Discerning the Body


I vividly remember this scene from my childhood.  My mother and I had an unpleasant Sunday morning with considerable shouting and tears.  I have no idea what it was about, except that my mother told me it was communion Sunday and she would not go to communion feeling the way she did.  She then told me it would be taking communion to her damnation if she did.   I didn’t understand what that meant, but it made me feel terrible and deeply afraid.   Then in confirmation (LCMS) we were taught about that bible verse, the one she said.

29For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.

I Corinthians 22:29

I was again greatly troubled, not understanding what this could mean except that it should terrify me to eat and drink with those who did not discern the true presence in the same way that we did the the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  It remained a source of trouble in my heart when I went to St. Mary’s Academy, a convent high school, and attended mass with my friends–but never received the sacrament there.   There are reasons I felt driven to study theology when I went to college, not the least of which was to exorcise things that I had been taught that held me in a vice grip of fear.  When I first heard the term “Liberation Theology” I was amused.  Theology was, for me, a liberation.

eichenberg_christ_of_the_breadlineThe work of discernment is troublesome work.  I am always more than a little suspect of the Christian who breezily announces, “I was praying and God told me to ___________”  I’ve never been able to be so clear in my discernment that there is no process, no doubt, no deliberation, no consultations,  where it has been so clear that there is no other way.  I am a possibilities person, and that is my lot.  I always see other ways, other possibilities.  Neither marriage or ministry came to me without a struggle with discernment.  In the end, there was no proof anyone could give me that would make my choice positively legitimate.  Just asking, “What’s to lose?” doesn’t work with me.  There is everything to lose, and in my possibilities thinking brain I have inventoried it all.

In the end, there is nothing that can be done except pitch in.  Nothing can be made more sure without just going down the road oneself.

Cleopas and the other disciple  (his sister?  his wife?  Anonymous is so often a woman!) would be next to Thomas in my pantheon of saints.  We are so quick to believe that if we had been there, we would certainly have known we were walking with Jesus.  Discernment is rarely so easy.  It would be obvious to assume that their discernment was clouded by grief.  Probably also by exhaustion, and a good dose of fear as well.  They are leaving Jerusalem to go home, perhaps?  What does one do after a crucifixion, after all?    Then there’s this eye opener:  they did not discern the body in their midst until Jesus broke the bread.   So much for eating and drinking to one’s damnation for not believing all the true things about the body.   They were utterly clueless, and in their clueless state Jesus broke the bread and offered it to them. (By the way, he also gave the bread to Judas and to Peter.  So why do we withhold from our own children, and others we discern incompetent or too sinful?  That’s another day.)    Some things just can’t be known without eating, drinking, walking and living.  Then their hearts burned.  The meal that gave them eternal heart burn.  Hmmm.    Discernment is validated by a bad case of heartburn.  Not predicated.  Only validated.   You don’t get the heartburn without eating, without hearing the Scriptures explained to you in terms of the present context.   Then they could run all the way back to Jerusalem to share their discovery.

Teaching is important to discernment.  What makes us think that it falls from the sky?  We are at once so intellectual and so anti-intellectual about our discernment.  Sometimes, I swear, if one gains discernment by careful study and scholarly engagement it becomes suspect, if not altogether disqualified, in the minds of some.   We live in days when people cast aspersions on those who practice medicine or study science while accepting the authority of an internet advertisement or viral post without question.   Memes replace member-ing as the practice of faith.  Jesus taught.  Jesus broke bread.  Cleopas and the other disciple received their heartburn because Jesus taught and Jesus broke bread.  Their heartburn ran down the road with them as they pushed their way against the stream of pilgrims who were going to their homes after the holidays in Jerusalem.  We always think of the road back as an isolated place, but it could have been more like trying to get into Paul Brown Stadium when everyone else is trying to leave it.  Their heartburn would have to be energizing.

So, what exactly WAS Paul scolding the Corinthians about?  I remember a flood of healing discernment when I read it for myself and I realized what made Paul so hopping mad.  The rich were coming for the potluck and opened the best wine and took the first servings of the tastiest dishes, and when those who couldn’t come until they were free from work and obligations arrived, there was nothing left.  They could only open their brown paper bags and eat the peanut butter sandwich crusts and apple core left over from lunch.  The rich failed to discern the body of Christ in their midst, in the whole gathered people, rich and poor, male and female, slave and free, Jew and Greek.  Their failure to discern the body allowed them to divide the body and believe they were justified in doing so.


The picture at the top of this blog is rather famous.  The artist, Eichenberg, made this woodblock during the Great Depression.  It was–and still is–scandalous to those who keep their pictures of Jesus in stained glass or precious metals.  Jesus joins the breadline.   Can you discern him there?  What does it make you think and feel, to see Jesus hungry, naked, poor, sick, illiterate, a tribe or race not your own, speaking a language you do not understand, as weak as your own body when you groan and your joints ache in the morning?  My heartburn leans toward indigestion, because this is so hard to swallow.

So Mom, you were wrong.  There could have been no greater reason to go to church and commune–together–and be reconciled in this holy meal, recognizing both our own broken and scarred bodies and spirits,  and the presence of Christ between us.   But then, children didn’t receive communion.   And you couldn’t discern the body given for you, a tired, exasperated mother whose daughter ran rings around you and asked questions you couldn’t answer and pushed back relentlessly.   Little girl, you were wrong to push your mother so hard that she could not discern the grace that could fill that moment and make our hearts burn as you both recognized the body of Christ between the two of you, within these broken down and scarred bodies.  You both feared condemnation more.

What do you see?  How do you know?  Is it life...or death?   In the womb, it is often hard to tell the difference.

What do you see? How do you know? Is it life…or death? In the womb, it is often hard to tell the difference.



About Pastor Betsy Williams

I am a mom. And a wife. And a Friend. And a homeowner. And a dog ...uh....owner? Actually make that two dogs. Two kids. One husband. I'm an ELCA Lutheran pastor of a beautiful downtown church. I am the third senior pastor in a century, so my 10-12 years here may feel like an interim to some of the folks here. Recently I have had no spare time. In my spare time in the future, my imagination inhabits a novel I am writing, The Funeral Preacher. My primary blog is a personal reflection on the Revised Common Lectionary...mostly: "Not All Who Wander are Lost." A few years ago I was on a team of writers who produced a little book for Augsburg Fortress in the Washed and Welcome series called "Living the Promises." It's 101 ideas for helping parents and godparents nurture their children in the faith of their baptism. I am developing another blog, more about worship at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Newark, Ohio and including a summary of the past week's preaching. Otherwise, I imagine myself to be a musician, liturgical artist, cook in a five star restaurant where the patrons keep ordering chicken nuggets, but never a bottle washer. I know how to delegate and share.
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