Letters to the Corinthians: Table Manners

It shouldn’t be all that surprising that one area of conflict happens to be food-centric get-togethers. It’s something that churches pride themselves on even today. For my grandparents’ church, the women were always swapping recipes and writing them down in cook-books which they would sell as a fundraiser and also a good guide to ensure that even the next generation would be able to make home-make food just like their mother or grandmother or aunt did at one of the church’s legendary pot-luck dinners. Hopefully this context will help us understand the nature of the problem in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 where it seems that things have gone very wrong:

In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 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. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

There’s an old saying – they don’t make them like they used to. That holds true for the Lord’s Supper / Communion / the Eucharist. The variation I’m used to little more than an oyster cracker, and one ounce of grape juice, and a blessing is said over them like: “This is my body broken for you, this is my blood poured out for you, do this in remembrance of me.” But that’s not how it’s always been done. After all, when we think about the first one – it came at the end of a Passover meal, so the churches followed that example by having the Lord’s Supper at the end of one of their love feasts. The word that is used for love here is ‘Agape’ – so we can look at Agape feasts to get a better picture of what they look like: participants bring their own food and eat it in a common room. Sounds similar to our pot-lucks. Could you imagine the hurt feelings that would result if at the next potluck the rule was “first come, first serve”? Why, people who drive in from a distance might arrive to find that all the dessert is gone, most of the main courses have been eaten and what’s left is cold, and there’s plenty of carrots left on the vegetable trays. At least they’d have the food items they brought – but what if there were some people who were less fortunate than the rest, who were counting a meal from the pot-luck knowing that they didn’t have very much to spare and precious little to offer? Now imagine how much worse the situation would be in the Corinthian church – with the divisions, jealousy, immorality, pride, and now drunkenness, gluttony, and carelessness about the welfare of others being rampant.

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.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

And that’s Communion / the Lord’s Supper / the Eucharist for you – some things don’t change … and some things do.

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.

Seemingly ages ago, in a conversation about the first half of this chapter, I was warned that disobedience to scripture was akin to eating and drinking judgement upon oneself, which was why God was well within his rights to make the disobedient (such as myself) weak, or sick, or sleepy (euphemistically dead). This wasn’t a message of condemnation, but a sincere warning motivated by brotherly love. The problem is that it completely disregards the context of this passage as it relates to other passages about the Lord’s Supper in the same letter. It’s not unreasonable to think that he’s pointing back to 1 Cor. 10:16-17: ” Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.” It also points to two different perspectives of God. One of Him as the loving parent who disciplines his children to train them in righteousness even when they haven’t done anything wrong but especially more-so when they have done something worthy of discipline. The other as a God who has left no evidence that He has disciplined people by making them weak or sick or dead so a punishable rule must not have been broken.

So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.

So Paul puts an end to the ‘first come, first serve’ rule that created the problem, furthermore, he even tells people that it’s probably not the greatest idea to show up hungry if they can help it. After all, if they usually eat quite well, then what they don’t eat at the Agape Feast can go to someone who usually doesn’t eat as well or as much as they do.

And when I come I will give further directions.

And that’s how we know we’re reading somebody else’s mail.


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