I hauled a box from our garage into our house, brushing back a stray hair. I returned for yet another box when a large SUV rolled to the edge of our driveway. With her eyes veiled by sunglasses, the driver rolled down her window and leaned out, “Hello! You are new! Your son is in my son’s class! We would love to have you come to his birthday party on Saturday. The whole family is invited! Won’t you come?!” This was my introduction to Meski, my beautiful, welcoming neighbor from Ethiopia. I was the new kid on her block.
A few months into our friendship, I invited the women on our street over for dinner: Chinese take-out. In an effort to host well and streamline the evening, I ordered, paid for, and picked up everything for dinner before they arrived. When we were ready to eat, I set out the food and named each dish. I passed out plates and we gathered around the kitchen table. We chatted and ate and then I noticed that Meski’s plate was barely half-filled. Perhaps she didn’t care for Chinese food. The evening went on and we talked of life outside of kids and husbands. I mentioned I was in seminary and Meski told me she was an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. We were elated to realize we shared faith in common. As we talked further, I realized why her plate was only half-full: Ethiopian Orthodox Christians follow some Jewish dietary restrictions and do not eat pork. At least half of what I’d ordered was pork. I had invited her over and put her in a difficult position. Thankfully, she handled it with gentleness. Our differences were on full display, but our faith held us together. This was grace.
In Romans, Paul writes to Christians with similar diverging beliefs. The “Weak” believe Jewish laws are necessary for Christian faith. The “Strong” believe Jewish laws are unnecessary. Unlike the gentleness I experienced, these two groups became adversarial, no longer wanting to be united in faith, each degrading the other. Paul aligns with the views of the Strong but protects the rights of the Weak; they are each allowed to follow the lifestyle God has directed them to follow. Not satisfied with the idea of Christian community merely tolerating each other, Paul pushes them to examine themselves and remember that neither is above the other when viewed from the cross of Jesus Christ. Both groups are sinners in need of redemption and their standing in the church does not come from their adherence or non-adherence to Jewish laws. Their status is the gift of Christ who saves, redeems, and liberates the world. Their personal lifestyles, focused on alignment with or independence from Jewish law, do not affect their status, only God does that. By centering on Christ, animosity is diffused, differences affirmed, and unity upheld.
In 1 Corinthians Paul pushes back against cultural definitions of honor that revolve around privilege tied to wealth. The Corinthian’s method of observing the Lord’s Supper favored some believers over others and ran contrary to the example of Christ. Christ’s gift of self to his disciples must not devolve into a rote ritual where their hearts remained aligned to the world. The Lord’s Supper must include heart renewal for all who participate. This heart attitude gives of self for others and runs contrary to the Greco-Roman honor code which continually fights for increased status. The Corinthians are to examine themselves and ensure their actions reflect Christ, not the world around them, as they celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
These two letters draw a picture of the diverse fellowship of Christ, a people called to participate together in community and in sacrament. Christ must be elevated. Differences are not eliminated, but they cannot gain traction for antagonism. Harmony in the body is not sameness, but it is a rejection of self-elevation. We must look at our own social power and see where the world desires to create animosity within the body of Christ: politics, wealth, and status (to name a few) all seek to deceive and devour us. Only through non-hierarchical, self-giving in community do we reflect Christ at the Lord’s Supper. We do not need to demand complete unanimity to participate together. We reject self-centeredness and recognize Christ’s centeredness in the Lord’s Supper: his righteousness and his self-giving. This is table fellowship, this is grace.