1 Corinthians 11:17-34
We are beginning to approach the climax of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians. Throughout the letter, Paul has gradually narrowed his focus; he began with a discussion of the Corinthians’ general behavior in society, followed by a discussion of how they are meant to interact with other members of the Church. Now, he is focusing on the attitudes of the Christian assembly during worship. Specifically, this passage addresses issues surrounding the Eucharist. Paul clearly states that he is chastising the Corinthians for their abuses of the Lord’s supper. These abuses are so severe that the Corinthians’ participation in worship has been working to their detriment, which is precisely the opposite of the desired effect. Paul summarizes these abuses by observing that there are divisions (schisms) within the community when it comes together for worship. The nature of these schisms is explained in verse 21: “when the time comes to eat [the Lord’s supper], each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.” We need to unpack this in order to understand the severity of the problem.
The Corinthian error was associated with a “privatization” of the Lord’s supper, which is difficult for modern Christians to imagine. We are used to partaking of the Eucharist in the context of a highly ritualized liturgy, so when we hear that the Corinthians “privatized” the Eucharist, we get stuck; we might imagine someone gorging himself on communion wafers. In the first century Church, however, the Lord’s supper would not have been celebrated in a designated “church building,” but in the house of a wealthier member of the community who could accommodate a large number of people. The Eucharist was also not limited to a piece of bread and a sip of wine, but was somewhat akin to a potluck supper; people would bring their own food, and the richer members of the community would partake of correspondingly richer fare. Moreover, the Corinthians of a higher socioeconomic status would have arrived to the house early, having more control over their time, and would have sat in the main dining room of the house. The poorer members of the community, probably unable to devote their entire days to fellowship, would have arrived late and been obligated to sit or stand in the outer rooms or courtyard of the house. We might think of the wealthier Corinthian Christians as similar to first class passengers on an airplane; while they fly on the same vessel as those in coach, they receive better food and service. This schism along economic lines was of ultimate importance to Paul; he asks the (richer) Corinthians whether they are intentionally showing contempt to God by humiliating those who have less. Paul suggests that the Lord’s supper is supposed to transcend the economic and social barriers that exist between people in the world.
After explaining the issues surrounding the Corinthian celebration of the Eucharist, Paul recounts the institution of the Lord’s supper that took place on the night before Jesus was handed over to suffering and death. Though there are some interesting differences between Paul’s institution narrative and those found in the gospels, the critically important part of this section is verse 26: “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Remember that the Lord’s death is central to Paul’s thesis in 1 Corinthians: the cross represents the foolishness and weakness of God, which are wiser than human wisdom and stronger than human strength. The Lord’s supper is fundamentally a proclamation of what God has done in Jesus Christ, and how God’s ultimate action transcends all of our wisdom and power as human beings.
Paul then warns that those who participate in the Eucharist “unworthily” will be liable to be condemned. Indeed, he suggests that those who eat without “discerning the body” will eat and drink judgment to themselves. Indeed, Paul suggests that this is why some members of the Corinthian community have died. Now, it’s important to note that “discerning the body” has nothing to do with the debates about transubstantiation or real presence. Rather, given Paul’s discussion in the next chapter, it seems that he is promising judgment against those who do not perceive the community as the body of Christ. Paul is concerned that those who participate in the Lord’s supper must understand themselves to be a part of a community. He goes on to explain that the best way to do this is to “wait for one another.” The Lord’s supper is not about satisfying one’s hunger, but celebrating the reality of a community that has been redeemed through God’s action in Jesus Christ.
“If there is hunger anywhere in the world, then our celebration of the Eucharist is somehow complete everywhere in the world.” — Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J.
The Exhortation in the Rite I Eucharistic Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer (much of which is derived from this passage) reminds us that the “danger is great” when we approach the Lord’s table to receive the sacrament. Given Paul’s interpretation of the death of several Corinthian Christians as judgment for their unworthy reception of the Eucharistic elements, it would seem that we have good reason to fear going to church. Yet it was not the partaking of an inferior Lord’s supper, but the Corinthians’ inadequate proclamation of the Lord’s death that brought on judgment. And if we are to understand the proclamation of Christ’s death as the defining factor in our faith, then an inadequate proclamation of the Lord’s death has dire consequences indeed. It is therefore absolutely necessary that we discern the Body of Christ, the community of God’s people around the world, every time we gather for the Eucharist. While this may seem to be an easy thing to do, a mere matter of shifting our perceptions, we would do well to remember the words of Fr. Arrupe quoted above. Though he is not one of the “Inklings” we have been dealing with throughout Lent, Fr. Arrupe’s words echo Paul’s exhortation to wait for one another when we come together around the Lord’s table. Not only should we wait for those we expect, but also for those who have yet to be invited. In other words, this passage highlights our Christian responsibility to not only feed the hungry, but also to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind. If we are to truly follow Paul’s exhortation to discern the Body of Christ and proclaim his death when we come to the Eucharistic feast, then we must commit to extravagantly providing for the least, the last, and the lost.