Why would Paul write about the Lord’s Supper?

When we celebrate Communion, we usually read from 1 Corinthians 11. That’s a right practice, but another layer of studying the Bible is to ask, Why did Paul bring this up, here, in this letter? It wasn’t to teach them the ritual, because they had been celebrating communion for years. So, why now?

Paul tells them in 11:20-21 (and I think the NIV represents it well) – “So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 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 doesn’t go into details of what exactly they were doing wrong. He didn’t need to because they all knew it. The explanation I favor is that there are two dinners in view: a private dinner and later on, the Lord’s supper as part of the full meeting of the church.

Perhaps we can reconstruct it like this: the church met at sundown, and so most of the believers hurried to the meeting place directly from work. But in the early afternoon, the host of the church had some of his richer Christian friends over for a real banquet; they would be attending church in the evening, so it was convenient! There would be one course after another – maybe delicacies like Ova spongia ex lacte (eggs with honey) or In Mitulis (mussels boiled in wine) – different wines, maybe some music, conversation.[1] We don’t need to picture it as a Roman orgy, but it was a lot of food over many hours.

A dining room in a wealthy home in Corinth would have seated up to nine people

At sundown, the uninvited showed up, dirty, tired, hungry, and the people in the banquet make them wait. They may not even had had their simple dinner of, perhaps, bread dipped in lentil stew.

Finally, the doors open, and the full meeting starts.

And then they served communion, with many lovely words about, “here in the church we’re all equal in Christ” and of course, the holy kiss. But many believers had been made to feel that “the rich are more equal than others.”

So, where did the offense lay? Didn’t Christians have the right to an intimate dinner with some close friends? In theory yes, but it was the juxtaposition with communion that was the disgrace. The hungry Christians weren’t asking for any special favor, or even a dinner invitation; they were just asking for the right to be taken seriously as brothers and sisters in Christ.

And let us put our full attention on another truth: Paul did not scold the injured Corinthians for rocking the boat and harming the unity of the church. “Blaming the victim” is a horrific sin; we have seen that, for example, when a child complains that her Sunday School teacher has “touched her”, that many churches rush to offer cheap forgiveness to the sinner rather than to seek justice for the wounded.

No, Paul does not say, “Hey, you hungry people ought to have a better attitude, get your priorities straight, there are things more important than your stomach, be more forgiving, Christian tolerance, agape, etc., etc.” Nor does he rebuke the victims for, apparently, having reported to their apostle that they were being wronged; again, this is a mistake that many churches commit, focusing on the victim who complains rather than on the one who offends.

Rather he says to people who insult the poor and then take the Lord’s supper, “So anyone who eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.” In this context then, when he says to “examine yourself”, the exam question he then had in mind was, Am I certain that I am treating all members of the church with equal honor?

Paul goes further: he says about that sin specifically, “That is why many of you are weak and sick and some have even died.” How astounding that, of all the sins of that church – pride, arrogance, incest, going to prostitutes, other sexual sin, abandoning your spouse, Christians suing each other, worshipers shouting over each other in the meetings, unnamed “other things” that Paul didn’t even want to get into in this letter (11:34) – that this was THE SIN where God said, “No, now you’ve cross the line, I’m going to have to go ahead and strike you dead.”

Let’s keep our eyes peeled and our ears open, for people who hint that they do not feel like they are accepted as equals in Christ: the poorest, the least influential, the marginalized due to one’s race or sex or handicap; today we should add, people who differ from us politically. And in fact, we shouldn’t even wait for someone to point out our sin, because we should be uncovering our faults already in prayer: “examine yourself” means you are asking God, Am I harming anyone who hasn’t got the nerve to tell me where I’m wrong?

The least person who confesses Christ deserves not just warm fuzzy feelings, but our full honor and attention, because God says that’s what love does. And it’s a grave crime to, as Paul said earlier, harm a brother or sister, a person “for whom Christ died” (1 Cor 8:11).

Remember, Lord, your church,
to save her from every evil
and to perfect her in your love
and to gather her together from the four winds
as the sanctified into your kingdom
which you have prepared for her,

To you be glory and honor forever, AMEN.[2]

NOTES:

[1] Here is a list of authentic recipes from Paul’s day; I have made several of them. https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~mjw/recipes/ethnic/historical/ant-rom-coll.html

[2] This is taken from the book Didache 10, a very early manual for Christian worship.

“Why would Paul write about the Lord’s Supper?” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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