Read the passage here.
Today’s passage is much more straightforward than last week’s. And that’s because Paul is addressing an issue that seems new to the Corinthians (that is, he doesn’t assume that the Corinthians already know what he’s talking about) and therefore, he takes pains to explain it in more detail. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any questions or disagreements about it. But to begin with, let’s briefly sketch out what seems to be going on in this passage.
Firstly, Paul makes it clear that he is concerned about divisions in the church. This is not the first time he’s talked about this in this letter. However, the basis for the divisions here is not the same as what he brought up in chapter 1. There, he is concerned about those who are claiming allegiance to different leaders (or something along those lines). Here, as he is about to make clear, he is concerned about divisions based on social and economic status.
Secondly, Paul is specifically concerned about how this is being worked out in the practice of the Lord’s Supper. That is, something in how they are practicing the Lord’s Supper reflects this aforementioned division, and thus contradicts what the Lord’s Supper is supposed to be in the first place.
So that’s the basic issue that Paul is addressing. So let’s dig just a little bit deeper to see how he works it out.
Firstly, let’s understand a little more about what’s going on. For our purposes, we’ll focus on vv. 20-21.
20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk.1 Corinthians 11: 20-21
What Paul is talking about here, when he refers to the Lord’s Supper, is clearly something different than what we usually think of when we practice or talk about “communion.” Though we don’t know (again) the exact details or intricacies of the practice, it is evident that Paul is talking about an actual meal. But we don’t know the extent to which this meal incorporates or is considered synonymous with what we today think of as communion. Nevertheless, Paul views the entire practice of the meal as indicative of the spiritual state (so to speak) of the congregation.
And what seems to be going on during this practice is that the wealthy members of the congregation are setting themselves above others in the congregation – this is the “division” that he mentions earlier. As it is explained by several scholars, the community would gather in the home of one of the members – undoubtedly, one of the wealthier members. And without getting into the specific mechanics of it (which are not universally agreed upon), it seems clear that (at least some of) the wealthier members are taking the opportunity to separate themselves from the poorer in the congregation, creating something of a “gathering of the elite.” Additionally, Paul seems to allude to something of an impropriety (“…another gets drunk”) which it seems reasonable to assume is restricted to this elite-gathering.
It may be likewise reasonable to assume, though Paul doesn’t talk about it here, that this segregation and impropriety is informed by cultural expectations. That is, to the Corinthians, this practice (that is, especially regarding “divisions”) would have seemed entirely normal and reasonable based on their understanding and experience of similar gatherings in the religious and social landscape of Corinth.
So what we can understand is that Paul’s concern has to do with the Corinthians bringing their expectations and assumptions about social order into the kingdom community. Another way to put it is, or looking at it from the other side, we might say that the Corinthians are failing to understand and recognize the significance of the Lord’s Supper, inasmuch as what it means for their corporate identity and the Kingdom of God. Hopefully this will become clearer as we continue to consider the passage.
So let’s take a look at how Paul responds to this. And in short, Paul’s response is that the Corinthians’ behaviour at best misunderstands, and at worst betrays what communion is supposed to mean. This seems to be the point of Paul’s statements in vv. 27-28 about taking communion “in an unworthy manner,” and examining ourselves.
While I was growing up, and in many other situations, I was led to believe that these had to do with any unconfessed sins in my life. That is, if we came to the table with any unconfessed sin, then I was doing so unworthily. Now combined with the following verses (vv. 30-32), which in particular says, “30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep,” that led to a certain amount of distress. Because there are always undoubtedly sins in my life that I have not confessed (because I can’t confess them all).
My point simply is that the issue that Paul is addressing in this passage has to do with divisions in the church, especially that between the rich and the poor. And so to understand Paul’s concern here as having to do with individual introspection seems to be a pretty sharp detour in the flow of his logic.
It would seem more likely, given Paul’s concerns in this passage, that “an unworthy manner,” has something to do with practicing the Lord’s Supper in a way that fails to recognize the oneness of the kingdom people that is created by Jesus’ death and resurrection. This would seem to be what Paul means when, in v. 29, he talks about failing to discern the body of Christ.
Now something should probably be said at this point about the subsequent verses (vv. 29b-32), where Paul talks about the consequences of failing to do precisely this. What is meant by “eating and drinking judgement on themselves,” and etc.? So just a couple of thoughts on this:
Firstly, it is evident that Paul sees a connection between the misfortunes that have befallen the Corinthians and their failure to “discern the body.” Now while this kind of thing often troubles Christians (and others) in our world, this seems consistent with how God deals with his people throughout scripture. Discipline and punishment are important parts of God’s covenant relationship with His people.
However, I don’t think that this means we should live in perpetual fear that we have done the wrong thing or haven’t confessed enough. Neither does it mean that we can assume that those who are suffering are suffering because they have done something wrong. I don’t think it’s the case (nor do I think that Paul is arguing that it is the case) that all instances of suffering are judgements from God. Nevertheless, I do think that it’s the case that we ask ourselves what we can learn (i.e. be disciplined in) regarding our situations.
I don’t want to get hung up here, so I hope that’s sufficient reflection and we can carry on.
Now given what we’ve discussed regarding vv. 27-32, which begins with the “So then…”, this should reflect backwards (so to speak) on how we read the preceding paragraph which serves as the foundation for the “So then…” vv. 23-26 read:
23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.1 Corinthians 11: 23-26
You will likely recognize this as the text that we substantially follow when we celebrate communion here. And the familiarity we have with the passage – the frequency with which we refer to it – may actually hinder our understanding of it, especially in context. If we remember what Paul’s over-arching concern is in this part of 1 Corinthians, and we think about the “So then…” that arises out of these verses, we might understand something of how Paul is writing these words.
It seems very unlikely, for example, that Paul is concerned with the mechanics of the Lord’s Supper. By the same token, he is not likely recommending a particular script (or set of words). Rather, he is concerned with what communion means for the body – especially this body who is failing to recognize that they are one body.
So while we cannot do a deep dive into this, what I’m suggesting is that Paul’s concern here is about how communion points to the oneness of the Christian community. Of course this doesn’t represent a comprehensive theology of communion – that is, communion means and does more than this – I think this is what Paul is trying to remind the Corinthians of. To this, I want to highlight and reflect on a couple of elements:
Firstly, a reminder that communion (or the Lord’s Supper) in the Christian context serves a similar function as the Passover in the Jewish one (Jesus’ Last Supper was during Passover). Passover, as you know, is a celebration/feast recalling the Exodus. At the last Plague/Sign, the households of Israel gathered in each home, sacrificing a lamb, sharing a meal of that sacrificed lamb, and using the blood to paint the door frames. And the angel of the Lord would spare each household that was so marked.
So in the Christian communion, those who share in the meal are likewise marked as one of God’s people. So when Jesus says, “this is my body…” and we share of that body, we are saying something about which people we belong to.
Secondly, I want to pick up on the phrase, “new covenant.” Again, I’m not going to delve into it now, but covenant is the means by which God creates His people, Israel. And this covenant marked Israel as a people that was set apart from all the nations of the earth, to be God’s special possession, a holy nation, and a royal priesthood. But the covenant of which we are a part is not one guaranteed by the blood of animals, but by the death and resurrection of our Lord and God, Jesus Christ. Though Jesus, we become God’s people, and we proclaim God’s redemption.
Now there’s more to be said about all that, to be sure. But at this point we can probably sum up by saying, that Paul is writing here because of the division he’s heard about in the church. The extent of this division is revealed in how the Corinthians are practicing communion (which is poorly). And this flawed practice of communion reveals how poorly they understand the true meaning of communion, which is grounded in Jesus’ death. So, says Paul, don’t be divided.
And this, of course is essentially the content of the last couple of verses:
33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.
And when I come I will give further directions.1 Corinthians 11: 33-34
Over the years, we’ve talked a lot about the importance of community. We’ve talked about the idea that God isn’t saving isolated, dissociated individual monads, but that He is creating a people. We’ve talked about how human beings are created for community, for relationship. And that this isn’t an optional, nice to have, added bonus, but that it is an essential element of being human. And we’ve talked about how the local church, for all of its challenges, frustrations, and shortcomings is both the context in and the means by which God intends this to happen.
But one of the biggest challenges both in our time and obviously in Paul’s time is the extent to which we human beings don’t get this. One of the biggest challenges to being the church, to “doing church well,” is the extent to which human beings are inclined to think of church as something that is “for me.” One of the biggest obstacles to being the people of God is the extent to which we are inclined to evaluate church by, “what I get out of it,” or “what does it do for me?”
The elite, the wealthy, in the Corinthian church may have been guilty of viewing the community, or using the community, as a means to advance their social standing (or something along those line). How are we using the community of Christ? What do we think the body of Christ is for?
As we wrap up, I just want to remind us that Paul’s real issue likely isn’t communion per se. Rather, he is concerned with how some in the church in Corinth are missing the point, the significance of communion; how some are distorting or even corrupting the significance of communion. Because for Paul, what it points to, what it reminds us of, and what it connects us to is the death of Jesus. The death of Jesus that frees us from the bondage of sin so that we may enter into life. The death that frees us from the concerns, the values, the lies of this world and releases us to take hold of that for which God had intended His creation. One of those things that God has intended for us in His creation order is fellowship with one another.
For better or for worse (but all for God’s glory), we have been given one another. We have been given one another to worship, to work, and to walk together. And this isn’t just a Sunday thing – at least it shouldn’t be. And this certainly isn’t an easy thing – though often we will wish it would be. But brothers and sisters,
“24…let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25).
“12 …as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Gal. 3:12-13).
“7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:7-12).