12. At the table, we are one

Bread and cup by Kelsey Johnson

Bread and cup by Kelsey Johnson

by Rev. Tommy Williams, Senior Pastor

During the history of the church there have been many expressions of worship.

The early church used the psalms as its prayer and song book and still does in many parts of the world. Worship styles and order often emerged from the culture of the people and still other times heavily influenced by missionaries who evangelized those cultures. Sometimes there has been a colonial element to worship styles as indigenous peoples were more or less forced to conform to the style of the missionary who came from abroad. All along the way many had different opinions as to “true worship.” 

It is tempting in every age and location to think that “we” have “true worship.” It has been my unique experience in pastoral ministry to serve churches that approach worship in very diverse ways. I have served in small town settings, multicultural ones, and ones influenced in the Anglican tradition, like St. Paul’s. Each has held equal value to me as a faithful expression of the people of God in that place.

Each has a liturgy. We often think of liturgy as one monolithic thing, that is, the thing we do. Liturgy is broader and simply means, “The work of the people,” thus is contextual to each community — the prayer and song of that community, the rhythms and use of space and so on. 

Worship stirs the spirit and can bring controversy. Paul knows this very acutely in the Corinthian experience. I Corinthians 11 is mainly concerned with problems in the Corinthian’s public worship. It is hard to decipher style here. More so, we learn quickly about a conflict around head coverings for men and women, something that sounds strange to us, but still is an observance in some parts of the global church.

Some of the passages sound dated and even sexist — men should not wear coverings and women must — Paul says. Other parts are quite egalitarian. Men and women are “equal in the Lord” — a stunning statement for that day and time! Each one liberated to pray and prophesy, also stunning for the time. Paul is mostly interested in men and women being distinguishable in worship, not to separate but to lift up each as bringing gifts to be acknowledged and appreciated in the body of Christ rather than being melded into one. 

When differences in our personhood are glossed over, we lose the blessing that each person uniquely brings. This may be a generous reading of Paul, but I think it is a faithful practical application of his teaching for the church today when it encounters diversity. 

Finally, Paul is rightly concerned with the Corinthian church’s observance of the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion. This is not about whether we eat wafers or bread, juice or wine! Paul comes down harshly on members of the church who were eating extravagantly at the table and literally taking more than their share and leaving out the poor. Paul’s word is for those persons to get full at home! Come to the Lord’s Table in equal measure with the poor so that all can feast. Paul reminds them that the Lord’s Table is for all — rich, poor, and in between. It is for giving thanks to God and remembering the sacrifice of Jesus and the promise of Jesus’ coming again. When that is abused, it sets up divisions among them and exposes them to the judgement of God.

The Lord’s Table is the church’s most visible reminder of unity. At the table, we are one. Every person from every station in life is in the same posture and need before God. The challenge is to mirror this spirit in all our feasts. To include and embrace all in our gatherings around table, always extending the table to those in need. 

How might our whole lives and the church’s whole ministry be an extension of the sacramental table open to all? 

It is one of the distinctly wonderful beliefs of Methodist Christianity. The table of our Lord is a means of grace extended to friend and stranger alike. All are welcome.