1 Corinthians 11:17-34
17 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. 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. 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.
23 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, 24 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.” 25 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.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
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.
Few things express the idea of community as does the shared meal. The people with whom we share food are likely to be our friends, or family, or well on the way to becoming one or the other. The dinner table can be far more than a piece of furniture humans use to refuel. It is a place where community is created and grows. It’s a place of hospitality and conversation. It can also be a place where communal dysfunction and breakdown appears. Meals carry value. They tell stories about the people who prepared them, the people who partake of them, and even about those who were excluded.
In the city of Corinth in Paul’s day, a meal was often an occasion for displaying social status. As an event, it reflected the aspirational, social climbing culture as a whole. A dinner party was one of the primary places where social stratification was on display. Wealthy people could show off their wealth by serving the choicest of meats and artisan dishes. Slaves would cook and serve the meals. Members of the merchant class would sell the food. The Lord’s Supper was given to demonstrate something entirely upside down from a typical Corinthian dinner party. It was supposed to create, sustain, and display a different kind of community with a different kind of social order. The Lord’s Supper is the meal, the dinner table, the food, and the sustenance of the gospel community.
Many in the evangelical world today rely on retreats and conferences for special renewal in their lives. We enjoy feeding off the emotional energy of the music and superior speaking skills of the keynote speakers who give the same talk multiple times during the year, allowing for flawless performances. While such special occasions can be helpful and even important, they tend to draw our eyes away from what God has provided to sustain us on a weekly basis, the Lord’s Supper. Experiencing vertical fellowship with Christ affects the ways we relate to other people socially and horizontally. Paul wants the Corinthians to shift their focus to the communal implications of the Supper. We can trace Paul thoughts through three points: the beauty, the challenge, and the grace of the Supper.
The sacraments have been hot button topics throughout church history. Many see this text through their own personal and theological lenses. So, it’s important to talk about a few of the predominant views concerning the Lord’s Supper. Some groups of Christians see the Lord Supper purely as a memorial. Christ is only subjectively present in the mind of the individual believer. Communion is mostly about an individual’s ability to focus upon, think through, and remember the death of Christ. The problem with this view is that the grace of communion becomes dependent on the person’s ability to recall. If we are broken and cannot focus, then it leaves no consolation. What if someone has gospel amnesia and their heart is not inclined to want to remember Christ’s death? If the Eucharist is merely a memorial, there is no consolation for those who cannot remember or recall.
Another major view is that the Supper is a ritual. Christ is objectively, physically present in the bread and the cup. Communion becomes mostly about a mystical process during which the bread and wine are transformed into something that must be ingested to fulfill religious duty. Such an approach is impersonal. It’s believed to work in and of itself regardless of a person’s relationship to Christ. Unlike the memorial view, where the emphasis is placed on the person receiving it, this view focuses on the importance of the bread and wine.
There is a third major way to look at communion: the Supper as spiritual communion. Paul wrote in 10:16, “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?” The objectivity of Christ’s saving work is subjectively used by the Holy Spirit in the life of believers. Christ is truly spiritually (not physically) present – but not in a routine sense. Our subjective experience is important, but it is not instrumental. At the Lords table, Christians commune with God in Christ by means of the Holy Spirit. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism put it, they commune “by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace.” The Heidelberg Catechism, Answer 75, says Christ makes two promises in the Supper:
First, that His body was offered and broken on the cross for me and His blood shed for me, as certainly as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup communicated to me; and further, that with His crucified body and shed blood He Himself feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life, as certainly as I receive from the hand of the minister and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, which are given me as certain tokens of the body and blood of Christ.
Paul wants his readers to move beyond mere theologizing to consider the function of the Supper in the life of the church. What should the celebration of the Supper do in the believer’s experience? What are the horizontal realities of the meal? This passage gives us an upside-down picture of how grace is supposed to function in community. “…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” (11:17-18a). Paul’s idea of the “better” is that Jesus’ table have no social status, race, class, wealth, gender, nor any other kind of division. In Christ, all those things are to be done away with in the gospel community. But the Corinthians are completely divided. Since Christians are still sinners, Paul sees this as being inevitable but not pardonable. “…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” (18b-19). Anti-gospel divisions are inexcusable. But God can use them to reveal who the genuinely gospel-shaped believers are.
Paul writes, “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.” There is no way to know for certain the exact actions of the Corinthians. It appears, however, that the wealthier believers were likely gathering in the dining room of the home where they worshipped and everyone else had to gather in the courtyard for their meals. In their day, the Lord’s Supper would be eaten as a part of a regular communal meal during which the bread and wine of communion were consumed. Further, the slaves and freedmen would arrive only after they were able to get off work after sundown. The upper classes didn’t want to wait for the lower classes. They went ahead with their sumptuous meals and the slaves had to bring their meager portions (if any they had) and eat on their own. Most people naturally divide up along the lines of rich and poor, or free and slave. But there were to be no such distinctions in the church.
Further, the church is also where people approach God’s creational gifts such as food and wine with a God-glorifying enjoyment rather than self-glorifying gluttony. The wealthier Corinthians we’re overindulging while the poorer members of the church had nothing to drink or eat. When believers share common bread and a common cup, it is a visual symbol that Christ is conquering the common divisions and disunity of our world. We tend to marginalize others who are different. We naturally label people as “other” because they’re not like us. We’re not concerned with others’ interests and insist instead on the world revolving around us. We miss the beauty of the common bread and common cup that breaks down division and disunity by overcoming them in Christ.
The world is a fractured place. And the church in Corinth was no different than their surrounding pagan culture. They were divided. But in this section, Paul is not referring to rival parties arguing over the theology of various foods or the superiority of various spiritual gifts. He is referring to the gulf between the rich and poor within a given house-church. The minority of well-off believers, including the major financial supporters and owners of the homes in which the church met, had the leisure time and financial resources to arrive earlier, bring larger quantities, and provide finer food than the rest of the congregation. Following the practice of festive gatherings in the 1st century Greco-Roman world, they quickly filled the small dining room. The latecomers, the majority, would be seated separately in the courtyard. They were cut off from receiving the fine meal taking place in the exclusive, dining room.
Paul doesn’t care about the kind of bread used or the quality of the wine. This is a fracture of social justice in the gospel community. The very thing that was supposed to ground their unity (the sign and seal of Christ’s work) had become an expression of division. The meal that was supposed to destroy their divisions was being used to create division. Rather than reflecting the self-giving love of Christ, they were gathering for themselves. Those who could afford to do so, had turned the Lord Supper into their own exclusive banquet. They had twisted the sacrament from being about Christ’s accomplishments to being a sacrament of their own achievements. Just like in the garden of Eden, God had provided an abundant amount for Adam and Eve. But they chose to eat a sacramental meal with the devil that focused their attention upon themselves rather than their Creator. Christ’s meal no longer represented the Corinthians’ great spiritual need, but rather the rich Corinthians’ prominence and importance.
The sacrament had become a mere ritual, and their lives reflected that the meal was of no real value to them. Whether by design or default, the poor majority was being alienated and excluded by the wealthy minority. They were being treated as second class citizens. “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?” It may not be the case that some are actually starving and some are actually drunk. This is a mirism (using two extremes to refer to everything in between). The mirism is a picture of complete breakdown in their gospel community. And Paul’s response is a natural one: “what shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not (22b).
Paul is saying that this cannot be the picture of the church. One group is eating oysters and lobsters and thick medium rare steaks. The majority, if they are lucky, are nibling on the 1st century equivalent of tortillas. No one in the gospel community should wind up with the scraps. The beauty of the gospel must be alive and active to break through all of the barriers in a fractured community. If the sinful reality of this world becomes a regular part in the Lord’s Supper, wouldn’t it be better to abandon it altogether because it has not created the community we are called to be? Absolutely not! Paul does not tell them to stop celebrating the supper. He commands them to dig deeper into the reality of grace offered in the body and blood of Christ.
In verses 23-25, Paul directs them to the history of grace. “23 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, 24 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.” 25 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.” The Lord’s Supper is a sign and seal of Christ’s redemptive work on behalf of a fractured community. The Christ, the only man with perfect loyalty, was betrayed so that we who are the great betrayers could receive the steadfast loyalty love of God. This sacrament of grace is rooted in the history of God’s grace to Israel. The Lord supper is the fulfillment of the Passover meal. The Passover meal contained symbolic elements. There were four cups of wine to remind the participants of Exodus 6:6-7, where God makes four promises concerning the Israelites deliverance and freedom: “I will bring out,” “I will deliver,” “I will redeem,” and “I will take.” The final cup is commonly called “the cup of praise” or the “cup of blessing” (which is what Paul calls it).
When the Lord Jesus presided over the Passover meal before his crucifixion, he revolutionized peoples’ understanding. The Jewish understanding of Passover reminded them of the sacrificial system. But Jesus revolutionized Passover by claiming to be the end of the sacrificial system when he said, “This is my body.” He meant the same thing in John 6:35 when he said, “I am the bread of life.” He revealed that he is the fulfillment of all that was symbolized in the Passover meal. We continue in the sacrament he set up by breaking the bread. It centers us upon the literal breaking of his body and binds us as believers together into his mystical body. Our communion together is based upon his relentless grace. His blood removes every barrier, be it socio-economic, racial, class, gender, age, or even politics.
Paul grounds his commands concerning the supper not only in the history of grace, but also in the future of grace. Looking forward to Christ’s return our behalf, he writes, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (v. 26). The Lord’s Supper bids us look toward the future when Christ will return to make all things new. Even when our present situations seem dire, the Supper gives us hope in a true new world order. Participating in the Lord supper is a “proclamation” (preaching) that Jesus is our sustenance in this present world through his perfect life, blood-shedding death, resurrection, and ascension. The sufficiency of his work is on display to offer hope in a weary world.
Not only does the grace of the Supper have a past and a future, but it is also personal. Grace becomes personal through self-examination in light of Christ’s work. “27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” Paul is not writing about whether or not his readers deserve to approach the Lords Table. The issue is whether we approach with indifference and/or unrepentance. The Supper is a comfort to those who are afflicted with and recognize their sin. But for those who are comfortable with sin, the Supper is an affliction.
Paul is not asking the Corinthians to find reasons why they are unworthy, but to find evidence of a repentant heart (evidence grace is at work). Paul is not asking us to examine ourselves for perfection, but for recognition of our need for Christ’s freely-given perfection. God provides a generous portion of his grace for sinners at the Table. So, we are encouraged to relish it, celebrate it, enjoy it, and feed upon Christ and his benefits. We are to hold onto both the solemn nature of the occasion and to the celebratory nature because of what Christ has done.
The grace of the Supper is also communal. Paul writes of this in verses 29-34. Look at verse 29, “29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” Like me, you may have heard this verse as a command that we are to have a proper intellectual understanding of the elements themselves. However, Paul is not talking about understanding unleavened crackers. Paul is calling on the upper classes of the church to look around them. He is not talking about understanding the cracker as Christ’s body. He is talking about understanding the entirety of church membership (rich and poor) as the body of Christ. Paul wrote in 10:16-17, “16 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.”
Jesus’ body is broken for believers so that all believers can be a whole body together. Division within the body of Christ, the entire congregation being divided into rich and poor, is not a faithful witness of the gospel. The entire church community is to repent for creating situations that encourage social, racial, or economic distinctions. When we celebrate the Lord Supper, we are to realize that Christ was torn up and broken for us. Understanding that ought to produce a desire to distribute the gifts we have, rather than accumulating. “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.” To “wait for one another” means to put others’ needs before our own because Jesus put our needs before his own. We can refrain from gorging ourselves like we were at a pagan temple feast because Christ refrained for our sake.
Every congregation is made up of natural enemies. What binds us together is not common education levels, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accidents, common jobs, or anything else of that kind. We come together because we have all been saved by the Lord Jesus Christ and owe him a common allegiance. For Jesus’ sake, a band of natural enemies choose to love one another.
If you read through the book of Acts, you will find wealthy businesswomen like Lydia in Acts 16, Asians (like Lydia), Greeks, Romans, Jews, slaves, and working-class people like the Philippian jailer. Their occupations all called for different cognitive styles, ways of thinking. The gospel led people from different backgrounds, different economic classes, different races, different jobs, and different styles of thinking to embrace one another and refer to each other as “brothers” and “sisters” (Acts 16:40). The Lord’s Supper reveals our vertical union with God through the Lord Jesus Christ. And it challenges our horizontal and social relationships so we can “discern the body” and embrace all the different kinds and classes of people whom Christ chooses to be saved into his body, the Church.
As the aging Apostle John wrote:
12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. 13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 11:17–34.
 Um, 203. Kindle Edition.
 Morton H. Smith, Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession Standards (Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary Press, 1996, c1990.), Answer 96.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 10:16–17.
 Um, 210. Kindle Edition. Quoting D.A. Carson.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Jn 4:12–16.