Wednesday, December 09, 2009

1 Corinthians Disorder 2: Lord's Supper

Previous posts in this series, Life Reflections on Paul and His Writings, include:

1a. Born at a Time and Place 1; 1b. Born at a Time and Place 2
2a. A Change in Life Direction; 2b A Change in Life Direction 2; 2c A Change in Life Direction 3
3a. The Unknown Years 1; 3b. The Unknown Years 2; 3c. The Unknown Years 3
4a. Life Beyond Death; 4b. Life Beyond Death; 4c. Life Beyond Death; 4d Life Beyond Death
5a. Disunity at Corinth; 5b. Disunity at Corinth 2; 5c. Disunity at Corinth 3
6 How Not to Have Sex
7a. Disagreement and Disorder 1

Chapter 7, "Disagreement and Disorder," continues...
The Lord's Supper
Chapters 11-14 of 1 Corinthians all seem to deal in one way or another with issues of worship in the church. Chapter 11 begins with the question of how women should dress in worship. It then ends with the shameful way the Corinthians are eating the Lord's supper. Then chapters 12 through 14 deal with the proper exercise of spiritual gifts, with the "love chapter" of 1 Corinthians 13 sandwiched in the middle of the discussion. It is a not so subtle reminder that unity is a "more excellent way" than arguing over who is spiritually superior (12:31).

1 Corinthians 11:17-34 just may have been one of the first parts of this letter Paul wrote. He mentions that he has heard of divisions among them, and he partially believes it. Surely by this point in the letter he is more than a little convinced! We remember that the ancients did not just sit down and write a letter the way we write an email today. [1] Writing a letter involved some expense and planning. It is at least possible, then, that in the "archaeological dig" of 1 Corinthians we have hit one of the earliest layers in this section.

The social divisions we have suggested existed at Corinth seem especially to have come out in the way they were eating the Lord's Supper. Just as Jesus' Last Supper was a meal, so it would seem the Lord's Supper was among the earliest Christians. It seems not a little likely that the "love feasts" that Jude 12 mentions (the "agape") were their way of celebrating what we now call communion or the Eucharist.

Eating in the ancient world was a big deal. You ate with people who were of the same status as you, people either of the same honor level as you or who might enhance your status. In Judaism, eating was a potential source of defilement because of the purity rules of Leviticus. Within the context of the Leviticus, the concerns of the Pharisees toward Jesus' eating with prostitutes and tax collectors were perfectly understandable.

The disfunction of the Corinthian church during its love feasts thus flowed nicely out of the culture of the day just as much as it illustrated what the way of Christ was not supposed to be. It is not entirely clear from 1 Corinthians 11 whether everyone was expected to bring some food as in a pot-luck dinner or whether the host of the house, presumably Gaius, provided the bulk of the food. In any case, some believers apparently are getting to the meal later than others, often suggested to be slaves and those of lower status. Meanwhile, the wealthy owner of the house and those of his social stratum have perhaps already feasted sumptuously and are drunk by the time the others have arrived.

Anticipating what will come later in his discussion of spiritual gifts, Paul indicts such individuals as not understanding the body of Christ. They think themselves somehow more worthy than the others when in fact God does not deal in such distinctions. Some, Paul says, have actually become sick and died as a result of their sin of division in the church.

This passage has often led American Christians to become very introspective before communion. They have taken the words, "Examine yourselves" (11:28), to mean that you need to have everything right with God before you take communion. Some American Christians even avoid the four Sunday evening services a year their church does communion out of fear! Suffice it to say, this passage has nothing to do with such hyper-introspection or need to be completely right with God before partaking, as if one needs to mention and repent individually for every sin you have committed before you eat and drink.

The Lord's Supper is actually an excellent time for us to hit the "reset button" on our relationship with God and Christ. But it should be celebrated with joy, not with dread or fear. The problem with the Corinthians was that of division and a divisive spirit, not one of individualized imperfection. Ironically, when we celebrate this communal meal today with individualized wafers and communion cups, we usually miss one of Paul's main points--the unity of the body of Christ: "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread." (10:17).

And the Corinthians, as all the early Christians, probably had this meal every week, probably one of the most central activities they did together. Later Christianity set the Eucharist off into a specialized ritual to be performed by specially ordained priests. Very specialized theology developed around this tradition, centered on the words of Jesus at the original supper. Unless we want to say that God let Christianity wander off track for two thousand years, God apparently did not have too much of a problem with celebrating it this way. God surely meets each Christian tradition today in the way each has come to celebrate it. This is God's way, to meet us where we are, for we cannot possibly get to His level.

At the same time, many Christians could no doubt improve their celebration of the Lord's Supper by getting back to basics. Fellowship and the unity of the body of Christ is clearly the key dimension of the meal that Paul focuses on in 1 Corinthians. Remembering and reappropriating the sacrificial, new covenant-making death of Jesus is another obvious key function. Healthy Christian communities still find themselves accomplishing these functions in one way or another, as Christians regularly "break bread" together and set up mechanisms for accountability and thanksgiving to God and Christ. Communities that do not find themselves doing these things are deficient, unhealthy. The faith of someone who only comes to sit for an hour a week in a pew without fellowship or meaningful reflection on Christ can hardly be anything but anemic, if it can even remain genuine Christian faith for long.

[1] Or the way we used to write letters :-)

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