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The End is in the Means

1 Corinthians 11:17 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. 18 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. 19 Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. 20 When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. 21 For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. 22 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!

23 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, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for[g] you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 25 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.’ 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

27 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.

So we’re spending a few weeks talking about the ways God reveals God’s self to us. We’re not talking about these things because they’re some kind of machine or technology that produce a predictable result from the divine. It’s actually the opposite: the places where God meets us are the places where we let go of our pretensions to management of our lives. And we need to practice letting go from time to time because the powers of this world are so subtle and clever in co-opting talk about the divine for their own purposes. But we start from the assumption that God is an untamable mystery disrupting this world and offering grace beyond anything we could ever have asked for or imagined, and so learning to recognize God’s work in our midst is as often as not a negative process of pruning away the ways that the powers of this world have formed our imaginations and our instincts. That’s part of why we show up here, that’s why we pray, that’s why we read Scripture, and that’s also why we feed each other the Lord’s Supper.

Our Scripture this morning describes exactly this conflict between the revelation of God’s grace and the usual patterns of this world. Maybe it sounded familiar to you, since we recite it every single week here at Jubilee, but usually we just say the middle part, what we call “the words of institution.” But it’s interesting to me why Paul wrote these words to begin with. He’s writing to the church in Corinth, who seem to be an absolute mess. And one of their problems is that when they’re eating the Lord’s Supper together, which seems to have been a ritual meal, some people are taking so much that they’re getting wasted on the wine, and then there’s not enough for the people who go last. Now, in this same letter Paul also tells them that they need to “give honor to the weaker member” and he’s concerned about displays of wealth like what people wear, so you can imagine a situation where maybe the church in Corinth is letting the rich and the powerful members of the church partake of the Lord’s Supper first, and then by the time it gets to the poor, the “weaker members,” there’s nothing left.

If that’s what’s going on here, then this ritual, which is imitating the meal Jesus gave his disciples on the passover before he was crucified by the Empire, is reinforcing the Empire’s social hierarchies. In the very place where people are supposed to be meeting the divine, they’re meeting a sacralized version of this world. That’s the context for the words of institution. Paul’s saying Remember who you are. Don’t do things this way, don’t just repeat the world as you know it, do not be conformed to the patterns of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Because I have received from the Lord what I also give to you…This is my body and you are also my body and whenever one part of the body suffers, it harms the whole body.

I wonder if Paul reminds us that Jesus gives us this meal “on the night when he was betrayed” because the Corinthians, by giving priority to the powerful, are betraying Jesus in the same way that Judas did? Judas defaulted to what the powers told him was possible and gave Jesus over to those powers for cash while kissing him on the cheek, and in the same way the Corinthians take the bread and the cup to their lips and cast away the poor, with whom Jesus always identified.

It’s so easy to recreate the patterns of this world because those patterns have shaped our instincts and habits. We confess that another world is possible, but we do so from within the world as it is, as a part of the world as it is. We default to what we know, and we tell ourselves that’s OK or that’s the only way it can be because it’s a means to an end. We want things to be different, we’re working incrementally for them to be different, but there’s also always “the way things are.” I can just imagine the people in the church in Corinth saying, “Well, yeah, it makes sense that these people eat first. They’re the most important. We need their resources to keep doing what we’re doing. It won’t be like that in heaven, in the kingdom of God, but hey this is the best we have right now. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

This logic is so pervasive. After one of the protests I was at last weekend, I heard an older white man lecturing a Palestinian woman about who she needed to vote for in the presidential election because that candidate “represents the lesser of two evils.” And her response was basically, well if this is the lesser evil, I think it’s still just evil. That valorization of the lesser evil, of the means to the end, is something I want us at the very least to question—because so often the way I hear those things talked about is exactly how it played out in that conversation, where people bring up the lesser evil as a way of scaring people with the greater evil, so that we forget altogether about any hope for a greater good.

And that’s not just in politics, that’s in life, too. I wonder how many of us have convinced ourselves we’re taking incremental steps toward some goal when in reality we’re walking on a treadmill? I’ve found in my own life that nothing really changes gradually. Sometimes things take a long time, but the acts of will that require us to sustain those efforts aren’t gradual at all. Real incremental change actually looks a lot more like a series of failed attempts at grand change that all of the sudden coalesce into something larger, rather than just keeping on and carrying along.

The teachers and support staff in Durham who went on strike this week, they didn’t get to the point of exercising their power that way by just kind of going along and accepting the lesser evils they were presented with. That took years of union drives and attempted actions that failed and then more union drives. It took union members getting to schools at 6:30am to give out information and get people signed up. That’s not accepting a lesser evil. It took so many meetings after school and on weekends, and every one of those moments was an act of will that said, “I’m not accepting the lesser evil, we’re going to fight for something better.” And for a long time, from what I’ve seen as an outsider, that didn’t look like progress. It looked like tilting at windmills. Very few in DPS were going on strike 2 or 3 years ago. But the union organizers, like Joe, showed perseverance, and kept refusing the lesser evil, they kept refusing the means to the end that the district presented them with, and after years this fall they started to see some more momentum and then the district’s incompetence was kind of like a dam breaking, but the organizers had already carved out the channel where the water could flow when that happened.

I think this call to keep pushing for a breakthrough, or what we call an “apocalypse,” even when you can’t see the progress, even when there is no progress, is part of what Paul is asking of the Corinthians when he’s teaching them about the Lord’s Supper. When they’re repeating the status quo, Paul says at this table, remember, this is Christ’s Body and this is Christ’s blood. This is not a means to an end. You’re not accepting a substitute for Jesus because we know the divine isn’t really with us. This is my body, broken for you. The end is here with us in the means.

There was a theologian in the middle ages named Thomas Aquinas, who formulated the Catholic doctrine about these things, and I find what he has to say really interesting. Aquinas makes a distinction between what he calls “essences” and “accidents.” An essence is what something really, truly is. And the accidents are its attributes. So if I asked you who is Kevin? And you said, “Oh you know, guy with a big beard, belly, laughs a lot, usually wears a hat.” Oh, so Kevin is Santa Claus. Like, no no no. OK, so went to Duke Div School, pastor at Jubilee Baptist, very often dealing with some child induced chaos. Right, got it. So Kevin is Heather. Of course not. Because those are accidents, but there’s an essence of “Kevin” that’s not reducible to those attributes.

Now, in the ancient and medieval world, essences are spiritual realities, and they are more real than the accidental features of this world. We tend to think of the world around us—atoms and molecules, etc—as what’s most real, and spiritual realities are kind of ghostly. Like when Jesus appears at the resurrection, people often think of him floating through locked doors because he’s kind of like a ghost. But it’s probably exactly the opposite. This world is the ghostly, shadowy one, and the spiritual is more solid, is heavier than what’s going on around us.

So Aquinas says that the bread and the cup are remain bread and wine in their accidents, but become the body and blood of Jesus in essence. He’s not saying that the bread molecules become flesh molecules that we could submit to a DNA test. We think of molecules and atoms and DNA as the most real thing, but for ancient Christians, those were accidents. The real thing is the essence.

And so, in his own way, Aquinas is responding to exactly what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians. He’s saying that the stuff you see in front of you, the atoms and molecules and social hierarchies and economies and governments and armies of this world are all accidental—the realest thing of all, the most substantial reality you have access to is the essence of God’s grace that you offer to each other at this table. The bread here is not a lesser evil or a means to an end, this is not God’s advertising. These elements are our confession that we live our lives according to the end we hope for and that end is already here in these means and so we don’t have to accept anything other than the love and grace of God, not here in this space, not in our homes, not in our work places, not in our schools, not in our city council, not anywhere.

The world all around us and in our heads is constantly teaching us to settle, to accept things as they are. But we come to this table to remember that God made this world and made it so that there would be enough for everyone and we practice that abundance by sharing it with each other and we confirm this abundance by paying off debts however we can because it’s not good enough to take these elements if everyone can’t know abundance here, and we throw our weight in with the labor movement because for everyone to know abundance will require an abundant collective.

And so the table is where God meets us to remind us that another world is not only possible, but is already breaking through in our midst. And I think maybe that can change how we approach our lives here in the middle of things. I find that the moments I’m tempted with lesser evils or means that seem an odd fit with the ends I want, is when I’m worried that the beautiful world we desire is farther off than we think it should be. But if the table teaches us that end is in the means, then maybe that’s true for our lives as well. There are certain goals we’re struggling for. Fair pay and meet and confer for DAE, a full thriving church paying off peoples’ debts, a life where you’re not paycheck to paycheck and just scraping by.

But I’ve had a couple experiences the last few weeks that show how big of a difference there is between accepting lesser evils and living as though the end is here with us. I think of meetings with political leaders where people can’t bring themselves to call for a ceasefire in Palestine because they’re worried about where their funding is coming from and if they’ll be able to protect the next rung on the ladder they’re trying to climb. And then I think of the songs and the chants being with Palestinian members of our community last Sunday as we were standing off with the police waiting to march; and I think of the songs and the chants marching around the staff development center at DPS on Wednesday. There was something so joyless about the calculation of our political leaders, but something so freeing and joyful and powerful about the way people are showing up for each other for Palestine and for the teachers’ union. No one’s won anything yet, but there is something to enjoy and celebrate and savor in the meantime.

There’s a kind of communion there that I also feel at Jubilee when we come together at this table to say, “Let’s lift up every valley and level every mountain.” In that desire, God is with us, and in that desire we are truly with one another in a way that the pragmatists and realists will never know. They want us to join them in playing for keeps with the accidents, while God is calling us to the essence of things, to the deeper truth of abundance and joy and solidarity. That’s why we come together to remember, “This is Jesus body’ right here (point to table), this is Jesus’ body right here (point to room) and when one member receives joy and care and grace, the whole body receives joy and care and grace.” Amen.

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