In the movie “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” the first bride discovers to her dismay that she must live under same roof with her husband’s six brothers. She finds them to be uncouth, not having grown up around women. She loses her patience at the dinner table as the men greedily grab at the food prepared. She stands, turns the table over, and then lashes into them for their vulgar behavior. The apostle Paul would have approved.
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. 18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you.
Paul had spoken of other divisions. He frowns upon any church division, but he gets particularly worked up by these divisions which are based on social class. I will explain in a moment. He continues:
And I believe it in part, 19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.
Paul is saying something like this: “This kind of behavior will occur from time to time to reveal who among you has genuine faith and who does not.” Their behavior will reveal the wheat from the tares.
Before we go on, to understand what is happening, we should know the practice of the early church. In churches today, we observe the Lord’s Supper as part of a worship service. In the early church, the Lord’s Supper was part of a religious meal. The Lord’s Supper originated from the religious meal of the Passover, the “last supper” that Jesus shared with his disciples before his crucifixion. The sacrifices made at the temple in Jerusalem often included a meal in which the host and his guests ate the sacrificed meat. Other religions had the same practice, and it attending these meals was the concern of Paul’s in chapters 8 and 10 when he warns them of idolatry.
A religious meal, then, was a part of at least some of the worship services. These meals and services were usually held in homes. There were no church buildings among the first generation of Christians. These homes would have been those of the most wealthy of the church members, so as to be large enough to hold services. So, as we read the next verses, keep in mind that the ritual of the Lord’s Supper took place within the context of a real dinner.
20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. 21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 22 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.
We have one upset apostle. He is angry with the bad manners being displayed at this religious meal. Here is what seems to be happening. I mentioned that the meals were held at homes of the wealthy. If I were the wealthy host of a banquet, it would proceed something like this. In the “triclinium,” my best dinner room, I would seat my special guests; in the “atrium” would be seated the remainder. The rooms are in full view of each other. For the meal, I would see that my special guests receive better and larger portions. Who are these special guests? Those with higher social standing. The Corinth Church had both the well-to-do and the poor, both free citizens and slaves. These distinctions were being enforced at the meals.
The Corinthians (those of the higher class) would have explained their behavior like this. “We are brothers and sisters in Christ, but then there are social realities that cannot be changed. These are the traditions of our culture that cannot be simply ignored. Even you, Paul, have taught us to accept our lot in life and not to seek change. Why get overworked about a practice that everyone accepts as reflecting each person’s social status? We are what we are.”
This irritates Paul to no end. “That’s no Lord’s Supper you are observing. You might be sitting in the same proximity but you are proceeding with your own meal, not showing deference to one another.” And as a father will do, he speaks in extremes: “Some are starving and others are getting drunk!”
He then asks a question that gives the obvious solution. 22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? If you wealthy guys are so hungry that you must gorge yourselves in front of your poorer brothers and sisters, then eat at home, for goodness sake!
“Or (he drives in the sharp point he wants to make) do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” Ouch! Paul is the dad standing up at the dinner table and letting the kids, who have been fighting over the food, have it. He is mad.
“Do you despise the church of God?” You must. Your poorer brothers and sisters make up the church of God, and you certainly are not showing them respect. “Do you humiliate those who have nothing?” Do you see nothing wrong humiliating your poorer kin in Christ? See what you are doing!
Paul will then remind them (23-26) of what the Lord’s Supper entails: 23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you. It is instituted by our Lord to remember his work for his church. He will then impress upon them the sacredness of the meal and the need to examine one’s behavior, less they bring judgment upon themselves (27-32). We will take time with both passages in the next two weeks. Go now to the last two verses:
33 So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another—34 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.
Show respect for each other. “Wait for one another” could be translated “share with each other.” Whatever the case, be respectful. If you are hungry, then eat a snack at home. Don’t let a hungry stomach put you under God’s anger. “About the other things…” Those are the comments that drive us crazy. What other things?
1) Our first lesson is to take Paul’s rebuke to behave. The Corinthians had been behaving badly in a number of ways. In each case they could at least superficially appeal to their “freedom in Christ.” In this situation their lack of love, which is behind most of their bad behavior, comes to the forefront. It takes a lot of gall to flaunt one’s superiority like they are doing. Here is a real life example of the statement that being together does not of itself make unity, not when love is lacking.
And Paul’s response is an example of how critical unity through love is. To treat others in the church as somehow lesser members is to make a mockery of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. It is interesting, by the way, that the two times in the epistle that divisions in the church are mentioned, the two sacraments are linked. In chapter one, Paul indicates that church members were using baptism (who they were baptized by) to make distinctions. Now they are using the Lord’s Supper as a setting to make further distinctions.
The erasing of distinctions, though, is the very thing that both sacraments proclaim. Consider baptism. We all have different names; we belong to different families. And yet, we are all baptized in the name of Christ, marking us as Christians (belonging to Christ). Whatever may be our social status, we belong to the one family of God as marked by the name of Jesus Christ. As Paul said to the churches of Galatia:
for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Galatians 3:26-29).
The same message is conveyed in Communion. Paul writes in chapter 10: The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread (16-17). In Communion we participate in the body of Christ; and if we participate in the same body, then that makes us one body.
That is why we observe the sacrament in a public setting. To have our own little private Communions would be to strip from it much of its significance. Communion is a community act. It is our Lord’s sign to his people that we are indeed his people, not just a collection of individuals who happen to follow the same Master.
We modern Christians do not think with the mindset of the early Christians. We think primarily in individualistic terms; the early Christians thought more naturally as belonging to community. Here is one way of looking at it. When a Christian author writes a book, he thinks in terms of presenting a book of teachings to Christians “here and there.” He is thinking of individuals. When Paul wrote his letters, he was writing, not to individuals here and there, but to churches: “To the church in Corinth”; “to the churches of Galatia”; “to the church of the Thessalonians.” We tend to forget this. We read the epistles as individuals, applying the teachings to our individual lives. We need to be reading them as members of a church, applying them to the church.
But then, if there is to be unity that manifests the union we have in Christ, there must be Christian love. John Calvin speaks eloquently of the love (charity) that the Lord's Supper should inspire in us:
We shall have profited admirably in the sacrament, if the thought shall have been impressed and engraven on our minds, that none of our brethren is hurt, despised, rejected, injured, or in any way offended, without our at the same time hurting, despising, and injuring Christ; that we cannot have dissension with our brethren without at the same time dissenting from Christ; that we cannot love Christ without loving our brethren; that the same care we take of our own body we ought to take of that of our brethren, who are members of our body; that as no part of our body suffers pain without extending to the other parts, so every evil which our brother suffers ought to excite our compassion. Wherefore Augustine not inappropriately often terms this sacrament the bond of charity. What stronger stimulus could be employed to excite mutual charity than when Christ, presenting himself to us, not only invites us by his example to give and devote ourselves mutually to each other, but inasmuch as he makes himself common to all, also makes us all to be one in him (Book 4, Ch. 17, Par. 38).
Briefly put, we will profit from the sacrament if we love one another; for we cannot love our Lord, whom we are remembering in the sacrament, if we do not love our brothers and sisters, for whom he makes him available in that same sacrament. If Christ shares himself with all of his people, we too, then, should devote ourselves to the welfare of each other. We should make no distinctions as we show kindness, generosity, and even good table manners.
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