Table Manners

I Corinthians 11:17-34

I Corinthians 11:17-34

Now 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, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, 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. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come.

“Table Manners” 

While on a plane this summer I watched the opening scene of the classic movie “Gone with the Wind.”  Oddly enough, it was this scene that came to mind when I read Paul’s words to the church in Corinth about the Eucharistic meal. 

In the opening scene of the movie, Scarlett O’Hara is dressing to go to the Wilkes’ barbeque.  Mammy, the slave who functions like a mother to Scarlett, is helping her dress.  Mammy is urging Scarlett to eat before she goes to the party.  Mammy reasons that if Scarlett eats beforehand, then she won’t make a pig out of herself at the party.  In Mammy’s view, you can tell a lady “…by the way she eats in front of folks like a bird.”  Threatening Scarlett to eat, Mammy insists: “I won’t have ya go’n over to Mr. Wilkes’ and eat like a field hand and gobble like a hog.”

The advice Mammy gives Scarlett is pretty much the same advice that Paul gives the early church in the passage we read this morning.  Paul is not trying to teach the early Christians how to be ladylike, but how to act in a manner that is congruent with their Christian principles.  He writes: “If you are going to make a pig out of yourselves at the Eucharistic meal, or love feast, or if you can’t wait until everyone else gets there before you begin eating, then for the Christ’s sake, eat a sandwich at home before you go.”  Ironically, though Mammy and the Apostle Paul give similar advice to eat ahead of time for different reasons, they both share a context that is familiar: a context where the “stories of wealth and bondage” are intertwined.[1]  It is against the backdrop of slavery that Paul makes a case for radical Christian table manners that offer freedom for everyone.

In one of the earliest literary accounts of communion in the early church, Paul asks the Corinthians to come to the table in a worthy manner.  Most of the sermons on this text focus on personal piety and righteousness, insisting that you must be spiritually squeaky clean before you come to the table.

But Paul was addressing very specific social inequities.  The situation was like this: the earliest followers of Jesus continued to worship on the Jewish Sabbath in their own synagogues.  Then they would gather on Sunday, the first day of the week, to remember Christ’s resurrection and share a common meal.  This became known as the “love feast,” or in Baptist terms, the potluck supper.

The love feast was a time of remembering stories about Jesus; of hearing about the many meals the “Epicurean” Jesus shared with his disciples and his followers.  They told stories about the loaves and the fishes, about the times Jesus ate with the outcast, with sinners and tax collectors, about that last meal Jesus shared with them.  And toward the end of the meal the early followers of Jesus would worship together.

But in the Corinthian community a problem had developed with the feast.  Many Christians would come to the feast early, bringing their dishes of food with them.  As others joined in, they began to eat and drink.  But there was a certain group of people who could not arrive early.  They were the slaves.  The followers of Jesus who happened to be slaves were busy until late in the evening with their household duties. What was worse, they were not allowed to bring food from their Master’s house, because it would be considered stealing, and the penalty was severe.  So they arrived late to the gathering, tired and hungry, but all the food was gone because the rest of the community had been “eating like field hands and gobbling like hogs.”  There was nothing left for them at the table of Jesus.

Paul was angry about this behavior.   You can almost see the steam coming out of his ears.  The slaves came to the one place where they had been assured that they would be received and treated as equals.  The table of Jesus was the one place where they could be loved and accepted for who they were, and not seen as the property of another.  The one place where the socio-economic forces that threatened to crush their spirit had no power over them.  But they arrived late and no one was considerate enough to save them a plate of food that they could warm up in the microwave.  They felt cheated, overlooked.  The slaves were getting deeply mixed messages.  They had been assured that in Christ there was neither slave nor free, but the behavior of their “brothers and sisters” in Christ argued otherwise.  They were still treated as slaves.

It may appear that Paul is playing Miss Manners here, but he is really confronting a deeply ingrained social order that robbed people of their freedom and human dignity.  He writes, and you can almost hear his voices becoming shrill with anger: “If you come to this table and don’t pay attention to your brother or sister who is sitting next to you, or what’s worse, if you are aware of their hunger but don’t save them a slice of pie, you may as well be eating dirt and not the body of Christ.

The slaves arrived in time for worship, but the sacred words meant nothing to them in light of how they were treated.  The Jesus they had learned about, the one who gave himself up for the good of others, was in no way reflected in the selfish behavior of these people who professed to follow Jesus.  The church in Corinth had not yet learned, as the church in the South of Mammy and Scarlett and in many churches since then had not learned, that all divisions, social or otherwise, were overcome in Jesus.  Nor had they learned that the meal of Jesus is a meal where we are tuned in to the needs and circumstances of our brothers and sisters.

Mammy advised Scarlett O’Hara to eat before the party in order to uphold the social structure of their time.  Paul advised the Corinthians to eat ahead of time in order to dismantle that social structure.  He calls the Christian community to engage in radical manners.

Sharing this meal with Jesus radically alters our reality, and nourishes us to bring his radical justice to the whole world.  So invite everyone to the table, and be mindful of who is still yet to come. Save something for them.  AMEN.


[1] A reference to the Royall House Museum in Medford, MA, where the Racial Justice Group will be taking a group from OCBC for a tour today after church.

  • Pastor Meg Hess