To me, one of the most interesting passages of Scripture is 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. In that passage, Paul deals with issues surrounding the “Lord’s Supper” at Corinth. In fact, the problems are so great that Paul says that the believers are coming together for the worse, not for the better.
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. 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, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 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. 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.” 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.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another – 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. (1 Corinthians 11:17-34 ESV)
Most of the time, when people teach from this passage, they grab the verses out of the middle which deal with Jesus’ words during his last supper with his disciples. Usually, the teachers will also talk about “examining himself” and also the possibility of becoming sick or dying because of improper eating and drinking. Thus, we are encouraged to search our hearts for sin and to ensure that we have asked God for forgiveness before we partake of the Lord’s Supper.
That would be a nice and tidy sermon if it wasn’t for the surrounding context. You see, Paul was not writing to the Corinthians because of personal, spiritual sin issues. He was writing to them because of corporate, social sin issues.
There are a few items in particular that we should notice. First, the Corinthians were eating and drinking. Paul does not attempt to correct their meal activities. However, Paul tells them that the act of eating and drinking does not constitute the “Lord’s Supper”. The believers in Corinth were not partaking of the Lord’s Supper because of their attitudes toward one another. They could eat bread and drink wine all they wanted, but it would not be the Lord’s Supper as long as they were not relating properly to their brothers and sisters – even those who could not afford to provide their own food.
(This is somewhat off the subject, but I believe that Christians today should consider this passage very carefully. Even if we are participating in certain activities – singing, reading Scripture, praying, baptizing, taking the Lord’s Supper, etc. – our activities in and of themselves does not indicate that we are obeying God and meeting together in the way that he wants us to meet.)
For Paul, the bread and the cup represented the new covenant in Christ – a covenant that included all of the believers in Corinth. As fellow partakers in the new covenant, the believers in Corinth should relate to one another differently – not in the social, cultural, political, racial, ethnic, and class structures of their day – but as equal fellow citizens of the kingdom of God. This new covenant relationship affects every part of a believer’s life – including, but not limited to, eating and drinking. Because of this new covenant relationship, the people no longer simply looked out for themselves and their own interest, they cared for one another, even to the point of sharing their food with those who did not have food.
Paul’s call for examination and judgment in this context deals primarily with our relationships with other believers – not simply our own personal sin struggles – which we all have. But, if our sin is manifesting itself in our relationships with other believers, then we need to take steps to reconcile those relationships. And, as fellow family members, we need to “judge” others in a way that helps them reconcile broken relationships as well.
When we come together as new covenant family members – under what James calls the royal law – we will love one another. And, that love will demonstrate itself in the way that we act toward one another. Specifically, we will “wait” for one another. “Wait” in 1 Cor 11:34 is not simply biding our time, but a sense of expectation. We will look forward to our time eating together, recognizing that God is working through our relationships to mature us in Christ.
We can eat a piece of bread and drink from a cup all we want. But, if our eating and drinking is not tied to a new covenant relationship with other brothers and sisters in Christ, then we are not eating the Lord’s Supper. If our thoughts are not on our family – how to help each other mature in Christ and in our relationships with one another – then we are not partaking of the Lord’s Supper. If our meditation on God does not lead us toward caring for our brothers and sisters in Christ, then we are not taking the Lord’s Supper. If we are sitting with a group of people that we don’t know – that we don’t care about – that we don’t want to spend more time with – then we are not eating the Lord’s Supper.
Jesus invites us to gather around his table with his family, and he serves us a common loaf and a common cup. He does not serve us alone. If we attempt to dine alone – even in a crowd – then we can be certain that the host of our dinner is not Jesus Christ.