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Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly, Part 2

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
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What? Don’t you have your own homes for eating and drinking? Or do you really want to disgrace God’s church and shame the poor? What am I supposed to say? Do you want me to praise you? Well, I certainly will not praise you for this!

1 Corinthians 11:22

In yesterday's reflection I explained some cultural background that helps to account for the odd behavior of some of the Corinthian Christians. In the context of the Lord's Supper, the wealthier members of the congregation were eating a meal, while the poorer members were going hungry. The actions of the wealthier Christians makes sense, in a way, when we realize that they were simply "doin' what comes natur'lly" in their cultural context. It was typical in a large household for the more privileged members to eat separately from the slaves and others of lower status. Because the Corinthians were celebrating the Lord's Supper in the context of a full meal, they simply did what was common in their experience, without considering the theological implications of their behavior.

In tomorrow's reflection, I'll begin to consider Paul's response to this problem. For today, I want to offer a couple of examples from my own experience that are similar to what we find in 1 Corinthians 11. Both have to do with challenges we face when the church includes people from a wide range of socio-economic situations.

When I was Pastor of Education at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, we began a Wednesday evening Bible study and fellowship program that included dinner. Our hope was that our relationships with each other would grow in the context of a shared meal. Since we did not have facilities at church to cook such a meal, and since many of our members worked so that it would be hard from them to contribute to a potluck, we had the meal catered. The caterer provided a basic but tasty meal at a very reasonable cost.

Before long, I began to receive complaints from church members. Some were unhappy because the meals were repetitive (too much pasta) and boring. These folks, who had plenty of money, were used to eating fine food, both at home and when they went out to dinner. Others told me that they could not afford such an expensive meal, that it was way beyond their budget, so they weren't going to be able to come to the dinner anymore. It felt wrong to exclude members of our church family because they couldn't afford even an inexpensive meal. Yet I didn't want to lose those who were used to nicer food. Differences in expectations and life experience, owing to economic status, threatened to bring an end to our shared meal together.

The other example comes from my tenure as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. Most of our members were from upper-middle class families. They did not wear their finest clothing for church, for the most part, but wore attractive business or casual attire. I, for example, wore a suit and tie, or sometimes a coat and tie. Nevertheless, on more than one occasion, I had a visitors to the church tell me they wouldn't fit there because they "were not rich enough." These were people who simply did not have the money to buy the kind of clothing that most of us took for granted.

Now, the last message we wanted to send to visitors was they had to be in a certain economic class in order to be members of our church. And, in fact, we did have a few members who were in the lower-middle class. As I listened to those who felt excluded because of how we dressed, I could understand their hesitation. Yet I was uncertain what to do. It seemed unrealistic to ask the whole church to "dress down" for church. But it also seemed wrong for some of us to dress in such a way that others felt as if they could not belong.

I'm not going to explain the ways I responded to the class-related issues in the Hollywood and Irvine churches, because I don't want you to focus on whether my decisions were, in the end, right or wrong. (If you're really curious, I've posted these explanations on my website. You can find them here.) By leaving these issues open-ended, I hope you will think about how you might have responded if you were in my shoes. More importantly, I hope you will think about ways in which your behavior – that which comes naturally and culturally to you – might put off other people, even though that is not your intention.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: Have you ever experienced situations like those I've described, in which socio-economic differences created tension in church? Can you think of other kinds of behavior differences that can create barriers between members of Christ's body, like musical tastes, for example? PRAYER: It can be challenging to live out our unity because of the many differences among us. Today, I'm thinking especially of economic differences and their impact. How easy it is for us to be like the Corinthians, who excluded people in their congregation, perhaps without even realizing what they were doing. I expect we have done the same. I expect I have done the same. Forgive me, Lord.

Give me new vision to see people with greater clarity. Help me to understand my culture and its challenges more thoroughly. Give your church the conviction to be truly one in you, and give us the wisdom we need to make this happen in real time, real life.

All praise be to you, Lord Jesus, because though you were rich, you became poor for us and our salvation. Amen!
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