The Lord’s Supper challenges culture (1 Corinthians 11:17–34)

Why were the Corinthians “doing more harm than good” when they met?

Why do churches meet? If we’re not clear what we’re meeting for, we may do more harm than good:

1 Corinthians 11:17-21 (NIV)
17 Your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you …
20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk.

The heart of what’s wrong here is competition instead of community.

This isn’t unique to the church. From the Parents and Citizen’s committee of the local school to the political parties that want to run the country, competing groups are always after the best outcome for their faction. It’s how the politics of power works.

But the church embodies the culture of a different kingdom. We’re doing more harm than good if our gatherings reinforce existing culture instead of the king whose authority comes from the cross.

Corinthian culture

The Corinthian churches of the first century met in homes. Modest homes had little space for gathering, so inevitably they met in a villa with some entertaining space indoors and an atrium where two or three dozen people could gather.

Just as they are today, these homes were real status symbols. Few Corinthians were of noble birth, but the wealth passing through the port provided ample opportunity for social climbing. Status was primarily about wealth, so you showed off your wealth in the way you entertained.

So, picture the Christian gathering in a Corinthian villa. Naturally the owners have reserved the best spot inside for themselves and their wealthy friends. It’s inside, in the cool, with couches to recline on, serving caviar with fine wines. They’re demonstrating their generosity, pressing this elite group to have some more, to be merry and enjoy the good times.

But not everyone is seated with them. Out in the atrium a slave sits on the ground, leaning against the wall. Did you hear her cough? You wouldn’t want to get too close. She may be contagious. Her cough sounds just like that scrawny slave who used to come. What was his name? Wonder why he stopped coming? Hope he didn’t die from it!

Paul says that this does more harm than good. It reinforces the markers of inequality defined by our culture. This is not an example of what our king intends his people to be. We represent a king who became the lowest of the low, the slave of humanity, suffering the most humiliating death, by crucifixion.

They were hosting a meal to celebrate themselves:

1 Corinthians 11:20–21
20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk.

Paul nails this accusation through their hearts with a particular word.

The Lord’s Supper

This meal is about the Lord (kyrios). The kyrios is our leader, our master, the one who is now in charge of the world and in charge of God’s house. Paul used kyrios six times to refocus them on the authority of our Lord (verses 23, 26, 27, 32). Kyrios appears more than 700 times in the New Testament.

But Paul uses another word for the Lord’s Supper. It’s a rare word, normally reserved for discussing official imperial business:

The adjective kyriakos is not a biblical word, but it is frequently attested in secular Greek. St. Paul and St. John borrowed it from the commonly used, official language: “concerning the emperor” or better “belonging to the emperor.”
—  Ceslas Spicq and James D. Ernest, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 2:338.

In effect, Paul said, “You could be holding the Emperor’s Feast — a dinner to honour the head-of-state appointed by God to lead the world — so what a shame you’re so busy celebrating yourselves.”

The new covenant (11:25) established a crucified Lord as the king of kings. We celebrate the global leader who re-established heaven’s rule on earth, in anticipation of his reign being fully here (11:26).

It’s not as if the true Emperor wasn’t present with them. They were just too preoccupied with themselves to see him.

The real presence

We have a tendency to spiritualize the meaning of Scripture and miss the obvious. Catholics talk about the “real presence” of Christ in the wafer after the priest says the special words. Anyone who eats the wafer without recognizing it as Christ’s body is then eating damnation to themselves (11:27). I’ve heard non-Catholics speak the same way: take communion thoughtlessly and it could make you sick, or God could even strike you dead. But the euphemism of falling asleep is a poor choice if that’s what you were trying to say (11:30).

However you understand Jesus’ declaration that this is my body (11:24), the body of Christ also refers to the people who are brought to life in the resurrected Lord, the kingdom that exists in the king. The anointed ruler is present in his people.

So, what of those slaves out in the courtyard while the wealthy eat their own bread and get merry with their own wine? Are they weak for lack of food? More than one of these sickly servants has literally died since no one cared to provide them with basic care.

If the king is present in his people, how we treat each other is how we’re treating him. He does take it personally. The community that mistreats his body faces judgment from their king (compare Matthew 25:40-45).

Our culture

Our culture worships the self. The goal of life is to be the best me I can be. From Ted Talks to TV evangelists, there is no shortage of motivational speakers buffing up my ego, telling me how wonderful I am. Twenty-first century life is so focused around me that pop stars sing “I can be my own boyfriend” (Olivia Deane).

There’s a danger of importing that self-worship into church life as well. Many of our worship songs are based around I rather than we. Some of them treat God as my servant, fighting my battles, overcoming my problems, giving me a better life, helping me feel better about myself.

We have individually wrapped bread and wine. We can close our eyes and partake in isolation. If we’re not careful, it can become a private experience, without seeing the body of Christ around us. So what can we do to ensure we see our king in each other, to express the culture of his kingship? The new covenant radically changes how earth-dwellers relate to each other.

Let’s party! But the covenant celebration cannot import a golden calf we set up to honour ourselves. That does more harm than good.

The Imperial Feast proclaims the king who gave his body to establish the new covenant between heaven and earth. The servant-king gave his body for this, his embodiment in the community that gathers under his kingship.

Open 1 Corinthians 11:17–34.

What others are saying

Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 622–623:

Paul asserts that some present illnesses and deaths are the direct result of their violations of the “body” at this supper.

The phrase “not recognizing the body” in this passage has often been interpreted to mean either (1) failure to distinguish the eucharistic food from the common food of their private meals, or (2) failure to recognize the Lord’s body, that is, reflect on his death, as they eat. The first of these must be ruled out as totally foreign to the context. The second has more going for it. Those who adopt it view it as supported by “the parallelism between vv. 27 and 29,” in which this phrase is to be understood as a shorthand form of “the body and blood of the Lord.” But this too seems to miss the argument here, which points in another direction. Most likely the term “body,” even though it comes by way of the words of institution (v. 24), deliberately recalls Paul’s earlier interpretation of the bread (10:17), thus indicating that the concern is with the problem in Corinth itself, of the rich abusing the poor. Everything Paul goes on to write seems to point in this direction.

Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 860–862:

Virtually every commentator since the early 1980s rightly alludes to the dining customs and arrangements of the Roman world, which would certainly have a direct bearing on the source of splits or dissensions when believers met to share a common meal at which the death and risen presence of Christ was celebrated as the New Passover. The two major factors related to issues of space within a large Roman villa and to cultural customs of distinctions between the status of, and respective provision for, guests of the house. …

If we allow for the couches on which guests could recline at an appropriate table, it may well be the case that (as Hays suggests) nine guests may have been a normal maximum for this comfortable dining area [triclinium]. …
The atrium measured 5 × 6 meters. … If they sat or stood, Hays suggests that between thirty and forty would be possible. It is quite clear that when more than nine or ten people came to dinner, the poorer or less esteemed guests would be accorded space not in the already occupied triclinium but in the scarcely furnished atrium, which functioned in effect as an “overflow” for those who were, in the eyes of the host, lucky to be included at all. …

A second factor exacerbates such a category distinction. Pliny the Younger describes in detail the categorization of qualities of food and drink as marks of favor to grades of guests: “The best dishes were set in front of himself [the host] and a select few, and cheap scraps of food before the rest of the company. He had even put the wine into very small flasks, divided into three categories … one for himself and us, another for his lesser friends (all his friends are graded) and the third for his and our freed persons.” …This is all part and parcel of the symbolic world of an honor-shame culture.

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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