Over the next weeks and leading all the way up to Advent, we are going to be exploring Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians on Sunday mornings. It’s a remarkable letter in so many ways – it explores a huge swath of questions about what it means that we are followers of the risen Jesus. As you can see, I’ve entitled the series faith and body – I think the appropriateness of that title will become pretty clear over the coming weeks.
So this morning we start into this series, but this morning we aren’t going to begin at the beginning. We aren’t going to begin with chapter 1 verse 1. And we’re also not going to begin with an historical sketch of the city of Corinth or even with a sketch of Paul’s life up to the time of writing.
Rather than beginning at the beginning – and rather than beginning with the history and context of the letter – we are going to dive right into the middle of Paul’s letter. We’re going to start in the middle of chapter 11, which is where our New Testament lesson comes from this morning.
For those who have been around the church for some time, the words that we heard from 1 Corinthians 11 will probably be familiar to you. You have likely hear this passage given as the New Testament reading on a number of Sunday mornings – and more specifically, you’ve probably also heard it pretty regularly as part of the church’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
Here are those familiar words Paul wrote:
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 25In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
For us, these words have taken on a life of their own, independent of the letter they are set within. For us these just are words that explain why we share in the Lord’s Supper, and what we do in the supper. In fact, both within the communion liturgy and in our New Testament bibles, the heading under which these words of Paul are given is as follows: “The Institution of the Lord’s Supper.” That’s what these words have become for us: “The institution of the Lord’s Supper.” Jesus gave these words to Paul, and Paul passes them on to us: Take the bread – this is my body; take the cup – this is my blood, etc., etc.
Now of course these words can be used in this way. It’s pretty hard to disagree with almost 2000 years of church history on this point – yes, we can take the meaning and shape of the Lord’s Supper from this scripture passage. We can respect that tradition.
But what’s interesting is that in their literary context – in the letter of Paul – the purpose of these words is not to tell us we should share in this meal, or to tell us what the meal means. Paul simply did not write these words in order to institute communion as a sacrament of the church.
To begin in the most general terms, in this part of his letter Paul is showing the Corinthian church that this meal – this moment of remembrance through bread and wine – this sharing with the risen Jesus – this meal has implications for how we live. Imbedded within this meal there is a logic of community life – imbedded within this meal there is an ethical vision. Otherwise put, this meal forms God’s people in a particular way.
Perhaps the first part of our reading today from 1 Corinthians chapter 11 struck us as a little strange. If we pick up on just a part of what Paul is saying before he gets to the “words of institution” we see him pointing out what has been going on when the Christians of Corinth share in bread and wine together. We read:
When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. 21For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. 22What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!
In the first place we notice that the Corinthian church celebrated communion differently than we do – in the sense that the Lord’s supper was taking place as part of a larger community meal. Perhaps it would have been like taking a moment in the middle of our BBQ last evening to share in wine and bread, and to share words of remembrance of Jesus of the sacrificial love of Jesus.
But in the sentences leading up to the “institution of the Lord’s Supper,” Paul also describes something else that happens when they gather. The church then as now was made up of people of diverse socio-economic status – people from almost class and every walk of life. This historian David Horrell describes the various domestic spaces in which the church may have gathered, which gives a sense of its diversity. He says it may have been anything “from country villas to peasant homes, smart town apartments to rooms behind or over a shop, not to mention the more ramshackle and temporary dwellings of the destitute.” Christ is worshipped in every type of home – and in every type of home they gather for worship on the first day of the week.
This diversity in social status, and this diversity of economic wellbeing, has come to expression in a particular way in the church in Corinth. As Paul describes it: 21When the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.
In the Corinthian church, in this shared meal – this pot-luck supper if you will – some of the wealthier people are eating very well. They have more than enough to eat. But at this gathering there are other women and men who have brought nothing with them to eat – they have nothing to bring – they have no food. And while the wealthier members of the church go ahead and enjoy their meal, and drink enough that more than a few of them are drunk – there are others sitting off to the side who watch with big eyes and empty stomachs.
Paul rebukes them:
22What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!
But what’s the big deal? Why are you so angry Paul? I mean this goes on all the time in society – we all know that there are wealthy people and there are poor people –that there are people who have enough to eat and people who don’t have enough to eat – there are those who have a source of income and those who are destitute. That’s just the way it is. That’s life.
What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you! [And then Paul continues…] For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it
Wait a minute. What? How on earth does this follow? In one minute Paul is talking about the divisions that exist within the Corinthian church. At one moment he’s talking about the fact that some are stuffing themselves and getting drunk while others are going hungry. And his next words are: “For I received from the Lord what I handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed took a loaf of bread…”
What is going on here? Obviously Paul isn’t introducing this sacramental meal to the church in Corinth – they already celebrate it. And obviously this isn’t simply a text that passes on this meal to the wider church, which is how we’ve come to use it.
Rather, Paul speaks about their sharing in the bread and wine, in the body and blood of Christ – precisely as an answer to what is going on at their community meals. He explains what the Lord’s Supper is to show why he is so angry and why he is rebuking them.
He is saying:
You cannot act this way;
You cannot allow some to stuff their faces while others go hungry;
You cannot allow some to get drunk while others go thirsty;
You cannot allow the socio-economic divisions that are normal in your culture to become normal in this particular community.
Why not? Why can’t we act in this way?
In context, Paul’s answer is – you cannot act this way – you cannot let your life together in community take that particular shape – because the meal you share represents a refusal of all of that way.
Or, to put it the other way around – the way you are acting – the shape of your community life with its inequalities and its lack of compassion and care – your community life represents a refusal of the deep meaning of the meal you share with Jesus. There is an utter disconnect between the meaning of this meal and the way they were behaving in the sharing of bread and wine.
When you sit at this table – when you share in bread and wine with his people here – when you participate in the broken body and blood of Christ here – then you share in the kingdom of Jesus, you walk with Jesus, you belong to Jesus. And who is he?
He is the one feeds those who are hungry.
He eats at table with those who are marginalized.
He warns us against storing up treasures on earth.
He lifts up the sinful and broken from the dust.
He draws the alienated and broken back into community.
We cannot sit at this table and at the same time live in ways that represent a refusal or betrayal of this table. And that, Paul says, is just what the Corinthian Christians are doing.
22What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you! For I received from the Lord what I handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread…
How we live as Christians – our ethical framework – our vision for life together – all of this does not come abstract ideas that float around in the air:
Do this, don’t do that.
Follow this set of principles.
Obey this set of laws.
Sure there will inevitably be a place for rules and principles and laws. But in the first place, in the most decisive sense, the shape of our life is defined by this table around which we gather – this table at which Christ presides as host – this table at which he nourishes us and walks with us. This table gives us a vision of compassion and justice and wellbeing and community and new life together as the Body of Christ.
One of the most challenging questions our culture faces today is the question of how we should live – of what kind of community we should be building. And even more challenging for our culture is the question of “Why?” Why should our culture look like this and not like that? Do we have good reasons to follow this way or some other way? Are we even able to answer the question of “Why?” It’s a particularly difficult question for a society when we’ve decided ahead of time that the answers to such questions must be answered by everyone in his or her own way – the good life is just whatever each person thinks it is.
Here in the community of God’s people, we have a starting point – and this table is that starting point. Around this table we belong together, because we belong to Christ. At this table we serve one another, because Christ is our servant king. Around this table we are called to embody compassion and generosity and justice, for it is his life we share, and no other. Like the church of Corinth, we may need a reminder of who we are – of how this meal shapes us. We may need that reminder again and again. But there is a place of grounding for us – a place to which we may return – and this table is that place.
And now to the one God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus, to all generations, now and forever. Amen.