Remember way back in the summer when we looked at chapter 7? We learned that the Corinthian church had written to Paul about a number of matters asking for his wisdom on them. However, what we are looking at today is not that. Earlier in the letter we read that Paul had received a report from “Chloe’s Household” and shocked and appalled about how things have deteriorated, Paul writes back answering those original questions and also correcting them on the stuff that has gone a bit mad according to Chloe and friends!
Where we are now in Chapters 11-14, Paul is primarily addressing issues around their collective acts of worship – In his letter, he uses the phrase “when you come together…” to pass comment on what has usually gone awry when they meet as a church. This section isn’t primarily about personal lifestyle choices of individual Christians.
Because our modern educational formation leaves us a bit baffled when it comes to thinking about communion, I want to make two comments to help contextualise what we are about to read.
Firstly – that ritual meals are the stuff of life and you and I do them all the time: Birthdays, Weddings, Anniversaries, Christmas, Sunday Roasts, Farewell Celebrations, Office Parties, New Year celebrations, like the one on the screen behind me, are all examples of ritual meals. For example at a birthday people gather to celebrate the birthday boy or girl. As it is their celebration, they decide what food and drink is consumed and what entertainment is had, and in the midst of the celebration a special type of ritual food is brought out called birthday cake, the candles are lit, then we all sing the special ritual song “Happy Birthday to you…” the candles are blown out, wishes are made and in that moment we are celebrating all that our friendship with the birthday boy / girl means and reaffirming our friendship with them.
Ritual meals mark moments in our lives, they bring meaningful shape to the contours of our lives. They help us to make sense of and honour the stories of our lives as they mark the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. They remind us “what time it is.” In a ritual meal you come together, both to celebrate and reaffirm what you love. You probably don’t remember most of the meals you had in 2016, but I bet you can remember many, if not most of the ritual ones – the birthdays, weddings and leaving dos you attended. Ritual meals mark themselves on our memory, in a way the everyday meals do not.
Communion is not some weird hocus-pocus event, it is the ritual family meal where Christians gather together by the Spirit to be reminded “what time it is,” what season of history we are in and what, the stories of our lives have become. It is a celebration of all that God is for us in Jesus Christ and restating / reaffirmation to ourselves our love for and allegiance to that God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Secondly, to contextualise… God has always enjoyed meals with his people and in the Bible we see them take on a pattern, there is the gathering, the offering, the shared meal and the ritual remembrance.
In the Old Testament, the Israelites would gather to the Presence of God – the Shekinah Glory Cloud, which was over the temple in Jerusalem three times a year, they would take the tithe (a 10% share) of their harvest with them, give some to the Levites (the priests) in an offering. Then use the rest to throw the largest bring and share party meal the world of the time had ever seen, where all those who united their hearts to the Lord whether they were rich or poor, Jew or not, could come and be welcomed in and they would all rejoice together in awe as they feasted in the temple, in the Presence of the LORD. The hungry would be fed, the naked clothed, the orphans and wanderers found a home, the scriptures read, songs sung and in the midst of the feasting and celebration, ritual animal sacrifices were performed that reminded them who God is and who they were as his people. Those sacrifices reminded them of how God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt and carried them to a new life in a good land and pointed forwards to the coming of Messiah. This was not their own personally preferred past time, this was their duty and their joy as God’s chosen people, for in remembering what God had done for them, they were to be a global witness to the nations around them that God would one day send the Messiah who would offer rescue to the whole world, from the slavery of our rebellion against him and open up the way to friendship with God again.
Fast Forward to the New Testament, we see the same pattern as the Old Testament, but it is a new context. The Presence of God – the glory of God is no longer found above a stone temple, but in groups of people who have been made alive by the Spirit of God and when they gather together they also bring their offerings and lay them at the Apostles feet who would then, like the Levites, use the offering for the work of the church, the care of the poor, and for feasting and celebrating together before God. And in the midst of that celebration, as they ate together in their homes with glad and sincere hearts, they would perform the ritual remembrance of communion. They would remind themselves that they were once dead in sin, cut off from the goodness of God with no hope and no right to any share in any of it, but that God in his mercy, through the death and resurrection of Jesus had given them new life and new hope, and that this new life and hope was not just to be a waiting witness to the world, but was to bring about the transformation of the world, in order to ready it for Jesus’ return.
I say these things so that as we now read 1 Cor 11, you can understand and feel just how dysfunctional these Corinthian Christians had become.
The church hasn’t asked him any questions about communion. Paul doesn’t wait to be invited to comment, he just weighs in because Chloe’s report left him shocked and appalled. One wonders if his readers took offence at this, but that might be more of a reflection on my 21st century cultural conditioning that I see offense everywhere, rather than there being any actual offense.
The divisions mentioned here are not the same as the ones mentioned back in the earlier part of the letter, we aren’t talking about them dividing over which apostle they preferred to align themselves. Nor are we now talking about meat offered to idols, although as we will see, I think that is in the background here. Rather we are talking about the strong dominating and humiliating the weak.
The Strong were those in the church who were rich, well connected to the corridors of power and influence. They were the charismatic (with a small c) ones in the church, the extraverts, the ones whom in that horrible battle known as the survival of the fittest had gained victory as they had all the characteristics that were best adapted to getting on top, locking themselves in there and enjoying all the prizes of this life to the exclusion of others.
The Weak were those in the church who were poor, uneducated, had no access to the corridors of power and influence. They often just struggled to hold life together.
In preaching the good news of Jesus to the Corinthians, Paul declared the breaking down of the kinds of social and physical walls that divided people like this into the strong and the weak, the privileged and the underprivileged, telling them they were all one together in Christ Jesus.
But with Paul now long gone, some of that old world division was creeping back into the church. The rich were now enjoying more privileges than the poor, barriers were starting to be re-erected and this heretical tendency was most evident at their communion meals. The very moment where their unity should have been most obviously on display had become a moment of disastrous disunity.
No doubt many of the rich resigned themselves to this regression. They may even have said to themselves that Jesus had told them that they would always have the poor with them, twisting a godly utterance in order to justify a deeply ungodly pattern of behaviour.
Paul is deeply sarcastic about this “Of course, you must have divisions amongst you so that those who are truly spiritual, truly rich, truly favoured by God might be vindicated in that favour. How could I forget, (Paul might have gone on that sarcastic vein) that God favours the rich, that God is impressed by your prosperity and thinks that he can do more through you because of your money, rather than because of your obedience, because we all know that it’s their money that always makes rich people more obedient than the poor, how dumb am I?!
So what exactly was going on in their public worship, and more specifically their communion meals?
Before we all demonise the rich for reconstructing walls that enforced their own privileged status, we would do well to remember that they were probably just reverting to the standard cultural assumptions of their day. Much like the rich in modern democracies lock the poor out of running for power by making the process of getting elected so exorbitantly expensive that no poor person can afford to run for office. It’s one of those laws of a fallen world; the rich, when left to their own devices will always start to throw their weight around whether deliberately or unwittingly – disenfranchising the poor in the process.
Our best guess, based on what Paul wrote and what we know of the customs of the time, is that they began to mirror the standard cultural practice of the ritual meals of the day which was that someone rich would lay on a meal, gathering all their rich friends into the dining room known as the “triclinium.” There they would gorge themselves on the finest of the food and wines, do some religious ritual to some idol, and once they had had their fill, whatever was left would be taken out to the poor who were waiting in a small courtyard-like place known as the atrium. The rich “cared” for the poor by giving them their scraps and leftovers. This was how the poor were “cared” for in a society that had no benefits system. Left to fight over that which the rich were too sick or too drunk to finish.
Have this picture in your mind as we read on…
So picture the scene if you will. The rich who have servants to do all their hard work, the rich who can arrange their diaries as their desires allow, the rich who have no worries about where the next meal is coming from, the rich who probably aren’t all that hungry, arrive on time to the worship service, participate without a care and when the time comes to share the love feast of communion as it was known, they are called into a special room and given all the privileges of fine dining.
Not so for the poor, who are scraping a living, the poor who can’t arrange their diaries however they like and who have to work all the hours that their masters and mistresses desire because if they don’t they get beaten to within an inch of their life, having no right to plea for justice from the law courts for such abuse, the poor, who turn up to the worship of God as soon as they can, but sometimes that just isn’t soon enough, and when they get there, they haven’t eaten all day and they are told to wait in the courtyard until the rich brothers and sisters have finished their food.
When you add to this the fact that Paul was probably writing at a time of global food shortage which was sending the price of basic food sky rocketing and throwing many into starvation, you can quickly see why Paul is so outraged as he writes.
The rich are getting drunk and fat whilst the poor are going hungry and wasting away, right next to each other.
The rich had hijacked God’s family meal and turned it from something that was to focus on Christ and be a blessing to all his people, to being something that focussed on the pleasures of the rich and the strong and humiliated the weak.
Paul is relatively generous in his writing “Shall I commend you in this? No I will not!” I would imagine, he was fuming with righteous indignation as he was writing. Is this really what God’s family meal had sunk to?
Communion is Jesus’ meal, not ours to reinterpret how we like. It is his invitation, his house, his entry criteria, his table, his settings, his food, his drink, his words, his ceremony, his remembrance and his resurrection power flowing through the heart of it all. The best of Roman Catholicism understands this so much better than us Protestant Charismatics.
Here is the paradox, Jesus is both the host of the meal and the food at the centre of it and Paul now restates the heart of the ritual remembrance that should have taken place in the midst of their eating together.
The night Jesus was betrayed, he took that famously termed “last supper” which was a Passover meal that God’s people had been celebrating now for nearly two thousand years as they had waited for their promised Messiah, and transformed them into something new. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, God was pulling human history into a whole new era: from night to day, from mourning to dancing, from law to spirit, from death to life and from creation to renewed creation in order to prepare everything for his return at the end of history.
For at the cross, Jesus offered up his body in perfect obedience to death. His body, conceived inside Mary the virgin, by the power of the Holy Spirit, was one that knew no sin. He had never given his body over to doing anything other than the will of the Father in Heaven. He had not used his eyes and ears to behold and believe lies, no matter how delicious they first appeared. He had not used his hands, feet and mouth to grasp for things he had no right to take for himself. He had always fixed his mind, heart and soul, in love, on doing his Father’s will every second of every minute, every minute of every hour, every hour of every day, for every day of his life.
And as he offered his body up in righteous obedience on the cross, drawing into himself the curse of all our sin, shame and bondage to darkness and with it the punishment that we so rightly deserved; the life of God was broken open. Father, Son and Holy Spirit who had been united in love for all eternity, were separated from each other. The life of God was broken open so that now through the power of resurrection, we might be added in.
So when Jesus’ disciples took that bread into themselves, they were to remember him and his body offered up in righteous obedience, but not only that, for in eating the bread, they were reminded that his righteousness was now given to them, his obedience was credited to them and that his mission was now their mission. And as we take the bread, 2000 years later, nothing has changed. We remind our hearts that Christ’s righteousness is now our righteousness, that his obedience is now our obedience, his mission is now our mission. That his status before the Father is now our status before the Father and that we can come before God in love, free from condemnation.
And as bread gives strength to our physical bodies to labour in life’s work, so Christ’s righteousness given to us, strengthens our souls that we might more and more be conformed to the likeness of Jesus – to become what God has already declared over us in hope: beloved and obedient children.
Movement is life and because blood moves all over your body, it’s the stuff of life. Humans cannot live without blood running through the body.
Blood provides the energy that all our body parts need to live and if we lose it, we die.
In the Bible, blood poured out signifies life lost and judgment rendered. If you spilled the blood of another in murder, then the law required that your guilty life had to be taken and your blood spilled to atone for your crime and restore the peace of the community and the fruitfulness of the land. Righteous judgements restore peace, prosperity and flourishing. Unrighteous judgements provoke instability and chaos and render the land barren.
Christ had no guilt, he was perfect, but he had the guilt of the whole world, including ours, laid upon him and then the righteous wrath and judgement of God; Father, Son and Spirit, was poured out on the Son for our rebellion against them. As the wrath came down, the blood poured out. It dripped out as he was flogged and beaten, and gushed out when his side was pierced. And because of his eternal, immortal perfection, he was able to absorb and soak up that wrath completely. The righteous judgements of God for sin were completely satisfied.
This is massive, for it means that when Christ rose from the dead, not only could we be acquitted of our guilt, but by the power of the spirit, the lifeblood of Christ now flows to us by the Spirit, his life is now our life, his power is now our power, his victory is now our victory.
Just as wine is a victory drink that we drink when the work is done and it brings joy and laughter to our bodies, so too, the blood of Christ, the life of Christ given to us is our reminder that Jesus’s work is done, judgement for sin is over, all the wrath of God for our rebellion is spent. Satan is powerless, death is powerless, sin is powerless, this present world is powerless, for God’s victory in Christ over them is total and incontestable. In the bread we receive the righteousness of God; in the wine we receive the pleasure and life of God as through the Spirit he now courses through our souls leading us to cry Abba! Father!
By regularly taking bread and wine in communion, we remind ourselves and the watching world that the central fact of history is not the fake, or for that matter true, news that sloshes around on social media but the death and resurrection of Christ and we participate in that fact, becoming united to it. We remind ourselves and the world that the only thing that matters, for all of us, is what happened on a small mountain outside Jerusalem 2000 years ago and that this event and our response to it, is what determines the destiny of all people everywhere who have ever lived and will ever live until Jesus returns to wrap up history.
But this meal is not a free for all. It is a life or death meal because it is a meal centred on love and allegiance to Christ.
The main point of this section is not so much about counting up and confessing our sins. That is important, but it comes second to us examining our allegiances. You may not have committed any “big sins” this week, but your heart, like the Pharisees, could be a million miles away from God. Equally, you could have had an awful week of slipping up into old ways, but if you confess and renounce those things from the heart then you are in the right place to come and eat and drink with Jesus. Christ’s invitation to the communion table is not based on our performance, but his. Our duty is to examine our allegiances confess our need of Christ and give our hearts to him again in love.
My guess from reading around is that some of the rich Christians at Corinth were participating in idol feasts either, because they wanted to hedge their bets and cover all their bases in the spiritual realms, or because they wanted to foster their business interests and friendships with those who worshiped those idols and so participating in the odd idol feast day here and there kept the friendships warm, the money rolling in. The problem was that it led to a compromised allegiance that was ripping the church apart.
Now, I am pretty confident that most of us here are not sneaking off to other religious temples around the area to make offerings to other gods or curry favour there for the sake of our business interests, but as my wife reminded me when she proof read this, religious interest is on the rise like never before, I should not assume anything. Are you visiting idol temples? There are more and more of them around. And even if you aren’t, are you getting involved with practices that at a very surface level are innocuous enough, but behind them have a power that is not rooted in the Spirit of God? Yoga, meditation, mindfulness, superstitions like not walking under ladders, Freemasonary, Ouija boards, alternative medicine, acupuncture etc. These things can have very legitimate applications in life, but if we are not discerning and careful they can lead us down roads to idolatry down which we never intended to travel.
And just because most of us don’t really do any of that stuff, doesn’t mean that we can let ourselves off the hook. Our culture idolises the fantasy called the free, self-defined individual. We can so easily give our souls and bodies to those things that bolster the delusions we want to believe about ourselves and about our circle of family and friends. We give our time, energy and thought to getting, amongst other things, money, sex, status, technology, knowledge and power because in our collective consciousness, we think that it is our right to have those things and to have them serve our sense of destiny yet we end up in bondage to them and we forget that our primary energy, time and thought is to be devoted to the duty and service of Christ.
Paul called out the Corinthians, and I am calling us out today, not so much to an assessment of our performance although that is important, but to an assessment of our allegiance. Who is your primary allegiance in life to? When you eat bread and drink wine, are you hedging you bets or are you giving yourself heart and soul to the one who gave his heart and soul, his body and his blood for you.
Christ wants his love reciprocated, not scorned. He wants us present at his table, not just in body but in heart also, just as he is present in body and heart.
This is not a take it or leave it kind of thing, the consequences of doing this flippantly are dire, lets read on…
Judgement is not the root of all evil, as many in our culture would have it. It is neither good nor bad. However, good judgement is a source of life. If we are to reign with Christ, then we are to grow in maturity. We grow in maturity when we grow in the exercise of good judgment - discerning good and evil. If we want to live a life that makes no judgments about anything, then we will remain infantile in our thinking and ironically, it won’t be long before we see our world collapse in tornado of paranoia and neurosis as we end up judging everyone and feeling judged by everyone. We can’t help but pass judgement. We must ensure our judgements are good and true.
If we have a compromised allegiance to the Lord, if we are spiritual adulterers, claiming allegiance to the Lord, but going off and seeking out other things to take his place in our affections, then the bread and wine which should work life and health in us, will instead work death in us, for the Lord is a jealous God, eager to protect and guard those who are united to him. His love will burn up those parts of our hearts that are given to others rather than to him. That is why many at Corinth were weak and sick and some had died. Like the Israelites who gave themselves to the golden calf in the wilderness, met with their death. So now the Corinthians who played fast and loose with their allegiance to Christ, popping off on the sly to feast at the tables of other gods, were reaping terrible consequences at communion, and becoming unfruitful in their unfaithfulness.
These people don’t lose their salvation necessarily, Paul says that those who are unfaithful get “disciplined” not dammed. Nevertheless, they pay a high price for what is at best a lack of good judgement or at worst a gross arrogance before God.
But if we have already confessed and renounced our sin, if we have already bound ourselves to the Lord in love, then the bread and wine work as they do in any normal situation to give life and vitality to us in body and soul, they work for our fruitfulness in the service of God and for our victory in the mission of God.
The success of our mission statement as a church and the legacy of our lives as a whole are not founded in our technique and performance for God, but on our allegiance and obedience to God.
So, in summary, remember whose meal this is, who is the host and who is the guest, remember the entry criteria and how we should come, if we do this communion will be a source of life and joy to us not misery, sickness and death.
Come, let us eat, drink and offer ourselves up in devotion to the Lord as living sacrifices. Christ offered himself up in sacrifice to God for us that he might unite us to God making us holy and beautiful like he is holy and beautiful, now calls us to do the same. We must be clear about this. Jesus suffered the wrath of God so that we didn’t have to, but he didn’t die that we don’t have to, he died so that we might follow him to death and through death out to resurrection on the other side.
Christ offered up his perfect, righteous and holy life in sacrifice for the world, so that we who have now been made perfect and righteous in Christ might now leave our self-absorbed, sin laden lives behind, follow Christ’s lead and offer ourselves up as living sacrifices for the life of the world, as he did. (Romans 12:1-3) Christ’s laying his life down in obedient sacrifice opened the way for us to live with God. Our sacrifices, obediently laying ourselves down for God, for one another and for the world, fill the new creation with souls for God and prepare the world for his return. What he alone by sacrifice could begin, Christ has commanded his Spirit filled church, by sacrifice to complete (Matt. 28:19-20).
So will you come now to Christ’s table? He calls us to unite and reunite our heart to his in love.
He calls us to be honest about our allegiances, to confess and turn away from those things, people or situations, which are either tempting us or causing us to commit spiritual adultery.
He calls us to remember, to honour and to take great joy in his once-for-all sacrifice on the cross made in love to God the father for us.
He reminds us that this is his meal table, not ours. We don’t approach it how we like in our introspective little bubble. We come as God’s gathered people to remember and celebrate Christ together and to remember that by his mercy we are one body together in him born anew into a living hope that begins now and lasts for ever. We wait for one another, ensuring as far as we can that we help each other to all be ready spiritually and physically to eat and drink with Jesus.
So prepare your hearts, prepare each others’ hearts. Let us eat and drink with our eyes open. Take things in, these are the people, along with many millions across the world and down history to whom you are united in God for eternity.