by Dr. John Yates
1 Cor 11:17-34
The average Australian Christian faces several enormous obstacles to do with internalising the testimony of Jesus that this passage brings to us today. If you have never been a spiritual father/mother nor had a true spiritual father/mother in your life the strength of Paul’s admonitions to his beloved Corinthian children (1 Cor 4:14-15; 2 Cor 2:4; 2 Cor 11:11; 2 Cor 12:15) will be incomprehensible. Unless you have been taught the uncompromising disciplines of God you will necessarily deny that the apostle’s warnings are relevant to yourself or to your church. Such denial is not only predictable but a sure sign that we share the culture of self-sufficiency that threatened the welfare of the church in Corinth. Most of the Church in our country, like the Corinthian Christians, welcomes the presence of Jesus at the communion meal only as Saviour but not as Judge. Such spiritual insensitivity carries drastic consequences, consequences we can only appreciate if we enter into something of the social and religious background of our passage.
Converts from both Judaism and Graeco-Roman religions were used to celebrating sacred meals in the presence of the G/god they worshipped and all believed that in such acts of worship the power of the deity was present in their midst. It was this presence of divine life that constituted the identity of the community. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” (1 Corinthians 12:12 ESV). In biblical thinking the bond between the heavenly Jesus and his Body (the Church) on earth is so intimate that any abuse of the Body (the Church) is an abuse of Christ himself. Or, to change the analogy slightly, if someone insults my wife, they insult me (cf. 1 Cor 3:16-17).
Section 1. Despising the Church
“v17 But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. v18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, v19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. v20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. v21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. v22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.” (11:17-23)
Paul gets straight to the point; unless the Corinthians get their act together they would be better off not coming together as a church! Things were that bad. Then the apostle states a spiritual truth that flies in the face of all popular movements for Christian unity, “for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” (1 Cor 11:19 ESV). Through his many struggles with false teachers/brothers inside the Church this teacher of righteousness knew that conflicts must arise on account of the truth of the gospel (2 Cor 11:13, 26; Gal 1:4). There must be factions so that the genuine believers can be recognised. But recognised by whom? Given the emphasis of the passage as a whole falls on the judgement of God, recognition of who is genuine is something done by God, and in this chapter the difference between genuine and false Christianity is solely on the basis of how professing believers behave!
To understand the scandalous behaviour in Corinth we must remember that the Lord’s Supper was a real meal. Like the Last Supper on which it was based and the Passover before that, people met in ordinary homes to celebrate God’s saving love with their brothers and sisters in the Lord. (Sadly most of the Church has dispensed with this very integral dimension of eating with the Lord as head of a real family table.) In Corinth the church had divided along sociological grounds, the rich were getting to the church gathering early and gluttonising with complete disregard for the poorer members of the fellowship. Paul vehemently charges the well-to-do with despising the church of God and humiliating those who have nothing. Perhaps the words of Proverbs were ringing in his ears; “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honours him.” (Prov 14:31). Discrimination on the basis of privilege, power on position can be very pervasive in both culture and Church.
Most of us have probably been for an X ray, I usually avoid placing my title in forms; the one time I put Dr in front of my name the radiologist came out of his office to personally discuss with me the results. I assume he assumed that I was someone like himself. I remember attending conferences and being encouraged to sit up the front with other pastors; I hate these sorts of experiences, because they fly in the face of the impartiality of Christ (Luke 14:7-11). And for the inquiring minds, I never sit near the front without a very good functional reason. (My wife might say I suffer discriminate in favour of the underdog, but that would still prove my point.)
It is rare to find a Christian church or organisation that has mastered the problem of favouring the powerful; thankfully there are some exceptions. Some of you might know Eagles City Mission, a church for the homeless in Perth. I love to hear Basil talk about members of the “family” and how when they meet together week by week how they all share the same (good) food.
Someone might however think, “But there are no poor people at our church.” If this is true you have a very serious problem. There is something foundationally astray if the Church lacks the sort of people who thronged about Jesus. One of the strong points of a very intellectual congregation where I pastored in the western suburbs was the significant number of very broken people who also attended folk with mental illnesses, refugees, pensioners and the like (unfortunately no Indigenous people). As this passage will make clear the poor and needy are a gift of Christ to the Church. Paul now embarks on some positive teaching about the Lord’s Supper as a solution to the Corinthian problem of elitism and division.
Section 2. The Lord’s Supper
“v24 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” v25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” v26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”11:24-26
A pivotal phrase in this section is, “Do this in remembrance of me.” In the Old Testament when God “remembers” he acts e.g. when “God remembered Noah” he blew away the flood waters (Gen 8:1), when he “remembered” Rachel he gave her a child (Gen 30:12); when he “remembered” his covenant with the patriarchs he delivered Israel from Egypt (Ex 2:24). When the psalmist says, “He has caused his wondrous works to be remembered; the LORD is gracious and merciful.” (Ps 111:4 ESV) he means that through a sacred action the present situation of the people is put in touch with the historical saving acts of God (cf. Ps 114). This is a strange way of thinking for cultures who conceptualise time as empty linear space.
When God instructs Moses to teach the Israelites to recite through the ages, “v6 And the Egyptians treated us harshly [and humiliated us and laid on us hard labour.] v7 Then we cried to the LORD, [the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.] v8 And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. v9 [And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.]” (Deut 26:6-9 ESV), each generation was to understand itself immediately connected to with God’s delivering presence at the time of the exodus. So when Jewish people celebrate Passover today they believe they are in touch with the same power of God which delivered their ancestors from Pharaoh. As followers of Jesus we believe that all the Passover represented has been consummated in his death and resurrection.
When Jesus commanded his disciples, “do this in remembrance of me”, he was declaring that as we share in his Supper we are immediately connected by his saving presence to his death on the cross and the power of his resurrection.
There is an old African-American spiritual that grasps this sort of reality: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?….Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?…. Were you there when they pierced him in the side?….Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?….Were you there when He rose up from the dead?”
In the eternal mind heart and purposes of God each of us was there! The presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper fuses together what we think of as past and present; it reactualises Jesus’ great sacrifice and puts us immediately in touch with its immeasurable grace. The reality of this connection with the power of Jesus death and life has enormous consequences.
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” To eat and drink at the Lord’s Supper is to preach Christ in his personal presence. By the taking of the elements of bread and wine by faith we proclaim to each other that Jesus is “with us” until he returns (cf. Matt 1:23; 28:20). The practice of Holy Communion is not a take it or leave it affair, but a command of Christ given for our strengthening in a hostile world until he comes again.
The expectation of the imminent return of Christ was kept alive in the early church by the intensity of his presence. The Bible ends with these words, “He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20 ESV), because it was written in a spiritual atmosphere where Jesus was already felt to be so near. Is the presence of Christ so tangible to us is that we feel he could return at any time; do you live brothers and sisters as if the time is short? What Paul has to say next reveals just how serious it is to respect the Lord’s habitation in our midst.
Section 3. The Discipline of the Lord
“v27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. v28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. v29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. v30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. v31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. v32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.”11:27-32
There has been much discussion about what it means to eat and drink at the Lord’s Supper “in an unworthy manner”.
Our best hint at Paul’s meaning comes from his preaching in Acts, where the Jews in Antioch rejected the gospel and so judged themselves “unworthy of eternal life” (Acts 13:46). The church in Corinth had a dismissive attitude to the presence of Christ at the Lord’s Supper and as such they were “guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord”. The remedy for this involved rightly “discerning the body”?
Since Paul speaks here only of “the body” and not “the blood”, and his broader context is about the church as the body of Christ, the failure to “discern the body” is best understood as the rich abusing the poor by treating them as inferior members of Christ’s Church. The consequences of trivialising of Supper were deadly; “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” This verdict, together with the next part of the letter which speaks openly of gifts of healings and miracles in the church, makes it unmistakably clear that in the one congregation of Corinth Jesus was both healing people and killing people.
How do we explain such, to us, drastic action by the Prince of Peace?
Since the Lord’s Supper is a reactualisation of the saving death of Christ, the Lord is personally present in his body (the Church) in the power of the cross. When the people of God resist Christ’s gracious personal presence the power of his death is experienced as judgement. Like so much of the Church today the Corinthians welcomed Jesus as an agent of blessing and deliverance, but they had forgotten that in the Lord’s Supper Christ comes to us as the one who has judged the world by being judged in its place.
The rich and powerful in Corinth had forgotten the humility and brokenness of Christ constantly imaged before them, not only in the broken bread and outpoured wine of communion, but in the lowly state of their fellow believers (cf. 1 Cor 1:26-31). To despise their poor brethren was to despise the Lord. As such they were being judged by the very power which had once saved them. Remember what Jesus himself taught in the parable of the sheep and goats; “v35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,v36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’…. v40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40 ESV).
In a day when the Christian community is truly global, I wonder, for example, how many of us intercede and practically support our persecuted and impoverished brothers and sisters in other parts of the globe.
The purpose of such judgement must never be confused with condemnation, “when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.”(11:32). God’s strong discipline is a clear sign of his love; the writer of Hebrews remarks, “v5 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. v6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” (Heb 12:5-6 ESV).
I spend a good deal of time helping Christians, often leaders, to discern the hand of God upon their lives – the most common element of confusion is that they have not been taught how to recognise the presence of God’s love in making life hard for them! It was necessary even for Jesus to feel abandoned by the Father on the cross (Mark 15:34), but only so that we might know the absolute uncompromising purity of God’s love that saves us totally. Many believers never mature because they cannot discern the difference between God’s discipline upon his children and the divine anger which falls only upon the world.
Such Fatherly judgement may seem so strange to us but it is abundantly clear throughout scripture. The Holy Spirit killed Ananias and Sapphira because their deceit threatened the purity of the early church (Acts 5:1-11). Jesus repeatedly warns the compromised churches in the book of Revelation, [“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”(Revelation 2:5 ESV); “Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them (the sexually immoral) with the sword of my mouth.” (Revelation 2:16 ESV);] “I gave her (Jezebel the false prophetess) time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality.
Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead.” (Revelation 2:21-22 ESV);
[“Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.” (Revelation 3:3 ESV);]
“‘because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” (Revelation 3:15-16 ESV)
Why did the Spirit-saturated Corinthians need to be told what the God was doing in their midst?
Remember, those who were sick and dying were fathers, mothers, brothers, children friends; many of whom would have been known by name to Paul personally. Why couldn’t they see what was happening for themselves and why do we similarly lack discernment? When we lack genuine humility the Lord hands us over to our own blindness (John 9:41), we consider ourselves spiritual people when we are in fact spiritual babies (1 Cor 2:1).
God forbid that we should ever consider ourselves as mature, godly or spiritual. The moment a church considers it has “arrived” it is in great danger because it no longer grasped by the humiliation of the cross (Phil 2:5-8; cf. Rev 3:17).
Section 4. Wait for One Another
“v33 So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— v34 if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come.” (11:33-34)
Paul’s injunction that the members of the church need to “wait” for one another is best interpreted in the context of the affluent providing Christian hospitality. When was the last time you asked someone over for lunch after Sunday service that is socially different from you.
The solemn warnings about judgement in 1 Corinthians are not written induce in us some sort of spiritual terror, but to inspire us into action to receive the grace of God so freely offered in Christ.
The pastor of the first church I attended said one day that he felt the body-life of the congregation needed to be intensified. He created a space during communion where we were encouraged to find someone we didn’t know, ask them what they needed from God and then to pray and bless them in Jesus’ name. That wasn’t easy for a very shy person like I then was, but I did it. On other occasions the pastor charged us with something much more radical. Before taking communion a time was left open to approach anyone who we felt we had a critical attitude towards and to seek their forgiveness and prayers. I remember distinctly doing this with one shocked brother; but it was a powerful demonstration of the reconciling love of the cross. It is such godly acts that turn away the painful discipline and judgement of God and release the grace of his presence.
I remember preaching in a wealthy church in Hong Kong and beginning with the statement, “God must love you because he wants to rebuke you; as Jesus said to the church in Laodicea, “Those whom I love I reprove and discipline.”” (Rev 3:19).
If “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8 ESV) he most certainly is judging the bulk of the spiritually adolescent and deeply indifferent Church in Australia today because he so loves us, for the painful disciplines of God are the only way he can truly mature us. Woe to the man or woman who does not hear the Lord’s rebuke and does not feel the inner pain of his discipline (Heb 12:11), for they will surely be overwhelmed by the concerns of this life and lack that window onto eternity that only the judgements of God can bring. Unless we experience for ourselves the uncompromising hand of God on our own sins, we can never truly believe in his uncompromising reign which will surely cleanse the whole universe from evil and create new heavens and earth (2 Pet 3:8-13).
This passage on the Lord’s Supper speaks to us so directly and so shockingly, because it speaks to us so immediately of the cross – of Christ crucified and risen in our midst. I must leave you with some open questions about your future path to maturity as a body.
Does your Church really want to know the presence of Christ in your midst as we have heard of it today?
Are you willing to have factions emerge through God’s testing that the whole body might be purified?
Do you want to be a church regarded for its proficiency or as a shelter for the weak, broken and impoverished? Do you hunger so much for the presence of Jesus acting in your midst with such intensity that, apart from repentance, some of you will fall ill and others perish!
May God rescue us all from the errors of our brothers and sisters in Corinth with whom we have so much in common.