A Call For Unity

1Corinthians 11:17-34

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / December 7, 2003


             The Christians in Corinth were a splintered bunch.  They divided over which leader they would follow; they were divided regarding sexual ethics, and there were differences of opinion over eating food sacrificed to idols.


            We are not surprised then, to see that these schisms also manifested in the context of worship. In addressing these divisions, the apostle Paul does not mince words, “I do not praise you,” Paul says, “because you come together not for the better but for the worse” (11:17).


            The Corinthians were gathering for the Lord’s Supper, but they did so in such a manner that, in Paul’s estimation, it was not the Lord’s Supper, but their “own supper” (11:20,21).


            Those who were attending the supper were apparently arriving at staggered times; as a result, those arriving early were well fed—some were even “drunk”—while those who arrived later, left “hungry” (11:21).


            Now, I recognize that the descriptions of hunger and intoxication likely sounds strange to us. Churches today observe the Lord’s Supper very differently from the way the 1st century church did. Most of us would never dream of coming to church on Sunday without first eating breakfast. We are well aware that the pinch of bread and the modicum of drink will not suffice for our physical needs.


            In the early Church, by contrast, the Lord’s Supper was integrated in communal meals. Each person brought food and drink to share in common with the others.  We hear this, and we naturally picture the 1st century equivalent of a ‘potluck dinner’, but this dinner also included the Lord’s Supper, in that it was celebrated with symbolic words and actions (Quast, The Corinthian Correspondence, 72).


            One factor that likely exacerbated some of the existing schisms in the Corinthian church was the social disparity within the congregation. Wealthier members of the Corinthian church, who presumably had more leisure time, would arrive early for the feast bringing plenty of food with them. The poorer members, some of whom would have likely been slaves, would work longer hours, arriving later with only a modest contribution to the communal meal (Quast, The Corinthian Correspondence, 72).


            To remedy this situation, Paul gives the Corinthians two choices: 1) eat in your own home before gathering for the Lord’s Supper (11:22), or 2) “when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (11:33).


            Paul also attempts to return the Corinthians to the original purpose for their gathering when he says to them, “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, “This is My body, broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same manner 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.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes (again)” (11:23-26).


            Beloved, what are we doing when we come to the Lord’s Table? What are we hoping to accomplish?


            The first thing we are doing, as we share in the Lord’s Supper, is we are remembering. We eat, and we drink, Jesus says “in remembrance of Me”. Interestingly, Jesus does not say “do this in remembrance of all that I have taught you”—although, admittedly, we would be wise to heed the teachings of Jesus. Yet, Jesus would have us remember something else at the Table—He would have us remember His death; He would have us remember His body, “broken for (us)”; He would have us remember the covenant we have “in (His) blood”.


            The Lord’s Supper reminds us of the centrality of the cross to the Christian faith. We are not gathered here merely as a social club to raise our cups; we are not gathered merely as a group of people who share similar ethical values to confess our creeds; we are not even gathered here as a group of people who like to sing particular hymns; we are gathered here to remember that the basis of our coming before God, and the basis of our gathering with one another is the death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.


            We are here to remember the death of Christ, yet this is no mere memorial service. The One whom we remember is not dead; He is risen and is present to us by His Holy Spirit.


            For this reason, we maintain that in coming to the Lord’s Table we are spiritually nourished. Do we see this explicitly in the text? No, we infer this—we see this in the fact that the Lord’s Supper is a supper. We are eating and drinking, yet Paul maintains that we should take care of our bodily needs by eating before we come for the Lord’s Supper (11:22). We infer then, that this Supper is not about physical nourishment, but about spiritual nourishment.


            We infer this also from Paul’s earlier rebuke, “you come together not for the better but for the worse” (11:17). Implied in that rebuke is the idea being that we who gather at the Lord’s Table should come away in a better state than when we came to the Table.


            The Lord’s Supper is about remembering the death of Christ, it is about being spiritually nourished, and it is about proclaiming the death of Christ.


            Typically, we think of proclamation as speaking words, yet Paul tells us that celebrating the Lord’s Supper is a kind of proclamation. Paul explains, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes (again)” (11:26).


            Because the Lord’s Supper means something; because the Lord’s Supper involves much more than a pinch of bread and modicum of wine; we are effectively declaring something when we partake. We are proclaiming to all who are present that we believe that Jesus has reconciled us to our Heavenly Father through His death. Our participation in the Lord’s Supper is our ongoing declaration that we desire to be included in this New Covenant. This covenant, mediated by Jesus Christ, binds us to the Triune God, and it binds us to one another.


            But here is where the Corinthians had failed. The Lord’s Supper, which was intended to bind Christians in the local church together, was actually contributing to further division. It is in this context that Paul warns, “whoever eats the bread and drinks the wine in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body rightly” (11:27-29).


            The “unworthy manner” of partaking in the Lord’s Supper is not framed in terms of their vertical relationship—Paul says nothing here about how the Corinthians were relating to God. No, Paul’s warning against eating and drinking in an “unworthy manner” is framed in terms of their horizontal relationship; he frames his warning within the context of how they were relating to one another.


            To partake in the Lord’s Supper in an “unworthy manner” is to make oneself susceptible to God’s judgment. Paul warns, “he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body rightly” (11:29).


            What does Paul mean, “judge the body rightly”? A cursory reading of the text may cause someone to conclude that Paul is talking about the human body of Jesus—the body of Jesus “broken for you”. Many have, in fact, understood the use of the word “body” in this way. In response to this interpretation, Christians have emphasized the need to approach the Table mindful of the image of Christ’s body, hung on a cross. And, in bringing the image of Christ, hanging on the cross, to mind, we are to confess our sins. Failure to do so is to judge the body wrongly.


            To be sure, bringing to mind Christ on the cross and confessing sins is, both, appropriate and necessary. However, the context of this passage positions us for a much narrower interpretation. The unworthiness Paul seems to have in mind here has to do with participating in the Lord’s Supper in a manner that ignores the mandate for Christians to worship in harmony with one another.


            To prevent unworthy eating and subsequent judgment, Paul does not advise the Corinthians to confess their sin, or even to recognize Christ’s presence in the elements, but rather, he tells them to wait for one another (Pratt, I & IICorinthians, 202).


            Paul’s emphasis is not an introspective approach to the Table, but rather, Paul offers a perspective that emphasizes the needs and feelings of others.


            When Paul speaks of judging the body rightly, it is likely that he is referring to the body of believers, the body of Christ, which is the Church.


            To violate the sanctity of the Lord’s Supper then, is to come to the Table without having sought unity within the church.


We effectively mock the forgiveness given to us through Christ’s death, if we refuse to forgive those who have sinned against us. We trample the grace of God, if we come to the Table unwilling to extend God’s grace to others.


            The call to the Lord’s Table then, is a call for unity. The call to have communion with God includes a call to have communion with one another. This is why the Lord’s Supper is rightly called a sacrament of the church. You may pray and you may read your Bible at home alone, but you may not have the Lord’s Supper on your own. The Table of our Lord is for the church, and its members, gathered in the spirit of unity.


            Some of the Corinthians experienced the judgment of God because they did not judge rightly the body of Christ. Their example is recorded as a warning for us.


            Beloved, search your hearts. Be sure that you are not harbouring bitterness against any individual within this church. We must forgive, just as we have been forgiven. We must come to the Lord’s Table united; we must leave the Lord’s Table united, and we must serve the Lord united in faith, and in purpose, for the glory of the One who died for us—Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. Amen.