree with us.  Instead of pursuing the deeper truth together, we reinforce the echo chamber of our own perspectives, safely insulated from dissent.

Instead, what we are called to is the hard work of continually encouraging and strengthening the kind of community Jesus called into being – a community that brought Roman collaborators (tax collectors) and revolutionaries (zealots) into a new identity which directed their focus to seeking and embodying God’s kingdom together.

It’s the reason I try really hard (and sometimes fail!) not to be politically partisan in my words as a pastor.  Living out the Gospel definitely has political implications – but my goal is to help us grow in understanding how the love of God shown in Christ shapes our engagement in the world.  And that’s something that isn’t contained in any political party – or system, for that matter.  It means that our church has to own a different way of being and living in the world.  It means that when I mess up, you all can call me on it.  And it means things like knocking off the use of labels in a derogatory way: “you liberals, you conservatives,” and so on.  And we’ll call this out too if we hear it.  It means taking the time (and sometimes it’s hard!) to listen in order to try to understand where someone else is coming from, so that together we can seek out Jesus’ way revealed by the Spirit through scripture applied today.

That’s a tall order, and a task that will never be completed on this side of things… but we’re not alone on the journey.

Blessings on the road,

Pastor Brian