"Who We Are at the Lord’s Supper" - 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 - Sermon by Joe Ellis — May 16, 2021
This is Part 2 in our reflection on the sacraments. Two weeks ago we reflected on the sacrament of Baptism, today we will reflect on the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
Most often we only read parts from this chapter of 1 Corinthians in church, and we don’t hear how all the parts fit together in the context. The trouble is that the last part of this passage we heard can often be read out of context, where Paul said, "So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup.”
Those words read out of context have intimidated many from joining in a joyful celebration of the Lord’s Supper — Instead, faithful Christians can fall into an intrepid self-examination of sin so as not to participate unworthily in the Lord’s Supper. The result is that a sombre, sober tone can often be cast over the Lord’s Supper, bringing people to the table with fear and trembling lest they take the Lord’s Supper inappropriately. It’s like encouraging a sick person to think, “Why don’t you get a little healthier before you see the doctor.” Yet this could not be further from Paul’s point in this passage. When Paul tells them to examine themselves, he’s telling the church to examine the way they relate to each other. The Corinthian church was celebrating the Lord’s Supper in a way that achieved the opposite of what the sacrament intended. Their celebration of the Lord’s Supper was humiliating for the poor in the congregation. For this reason, Paul says in verse 20, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat…” The Lord’s Supper is intended to do precisely the opposite. My hope is that through reflecting on this passage, we can return the Lord’s Supper to being sustenance for those who feel weak, not simply a sacrament for those who feel strong.
When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, typically we just get a small square of bread and a thimbleful of juice. That wasn’t true in the early church. Their celebration of the Lord’s Supper was part of a larger meal. Now, these early church services didn’t take place in church buildings designed to hold a lot of people in one place. Rather, these churches often would gather in the homes of wealthy people in the church — for the practical reason that they had bigger houses. In normal life in that culture, when wealthy people would throw a party, the guests of honour would sit in the most special room, have the best wine, the choicest cuts of meat, and the most luxurious furnishings. There were also other rooms and other tables — the further you got from the head of the feast, the more likely your meal would resemble a microwave dinner. One Greek poet, called Martial, put it this way: “Since I am asked to dinner … why is not the same dinner served to me as to you? You get mushrooms, I take hog fungus. Golden with fat, a turtle-dove fills you with its bloated rump; while there is set before me a magpie that has died in its cage.” The wealthier people would sit in one room enjoying their finest drafts of wine and caviar (well, maybe not caviar), while the “have-nots” looked in through the doorway, nursing their table wine that bordered on vinegar and stale bread.
The result was nothing less than embarrassing. Paul blasts them: “One person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!” Instead of being an occasion for unity, their celebration of the Lord’s Supper became an opportunity for two groups in the church to emerge — the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Their celebration of the Lord’s Supper was the opposite of when we say, “We who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.”
The rich in the Corinthian church used the Lord’s Supper to underscore that there were a lot of different kinds of bread, some of them resembled a fresh croissant, and some of them resembled a package of squished Wonder Bread. This is the context that Paul says, “So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.”
When these verses are taken out of context, the result is disastrous. They’re read as saying, “if you have sin in your life when you take the Lord’s Supper, you will be sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.” That’s why many traditions encourage personal examination of sin prior to taking the Lord’s Supper so that if there is sin, they should hold off from taking the Lord’s Supper and avoid eating and drinking judgment on themselves. Now, examining oneself for sin with the intent to repent is a good and healthy practice. One that many of us may do well to adopt. But when we feel as though our sin is a barrier to the means of grace in the Lord’s Supper, the result is tragic. The sacraments have always been seen as a means of grace — a channel through which God gives his gift. Yet because of this misinterpretation of Scripture, the very people who might most benefit from receiving the means of grace in the Lord’s Supper are denied from partaking — thinking themselves unworthy.
Again, it's like someone saying to a sick person, “No, you can’t see the doctor. Come back when you get well.” Remember, the issue Paul is addressing is that a disgusting form of "classism" had reared its ugly head in their worship service. That’s why Paul says, “For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.” Again, they need to discern that they are one loaf. There are no individual croissants. This harkens back to what Paul said about the Lord’s Supper in the chapter before — “Is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.” The body of Christ is represented by the loaf of bread, but also by the church.
So when Paul says “For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves”, Paul is challenging the Corinthian church to remember that they are one loaf of bread — they are one in Christ Jesus. In the Lord’s Supper, God’s people unite in Christ’s body, represented by the one loaf. The one loaf of bread is a radical symbol in a culture full of obscene "classism." Yet the way the Corinthian church celebrated the Lord’s Supper threw it all out the window. As a result of the way they humiliated the poor in the Lord’s Supper, Paul says they are under judgment — some even have gotten sick, some are even dying. That’s why Paul challenges them to examine themselves before taking the Lord’s Supper — to examine themselves in terms of their relationship with each other. He wraps up the section with practical advice — “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.”
That’s the context in which Paul reminds them of the words we say when celebrating the Lord’s Supper: “The Lord Jesus, on the night 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.' In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Paul reminds them of these words in order to remind them of their unity — and that these divisions at the table have no place among them. How do these words do that? They do that by reminding them of who they are as a result of what God has done.
Just as baptism is a reenactment of the Exodus, so is the Lord’s Supper. Jesus’ words take us back to the Passover feast that God’s people, Israel, celebrated every year. The Passover feast was a memorial to remind the people of Israel of who they were and what God had done. They were slaves in Egypt, but God liberated them to life with Him. Now in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus has taken two parts of the Passover feast and shaped them around Himself. Jesus took the bread, gave thanks and broke it, saying “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
During the Passover meal, the host would take the unleavened bread, the “bread of affliction” and remind their family around the table to remember their enslavement in Egypt. He would say, “This is the bread of affliction which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt; let all who are hungry come and eat.”
That Passover meal when Jesus took the bread and broke it, instead of reminding the disciples of slavery in Egypt, he said the bread was His body for you. Jesus then took the cup and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, as a memorial to me.” Similarly, the cup Jesus took was most likely the “cup of blessing” that came during the Passover meal. Jesus’ words take us back to another moment in Exodus, when after Moses had read the book of the law, the people said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” So, Moses took the blood sacrificial oxen and splashed it on the people, saying “See, the blood of the covenant that YHWH has made with you in accordance with all these words.” The blood marked the people as God’s own, calling them to live in obedience to him. Yet they could not keep their promise. So God said through the Prophet Jeremiah, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
So that Passover, Jesus gave us a new cup to drink, the blood of this new covenant with him. Jesus calls us to break the bread and drink the cup as a memorial to him. Just as the Passover Feast was a memorial for Israel, calling them to remember who they are and what God had done — the Lord’s Supper is this for us. The Lord’s Supper is a memorial that Jesus has brought us with Him on this new Exodus. He has purchased us from slavery to sin with His body and blood.
The Lord’s Supper declares this is who we are and what God has done. The Lord’s Supper declares that we are God’s people bought and paid for by the body and blood of Jesus. The Lord’s Supper declares that we were all slaves, but have been purchased through the blood of Christ. Now we journey together, in the Spirit. The Lord’s Supper reminds us of who we are, what God has done, and where we are going — destined for eternal life in God’s Kingdom.
It hopefully is evident why it was so egregious that the rich Corinthians would humiliate the poor during the Lord’s Supper — it is in flat contradiction of who they are together — mere slaves whose freedom has been purchased by the blood of the Messiah. The Lord’s Supper reminds us of who we are together. Slaves of God, purchased with the blood of His Son.
As we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together, let’s remember that despite all our differences, despite our divisions, despite our different ways of seeing the world, we are one — we are one in the body of Christ, we have been freed from slavery through His blood. We are bought slaves. So let’s remember who we are, what God has done, and where we are going as we celebrate together the Lord’s Supper.