Sadly the meal designed to foster unity in the body of Christ, was a focus for division in the church at Corinth and has divided the church ever since. Historically debates and schisms have occurred over issues such as how is Christ present in the elements, who can take communion, how do you take communion, who takes what, to what extent is it a sacrifice, how often do you celebrate it, if at all and the connection between baptism and communion. These things by the way are not spoken to in scripture, they were not the issue at Corinth which Paul deals with in what is the only significant teaching on the Lord’s supper in the New Testament. The issue as NT Wright puts it is “when they came together to celebrate the Lord’s supper they are reinforcing social distinctions which has nothing to do with God’s intentions...This is the division between rich and poor, salve and free.
We are so used to the words of institution from Paul’s letter being used, by themselves, in a liturgical setting that we miss their impact in the context of Paul’s argument. We can be in danger of losing something of the radical and liberating nature of the Lord’s Supper and what it represents.
Paul’s warning to the Corinthians that they should examine themselves before they come to communion has been misunderstood in church history and has been the cause of many people to come to the Lord’s Table fearfully or to avoid it completely. They miss out on the wonderful affirmation of God’s grace, forgiveness and presence. I always remember a church history lecture on revivals in the Church of Scotland. Yes full blown revivals in the Church of Scotland, where at meeting held on the same day reports from one meeting said that the low number of people who took communion was a sign of God moving because people were convicted of their sins and the other reported so many coming to take communion which was a sign of God’s grace and mercy. The picture behind me is of a communion token, which was proof in the old days after an elder’s visit that you were in good conscience able to take communion. Such an individualistic understanding of self-examination can hinder us hearing the call Paul is making, that we cannot come to this meal and disregard the physical and material needs of our brothers and sisters. We share one common loaf we are one people in Christ.
And we are working our way through Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians to see how they and we as a group drawn from different cultures and backgrounds, socioeconomic groupings with all the different expectations and understandings that entails can live as the new people of God, and be one in Christ. We are working our way through a section of Paul’s letter were he deals with issues of public worship. We saw last week that he dealt with gender differences, today He deals with how rich and poor are treated at the Lord’s Supper and next week we will move to look at the issue of spiritual gifts.
As we saw last week Paul had praised the Church at Corinth for keeping the tradition that there was neither male nor female in Christ; that both were equally needed and welcome in leading worship. His issue with them had been that they had blurred the distinction between the two. But now Paul turns to the way they keep another tradition, the Lord’s Supper. The issue here is that instead of doing away with social conventions they had maintained them; primarily the distinction between rich and poor, and slave and free.
In the early church worship would have been held in people’s houses. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper was an intricate part of that worship; it had been passed on to them by Christ. The practise seems to have been that it was celebrated as part of a full fellowship meal. The only houses big enough for these gathering would have been the houses of the rich. Archaeologists have found that most of these houses had a small formal dining room and a large outer courtyard. In Roman society it was seen as important to provide hospitality for the poor, however the important people would gather for a scrumptious meal in the dining room and those of lesser significance would be feed inferior food in the courtyard. While they were welcome, in the way they were treated the strict social order was reinforced. This norm was being carried over into the church.
Also from the words Paul uses about eating before everyone arrives another dimension of this issue is that the rich patron’s turned up and started eating and the slaves would only be able to turn up when they had finished their work, so the meal may well have been over by the time they came. Paul summed up the affect by saying some were going home drunk, they had over indulged and others were going away empty. This says Paul did more harm than good. It would be like turning up to a picnic with your sandwiches and water to find some others already their eating steak and drinking the finest of wines. You’d had to spread your blanket on the slightly soggy ground right next to that smelly long drop, while they feasted by the lakeside at the picnic table. He hammers this home through a series of rhetorical questions. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? or do you despise the Church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? It’s not on in the kingdom of God.
Once again it’s important to point out that one of the distinctives of the new people of God was that in Christ there was neither male nor female, Jew or Gentile, Greek or Barbarian, free or slave, they are one in Christ. We can forget how radical a concept this is, we are used to a more domesticated Christianity that has been conformed to our social norms and has been used to reinforce social structures rather than be revolutionary.
Paul responds to this issue by taking the Corinthians back to what we call the words of institution. Jesus establishing the Lord’s Supper. The focus says Paul is on what Christ has done for us. We remember and celebrate Christ’s death, the means by which we are all bought into a saving relationship with Christ. He does not say it but behind that is Jesus own words and invitation of grace “blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of God.” We are all made right with God, we are all joined together as one people because of Christ’s dead on the cross. In the kingdom of God it is all about new birth not which part of society’s strata we are born. Paul will go on after this to address being the body of Christ in terms of Spiritual gifts and again the underlying principle of that applies here, that God has poured out his holy spirit on all who believe regardless of gender and socio economic status, even on your slaves and maid servants.
The way the words of institution are phrased point us backwards as well to the Passover, God’s saving action for his people and here again we see that the meal celebrates liberation. That God’s people are to be different to the society around them that they are to be free and a society that shows care and concern for the poor.
With the words 'so then' Paul applies this understanding to the church at Corinth. His argument is that we need to discern the body of Christ so that we eat the body of Christ in a right way. That to carry on as the Corinthians had by not waiting for the slaves and not treating the poor as equal in Christ that they have mistreated the very body and blood of Christ. I can’t help but hear the word of Jesus in the parable of the sheep and the goats echoing in this whatever you do for the least of these my breather you have done for me and like was whatever you have not done for these the least of my breather you have not done to me.’
While it is appropriate to do some self-examination here the emphasis is on how we treat other people. How can we participate in this meal of acknowledging God’s gracious action in Christ, while we show the exact opposite of that in how we treat those with physical and material needs. That simple fact shows that we have not fully grasped and understood what Christ has done for us.
Paul goes on to speak prophetically, he sees what is happening in the church with people getting sick and dying is a result of the way they act at the Lord’s supper. Now we need to be careful because people have seen this as a hard and fast cause and consequence chain of events, for all times and all places. But Paul here is acting on a prophetic knowledge into this very situation, not a blanket expression of an angry and vengeful God. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that this is the result of maintaining this societal divide, as the two main causes of sickness and death in our world and increasingly in our nation are those caused by poverty and secondly by over indulgence.
Paul is also quick to point out that the church at Corinth can avoid this judgement by actually using a little discernment. He also points out that the purpose of such judgement is not eternal damnation, final judgement but rather that God wants to disciple his people.
Then with the words ‘so then’ Paul applies this theology to the practise of the Church. He tells the church when they gather together as the church they should all eat together. To show their oneness in Christ they wait for the poor and the slaves to come and join them. They eat the same food. Now in many Pacific Island Churches this is symbolically shown during communion by holding the bread and the wine till all are served and then eating together, and drinking together. Likewise says Paul if you want more eat at home. This picks up what he had said beforehand that those used to a fancy meal could still eat it but at home so when they came they would all share the same food.
How does this apply to us in our world and place today.
As a symbolic act how we do communion matters. Early on the church abandoned celebrating communion in the midst of a full meal. So it was easier for the Lord’s supper as a symbolic meal to demonstrate equality. That we are one. In our tradition we show this by inviting all to sit for communion. You are all God’s welcome guests seated at the table. It used to be signified when Presbyterians would dress the church for communion. They would put thin strips of linen along the pew backs to signify a common table cloth. For cultures who are used to the idea of a top table the minister and elders sitting up behind the table maybe seen to be about status. But it is in our tradition about leaders as servants. We are here so it is easy for us to serve you, and as it says in Luke 17:7-10 a servant eats last. I value those traditions but I am happy to eat this meal with all other Christians. And it has been great to see recently the way that communion has not been such a barrier between people. Twenty five years ago I had friends who came back from an ecumenical renewal conference where there had been a real sense of unity, saddened because on the last day they celebrated the Lord’s supper, the conference split into Catholic and non-Catholic. When I was trainingo for the ministry they sent me to the local Catholic Church for six month to learn about highly liturgical churches. It was great to see that the church had reformed to the extent that I was welcomed to join them in eating the bread and drinking the cup. A lot of the difficulties from the reformation had been sorted.
But this passage really challenges us about how we treat each other. In the quick summary of the life of the church in Jerusalem after Pentecost we see that a result of the spirits presence was that People sold what they owned to meet the needs of others in the church. There was a carrying of this being one in Christ and caring for each other to a great extent. Like In Corinth we to who share the loaf need to help meet each other physical and material needs. It’s interesting that one commentator I read said that these day churches are not so much made up of a wide spectrum of people from all socioeconomic groups. We tend to gravitate to congregations of people similar to us. Like with male and female we can lose the insights and emphasises that each bring to the table as it were. But this does not resolve us from responsibility for caring for the physical and material needs of those less fortunate than ourselves. Likewise in the global village we need to be aware of our brothers and sisters in poverty and sadly those trapped in the up serge of slavery round the world. It challenges us about how much of the world’s resources we consume when others have none.
Finally, Paul finishes this section with almost a throw away comment,’ and when I come I will give further directions’ as NT Wright points out it leave us ‘open to face issues in our own Church life with the same shrewd clarity and the same theological principles. We are being asked to wrestle with how the church understands equality in terms of sexuality as well as gender; we are confronted with a theology that equates God’s blessing with material wealth and wellbeing that equally shames the churches understanding of all being equal in Christ. On practical issues as a church we face how do we do church that reflects our cultural diversity, without prioritising one way of doing things over another. How do we allow people to express their own culture and still maintain our expression of unity… Making sure we sit as equals at the table. In the end the table maybe what points the way forward that we come together and remember Christ’s death until he comes.