In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Paul has something to say to the Corinthian Christians about the way they’ve been observing the Lord’s Supper. Actually, as Paul usually does, he has a couple or three things to say.
We take Communion in modern western churches in a number of ways, but we usually don’t follow the format of the early church, which was to have a full-fledged church dinner with Communion as a part of it. This was, after all, the case in the first Communion at which Jesus Himself officiated. Today, if we have a meal at all, it’s a pot-luck, and woe to the last guy in line. In view of this passage, it’s probably a good thing we keep Communion as a regimented ceremony during the church service, or we might end up just like the Corinthians, being chastised for their lack of consideration for this sacred ceremony and for one another and the church body. Or maybe we will anyway?
Paul is irritated–I can sense it. 😉 He’s intimating that it would be better for the Corinthians not to take communion at all than to do it in the manner they have been doing.
Paul’s first concern: divisions among the brethren. One of the last things Jesus did before His crucifixion was to pray that His followers would be one as He and the Father are One, that the world might know that the Father had sent Him. Looking around today at our many petty differences, is it any wonder the world laughs at the western church?
Keeping things in perspective, Paul admits that there must be factions and divisions among us. Luther had to break away from Catholicism when he realized how heretical it had become. Luther had his own problems, as did Calvin and Wesley, etc., but for them to break away from the established churches of their day was necessary. And it is, alas, sometimes necessary for people to leave or break away from their own established churches even today.
There must, however, be a unity of purpose between Christ following churches, whether they fly a Baptist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, or Catholic flag. We’re not going to put the church back together politically again (and who would want that, considering the last time the “church” was “united”?), but we must learn to work together spiritually to bring the love of Christ to the world. We are not each other’s competition . . . we are co-laborers in God’s vineyard.
Because of the divisions, Paul says, it is not really the Lord’s Supper the church has been coming together to eat. In a church divided over things like favorite leaders and other issues, both important and petty, true Communion cannot happen.
Again, Paul highlights the selfishness of the Corinthians in looking out for their own interests first . . . what we might call “looking out for number one.”
Paul scolds the church members for greedily gloming onto their “share” of the food while poorer members, who might truly benefit from the meal, are left with a few scraps. This shows contempt for the church of God.
Paul repeats for the Corinthians’ benefit the meaning of the Communion ceremony. Some denominations claim that this and other passages teach that the bread or wafers and the wine (the host) physically contain or become the body and blood of our Lord. I can’t imagine many members or clergy genuinely believe themselves to be eating Jesus physical flesh and drinking His blood, but this is the doctrine.
In most churches, the bread and wine (or grape juice) is seen as symbolic. The bread, symbolic of Jesus body which was broken for our sakes. The wine, symbolic of His blood which was shed for us. This ceremony should bind us together and put us in remembrance of our Lord and His sacrifice. If we fail to come together respectfully, reverently, and thoughtfully, this purpose is thwarted.
Middle Eastern culture of the day recognized the idea of the covenant, which was an irrevocable, binding agreement. The Old and New Testaments might be more accurately rendered Covenants. Sharing a meal was one way of joining in a covenant with another person, and was particularly used in the marriage covenant. Jesus’ use of this customary meal spoke of His commitment to His bride, the church.
Our continued participation in the Communion ceremony proclaims Jesus death. It is a ritual which He intended that we carry out until He returns. How often should we partake of Communion? This passage seems to suggest the early church may have shared Communion every time they came together. I don’t know for certain. What do you think?
Paul is especially talking about the Corinthians’ woeful manners during the Communion feast, but partaking in an unworthy manner could cover all sorts of things, from careless and unthinking (or even ineligible) participation to outright scorn, with participation knowingly and callously engaged in for appearance’ sake only.
How do we examine ourselves? In my church, we’re instructed to take part in a little quiet introspection, to ask the Holy Spirit to bring to mind anything we need to repent of before we receive Communion. Then we’re given, oh, about 15 seconds in which to do this. You can’t blame the pastor for the ridiculously short time slot–it’s behoves us as individuals to keep current on this sort of thing. In the natural course of our daily lives as followers of Christ, we should always be ready to enter into Communion.
This kind of introspection should be our daily habit, not kept for once a month or once a quarter (or even once a week) when we take Communion. If we ask Him, the Holy Spirit will be only too happy to bring our sins to our attention almost instantly upon our commission of them, so that we can repent and ask forgiveness right away. This is the best way to be prepared for Communion.
This statement does not mean that we should recognize the elements as the actual body and blood of Jesus, but that we must recognize their significance and the solemnity of the covenant they both represent and bind us to. A covenant sealed in the very blood of God. This is not a thing to be taken lightly.
God does bring judgement on people today, however unpopular that idea may be. More on that later. The important idea in these two verses is that we must evaluate ourselves before partaking of Communion; repent and be forgiven of any sin in our lives; and mend any broken relationships with other believers.
The Communion covenant is one which God takes seriously. It is a covenant cut and sealed with the blood of His Son. He won’t have people partaking for appearances sake, to make themselves “look like” fellow believers, whether simply to avoid embarrassment or for financial or political or other gain. Communion is one of those things God does not have a sense of humor about, but He does remain merciful, even toward those who take this covenant lightly.
The judgement of God on believers is not a judgement of condemnation, but rather one of discipline. God has always our best interests in His heart, which is something not all people can say about their earthly parents or other authorities. Even if earthly authorities do have our best interests in mind, they lack the wisdom and understanding that God is able to exercise. We can always trust that God will do what is best for us, even if it seems unpleasant at the time. (Hebrews 12:5-11)
Sickness and death may seem like harsh judgments to us, but this is because we look at the world as we are able to perceive it within the limits of our physical senses. Neither sickness nor death is a big deal to God. If He calls us home early because we seem determined to mess up, He does it to prevent us from falling into worse error and ultimately losing our hope in Him. This is not, perhaps, His best for us, but if we refuse to follow Him closely, it is His mercy if He chooses to call us home before we wander too far to find our way back.
Paul, as usual, ends his instruction on this subject with some practical advice. Show love by thinking of others first. Wait for one another. Would this mean, perhaps, discretely standing aside to let the elderly, the sick, the little ones, and the poor be served first at the next church dinner? Could it apply to other situations in the life of the church as well?
If you’re so hungry you’re not going to be able to control yourself, Paul says, then eat at home before you come to the church dinner. Good advice for today as well. Even though we seldom see Communion celebrated as an actual feast, church meals are notorious for bringing out the always-famished teens, young adults, and hearty males.
It’s natural and healthy to be hungry in proportion to your body’s needs, but we need to stand back and consider others as before ourselves rather than counting on the indulgent attitudes of other church members. They may indeed be indulgent, but I think it’s safe to say that God is not as amused as grandma is. Eat at home if you need nourishment. Then you’ll be able to show more decorum and love at the church get-together.
Again, the bottom line here is love. First, love of God and true humility and gratitude to our Lord for His stunning and astonishing love toward us. Second, love toward one another in preferring others before ourselves in another of the common situations of life–the shared meal.