I Corinthians 11:17-34 (click to display NIV text)
July 29, 2012
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson
“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night 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.’ “
The letter of First Corinthians addresses eleven problems in the church, ten of which deal with behavior. We cannot imagine such things going on in a church. In chapter 5 we read of their pride over a matter of sexual immorality between a man and his stepmother. Then lawsuits in the church in chapter 6. Some are wondering about eating food sacrificed to idols, and others feel they are free to attend meals held in honor of various idols and demons. There is division in the church at the Lord’s Supper because some are getting drunk and overeating at the meal while others have nothing. The letter ends with Paul seeking to convince them of the resurrection from the dead.
All of these issues basically boil down to two: The church is divided along lines of rich and poor, and some are claiming a spirituality that is leading them far from the Gospel. These issues are seen most clearly in their observance of the Lord’s Supper. Here Paul tells them to eat and drink in remembrance of Jesus.
The Corinthians who came to faith in Christ almost all came out of a pagan, idol-worshipping background. Corinth was famous for its statue of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and the many temple prostitutes. As a seaport, people came to it from all over the world, bringing all manner of religious practices and ideas. Those who found faith in Christ were often swayed by persuasive traveling teachers who mixed the various religions and philosophies together. For example, the gift of tongues received by some was said to be the language of angels, and so those people felt they had assumed the spiritual existence of angels. This made them arrogant. They also felt that the body and all things material were corrupt and of no value, so they either denied themselves all needs and desires or they indulged lusts and desires very freely, because they felt it did not matter. They thought they were spiritual, and cared nothing for the physical. When they came to the Lord’s Table, which in those days involved a full meal, they said they were eating “spiritual food.” They thought the more they ate and drank, the more of divine wisdom would be in them.
The other issue had to do with rich and poor. The rich acted like rich people did in those days. They ate a much higher quality of food than the lower classes, and expected much larger portions. Their homes had small dining rooms, with just enough space for their circle of close friends, and large atriums, where anyone else could gather. So, at the Lord’s Supper, the rich enjoyed a private meal in the dining room, while the poorer members stood in the atrium, humiliated, and with just a little bread and wine between them. At the Lord’s Table, some ate and drank until they were drunk and gorged, while others were left with nothing. Paul says they had lost touch with the meaning of the meal itself.
The Corinthians needed to restore the food to its rightful place in the supper. It is not a private meal for some. It is a meal to honor the Lord, done “in remembrance of me.” Here, Paul has a very insightful solution. I would have told the rich to share their food with the poor. Paul tells the rich to eat in their own homes if they need to, and then all eat the Lord’s Supper together. That means he wants the rich to come out of the dining room and eat with the poor in the atrium. At the Lord’s Table, they should all eat what the poor eat. They need to remember Jesus, and then proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
When people of means eat with the poor, and eat the food of the poor, something very profound happens. Hospitality leads to fellowship and to a true unity. There are many opportunities for the rich to give to the poor, to provide for those who do not have all they need. It is an obligation of Christians to give to the poor, not an option.
But there are also times when the rich need to sit with the poor and receive their hospitality. As long as the rich are always the givers they never really know what it means to receive, to live by grace, to experience a simple provision, maybe even to feel less than full. But when they sit with the poor, they can best remember Jesus.
I have told this story a number of times, but maybe I can repeat it with a little different application. When I finished college I went out by myself to New Hampshire and worked a summer at our camp called Pilgrim Pines. The first month or so I spent getting the camp ready, mainly raking leaves and cleaning areas. I was pretty much alone at the camp. One weekend a group of young adults came to have some meetings. I remember feeling like they were intruding on me. I felt somewhat superior to them, beyond their concerns for meeting to plan a program for college students. At the end of the day I was walking along the road checking on something and wondering what I was going to do for dinner, not really wanting to drive into the local McDonald’s. There were a group of them, sitting by a fire, cooking little foil pouches of food. They invited me to come and sit with them, to share their simple meal. It was very good. I discovered who they were. I delighted in the riches of their fellowship. I did not realize I was lonely until I was invited to join their circle.
This is what Paul is saying to the rich, who are poor in understanding, lonely in their misguided lives, and wounded by their pride. He invites them to sit with their poor brothers and sisters, people whom they were ignoring, were even abusing. But if they will delight in fellowship with the poor, they will be able to remember the Lord Jesus.
What is it about Jesus that these wealthy Corinthians should be remembering? They should remember how Jesus was born, in a stable. They should remember how he was baptized in the muddy Jordan by John, and in those waters took on the sins of the world, pointing to the cross. They should remember how Jesus picked his disciples from the ranks of tax collectors and fishermen. They should remember how deeply Jesus cared about the physical ailments of people and how he went about healing diseases, how he touched lepers and forgave sinners. They should remember how he taught in parables, taking lessons from scenes in daily life. They should remember how Jesus lived a sinless life, even though he was tempted in every way, just as they were. They should remember how Jesus was crucified, how he hung in the heat of the day and endured mocking. They should remember that he is risen from the dead.
It is at the point of remembering the crucifixion of Jesus that your attitude toward others begins to change. That is why Paul wrote to them, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1:18). The power of God changes our attitudes and behavior toward others.
As you come to the Lord’s Table today, what do you remember about Jesus? Begin with a scene from his ministry; place an incident from the life of Jesus in your mind.
Then think of some aspect of the cross and resurrection. Remember the death of Jesus, how he suffered, how he gave himself. Remember his resurrection and the joy of the disciples when they saw him.
Before you receive the bread and cup today, think about the body of Christ, the church. Recognize who is here with you today.
Do you find yourself in the dining room, or in the atrium? How are you receiving grace today and how will you extend that grace to others?
Jesus invites us anew to Holy Communion, through which he will give himself to us and lead us into a deeper fellowship with one another.