Dear Church, Practice the Gospel
I’m not a local to New Orleans. I have lived here almost 6 years now, but it’s not my native city, it’s not the culture in which I was raised. So there are certain customs and traditions that I wasn’t familiar with when I arrived, bits of New Orleans culture that I had yet to encounter. Before I came to New Orleans, I had, of course, heard of gumbo, but I’d never really seen real New Orleans gumbo. In my first year here, I was at a church meeting where dinner was being served. Those of you that know me, know that I like to eat, so I was right up at the front of the line eager to serve myself. I took a big old paper plate, then I took a big helping of white rice, and then I got to a pot with this thick dark sauce with crab legs hanging out of it, and I figured whatever this is, a whole mess of it is going on top of my rice. Well, a few minutes later, one of my first friends here in New Orleans, Ms. Debra Joseph of Pontchatrain Park, sat next to me. She looked down at my plate and shook her head. “Baby,’ she said, “what are you doing with that gumbo on a plate? You don’t know gumbo goes in a bowl? Somebody’s gonna have to teach you how to eat, huh?” As soon as she said it, I knew she was right. She had a beautiful paper bowl full of gumbo with a nice little mound of white rice on top, and I had a runny mess of gumbo sloshing all over my plate. I’ve come a long way since then, I’ve learned from Debra and others, I may not eat as a local yet, but I don’t embarrass myself anymore, I at least know that my gumbo goes in a bowl.
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is hot. He is angry. He’s angry because there are people in the church at Corinth who are eating the Lord’s Supper (communion) in the wrong way. He’s so angry about what the church is doing, that he tells them that when they get together it’s not for the better, it is for the worse. Somehow, the Corinthians are doing communion so wrong, that it’s not only not beneficial for them, it’s actually bad for them. The way they are doing it is harming their very souls.
So what is it that they were doing wrong? Do they not say the words of institution in the correct order? Do they not all believe in the correct theology of atonement? Are they drinking the cup first and then eating the bread? What are they doing wrong? Let’s take a look and see what exactly the problem is that Paul is so upset about. Paul says,
“When you assemble as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and I partly believe it, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” I Corinthians 11:18-21
Paul is angry because the church is divided. He is angry because certain people in the church have come to believe that they are more important, more valued, than other people in the congregation. From what we know of the Corinthian Church in Paul’s day, we believe that the Lord’s Supper was not yet the symbolic meal that we celebrate with just a taste of bread and wine, no, it was a full meal, a love fest, at which all were welcome to celebrate, to eat and drink their fill, in anticipation of the great banquet we will one day share with Christ Jesus. Well, these self-important people, they were able to knock off work early, or they didn’t need to work at all, and when they got to the church, they didn’t wait for everyone else to arrive. They dug in. They ate as much they pleased, they gorged themselves and they got drunk on too much wine. And when the rest of the church arrived, there was no food left for them, no wine for them to share. The poor, the servants and the slaves in the church who could not leave work early, they went hungry, while the wealthy ate their fill.
This is what makes Paul so angry. You see Paul believes that in worship we are joined with Jesus Christ, each and every one of us. In the true worship of God, we shed all of our worldly identities, our class, our race, our nationality, our status, all of these fall away, so that a real and true fellowship can be made manifest. In worship, and especially in communion, we are lifted out of our worldly identities, we transcend ourselves, and we are made one with Christ and with one another in Christian fellowship. But the Corinthians are doing just the opposite. They are not shedding their worldly identities they are reinforcing them. They are not joining with Christ in his love for the least of these. The Corinthians are taking the holiness of worship and communion and using it to reinforce the sinful divisions that exist in the world between rich and poor, Jew and Greek, free and slave. They have taken this beautiful, holy, and transformative practice of the Lord’s Supper and they have defiled it with their worldly prejudices, arrogance, and greed.
I would like to say that Paul’s letter to the Corinthians cleared all this mess up. I would like to say that was the last time that Christians let the practice of the Lord’s Supper reinforce the divisions of the world, but you and I know that’s not true. Historic St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church knows all about folks messing up the Lord’s Supper because that is exactly how the African Methodist Episcopal denomination came to be. In 1786, Richard Allen, a formerly enslaved person, and newly licensed Methodist preacher began holding services at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. A mostly white congregation, the church limited Rev. Allen’s too early morning services only. As he began to attract more and more black believers to worship, the white leadership at St. George’s decided that the black members of the church would have to worship separately from the white members. When the church would gather for worship there were divisions among them. The white leadership decided that the worldly identities of race could not and should not be transcended by the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and the unity of the Body of Christ. The white leadership made plain that they valued the presumed superiority of their whiteness more than they valued the command of Jesus Christ that all his followers be one.
This situation left Richard Allen with a choice to make. Should he accept the second class status granted him by the white leadership and continue to serve St. George’s, or should he insist on the full equality of his people before God and leave? Historic St. James AME being the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the deep south, Allen’s choice may seem obvious. But I want us to remember that it was anything but obvious at the time. This was 1787, slavery was the common practice in the North as well as the South. The entire country operated on the assumption of white supremacy, an assumption that was codified into law and lived out every day. Allen himself was born a slave and had to purchase his freedom. Everything in his culture, in his country, and in his world, shouted at Richard Allen that he was less than, that he was inferior, that he was in no way the equal of a white man. So where on earth did he get the idea that he was equal in the eyes of God and how did he must the strength of conviction to risk his life to proclaim it? I know where he got it. You know where he got it. He got this idea that all human beings were of one blood, of common ancestry, and all beloved by God, from the Apostle Paul, from the Lord Jesus Christ, he got it from the Gospel, he got it from the very word of God. And it was that Word of God, that very presence of the Holy Spirit, that granted him the strength and courage to proclaim this dangerous truth to the sin-sick white leadership of the church and anyone else who would listen. Anytime that person rejected and outcasted by our society finds the courage and strength necessary to boldly declare their humanity in the face of a world that denies it, you can be sure that the presence of God is working. By the power of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and with the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, Richard Allen led the black members out of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal and he founded this denomination and began the countless blessings that the AME church has poured out upon our nation and the world.
The Apostle Paul would have been quite disappointed to hear about the division of Christ’s church in 1787 in Philadelphia. When spoke of the divisions in Corinth, you could tell that any division was abhorrent to him, so much so he almost couldn’t believe it. “I hear that there are divisions among, and I partly believe it.” But as much as Paul hated to see division in the church, he allowed that some division was likely to take place, he said, “for there must be factions among you in order that those that are genuine can be recognized.” The division at the Corinthian church allowed Paul to recognize that the wealthy and greedy and self-important in the congregation were not genuine. They had not truly come to believe and repent of their old lives, and it was obvious because they were using the church to reinforce the divisions of society rather than build the unity of the church. In the church in 1787 in Philadelphia, at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal, it was Richard Allen and the black members who were genuine in their faith. It was the white leadership who had not fully come to believe, nor repent of their old lives. These white people clung to their white supremacy more tightly than they did to their faith, they refused to share in communion with their black sisters and brothers, and in so doing they brought the judgment of God upon themselves.
The United Methodist Church, the largest Methodist body in the world, issued a formal apology for their past of racism against black people in the United States in the year 2000. They had a worship service where they invited representatives from the AME, The CME, and AME Zion to accept their apologies and their repentance. They even passed out sackcloth and ashes to repent in a biblical fashion. Bishop Clarence Carr, of the AME Zion church, was at that worship service and he had made this important point about the history and presence of the Christian church. Bishop Carr said “We were compelled to leave not because of doctrinal differences, not because of statements, but because of practice,” he said. “Not with what you said, but what you did. Not with symbolism, but with substance. And my hope is tonight that you would move from symbolism to substance.” The problem wasn’t that the white leadership of St. George’s didn’t preach the right gospel, it was that they were unwilling to practice that gospel.
I don’t come from the Methodist tradition, and I am indeed white. And this problem of white supremacy being practiced in the church, it is not, nor has it ever been, unique to Methodism. It is a sin that has so thoroughly soaked white America and the white Christian church that we almost don’t even recognize it. It’s like the air we breathe. We gather in our all-white churches as though we don’t know the history behind how they got that way. We were practicing the gospel incorrectly in the days of Richard Allen, we were practicing communion incorrectly in the days of Richard Allen, and we have not made the necessary changes to our practice. Each time we gather together as all-white bodies to share the Lord’s Supper we risk once more reinforcing the divisions of the world, instead of lifting up the transcendence of the Body of Christ.
We, as the white church, need to do better. We’ve been doing it wrong and we need to learn. We’ve been loading our gumbo onto paper plates, and we need someone to tell us the right way to eat. We need to find the courage to ask forgiveness from God and from the black church for our sins. We need to find the humility to beg for permission to learn at the feet of the black church.
As a pastor and on behalf of the white members of the church of Jesus Christ, and particularly the white members of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, I am asking the black church for forgiveness for our racism and for our blasphemy. I am pleading with you to share with us what you know of Christ Jesus. I appeal to my white sisters and brothers, as you approach the Lord’s Supper, as often as you do it, I asked that you approach in a spirit of repentance for our sins of racism and division. I ask that we humbly approach the Lord’s Table seeking to learn from our black sisters and brothers, and fervently praying that through God’s grace and their own Christian hearts, we might be forgiven and joined with and one another in the Body of Christ. We live in a world filled with racism and sin. We live in a world crying out for grace, for love, for redemption. But if we can’t figure out how to eat together, if we can’t figure out how to love our sisters and brothers in Christ, we won’t bring about even a taste of God’s justice and love. May God humble us white folk, may God give patience, courage, and strength, to us all, and may God grant us the grace, humility, and love needed to work together as sisters and brothers in Christ Jesus.
Reverend Andrew Greenhaw is the pastor of St. Paul United Church of Christ in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is passionate about racial and economic justice, children’s ministry, and serving the great city of New Orleans. Above all, he is a reconciler. You can reach Reverend Greenhaw at [email protected]. This blog was originally delivered as a sermon at Mission Reconcile’s “Path to Reconciliation” program (pulpit swap) in May 2019 and originally published at https://www.stpaulsuccnola.org/sermons-from-rev-greenhaw/archives/05-2019.