Introduction to Corinthians
This morning we are preparing to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Usually we do so as part of our Thanksgiving service, which we held last Sunday. This year we are taking communion during next Sunday’s installation service for Victor. 1 Corinthians 11 is a text we often use to get ready for communion, and I will use it again today.
We read about the beginning of the Corinthian churches in Acts 18. In the previous chapters Paul had preached in Philippi and Thessalonica, where he came under vigorous persecution, including imprisonment. Then he had gone on to Athens, where he gained a hearing on Mars Hill, but was laughed at by most of those listening. Given the events leading up to his entry into Corinth, the way he describes his coming in 1 Corinthians 2 makes sense: “3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. …” Paul seems so convinced in his preaching and writing that we might wonder how he could say, “I came to you with great fear and trembling,” but his fear makes sense at this stage of his preaching mission. In the event, he stayed for a year and a half (Acts 1811) and his preaching led to the beginning of a significant church in Corinth.
Corinth was a city near the southern tip of Greece, a port city that rivalled Athens, which was about 50 miles further east. It was known for its sexual immorality, although some of that reputation may have come from Athenians who were jealous of Corinth. As a major port of the ancient world, you can be sure that its reputation was at least partly earned, and that it was a cosmopolitan city full of many religions and temples.
The Corinthian Church
One of my questions as I prepared was: How important was this church that Paul planted? In the first chapter of this letter Paul says, “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.” Sometimes we read this to mean that the church consisted entirely of poor people. That’s not quite what Paul said: “Not many of you were wise … influential … noble.” So some were. In the Corinthian church there was a layering of social and economic classes, which becomes an important point in the passage that we read.
How many were in this church? The commentators I read agree that the church met in people’s homes, which limited the size of any one group to about 30 or 40 people. They normally met around a meal in their host’s home, with the wealthier people sitting at the table and lower-class people crowding in around the outside of the room. If there were a total of 10 homes that people could meet in, we have a church of 300 to 400. Paul does not tell us, so we can only speculate.
Paul is concerned with the life of this church, gathered in people’s homes. Chloe may have been one of the homeowners and church leaders (1:11). Crispus and Gaius (1:14) may also be such household leaders. Perhaps Stephanas is another (16:15). You note the mention of Aquila and Priscilla in 16:19, which shows the pattern of such household meeting in a neighbouring city, probably the city in which Paul is writing the letter. We know from Acts 18 that Priscilla and Aquila also lived in Corinth when Paul came there and hosted a house church there as well.
So we come to 1 Corinthians 11. This is a letter. We have a particular problem reading someone else’s mail. It would help greatly if we had the letter that the Corinthians sent, to which Paul is replying. We don’t, so we have to guess at the situations in Corinth, based on the answers that Paul gives to their questions.
You can read the letter as a whole, with a good commentary at your elbow, in order to see the issues in it more fully. One of these issues was the way that they celebrated communion, which is the passage we read earlier. Here is a brief description of what Paul says.
The Corinthian church was divided—not just by meeting in different homes, which was not a problem, but far more by leadership struggles (chapter 1) and by social class (our passage). So Paul says, “I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it.” The qualifier “to some extent” is a bit sarcastic. Paul means, “I know you are!”
Paul wrote strongly against such division in chapter 1:
10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: one of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’
13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptised in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptise any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptised in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptised the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptised anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel – not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
Now again in chapter 11 Paul returns to this theme of division, except that this time it shows up as a class division. Some of the Corinthians had money, and they brought good food and drink to their Sunday meal in the house church. Some of them were poor, and they brought a poor family’s food and drink—not much! This meal was the context within which the church celebrated the Lord’s Supper. They ate their meal together, and then broke bread and drank wine in memory of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
By the way, such discrimination was normal in Greco-Roman society. The people of Corinth saw such actions all the time. Paul’s point is that they should be different: a new people, the Body of Christ.
Paul contrasts their practice (in which one person goes hungry while another wealthier brother gets drunk) with what should happen. He quotes the words that we often use when we take communion, beginning with the words, “I received from the Lord what I passed on to you.” This is a technical phrase that shows us the importance of the formula that follows: “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me. … This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
This celebration does two things: One, it remembers Christ’s death until he returns, so it reminds us both of the salvation that comes to us on the cross and of the goal of history in the return of Christ. All of our lives are re-oriented to these fundamental realities: Jesus is our Saviour—he has saved us from “sin, death, and hell”, and Jesus is our lord—we live our lives for him until we die or he returns.
Two, this celebration affirms our essential unity. By reminding us that we are united in Christ, not divided in Christ, Paul ties together communion and community. Division, in Paul’s thinking, is sin. By “division” I do not mean the existence of several different house churches. As a practical matter we meet in different groups, but all Christians form one church. There is only one church of Jesus Christ. There is only one body of Christ in this world. Each congregation may meet alone, but we all belong together. Social or theological division in this context (the practice of the Lord’s Supper) is simply wrong.
Division is something deeper than simply the fact of having several groups. In Chapter 1, division was seen in the way that each group elevated itself and put others down.
- “We come from Paul! You don’t have a spiritual father; we do!”
- “Ah, but we learned from Peter and he represents the first church in Jerusalem. We are better than you!”
- “You poor Paulians and Peterites! Have you heard Apollos preach? There is a man of God, truly educated and sophisticated—someone who can reach this cosmopolitan city if anyone can!”
- Finally, the Christ-party speaks; “None of you know anything. We know Christ! We have the way! We are the true church, not you.”
In chapter 11 division showed itself through class divisions, based on social and economic status. This was a problem in various places, as James’ shows us (James 23:1-4):
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
It is this idea of “judges with evil thoughts” that lies at the heart of division. Division is not simply separating into more than one group. Division is judging the person from whom one separates. Paul suggests that this spirit of division is at the root of other problems that the Corinthians have experienced. We do not need to draw a straight line from sin to misfortune to see the truth of his statement.
I have heard this passage preached as a call to examine oneself for all kinds of secret sins. That goes beyond what Paul is saying. The act of taking communion in an unworthy manner (verses 27-29) refers specifically to the way that the Corinthians were abusing each other at the table. In a sense, all of us always take communion “unworthily”. No one here can ever say, “I deserve this grace from God.” Grace is always undeserved. Rather, it is taking communion together, being reminded that we are a redeemed people, and that we are one body of Christ—it is this celebration of communion that reminds us of the One who makes us righteous. God comes to us because we are sinners, to redeem and transform us.
We are going through deep waters in our congregation, and we must take seriously what has been happening among us. Let me oversimplify in order to make my point. We have divided over a number of issues. To disagree is not sin, nor does separation necessarily mean division, but division may result. I assume that all of us have been seeking God’s will and are trying to be faithful in the issues that face us. Some see the danger of agreeing to what they believe is sin. To do so would make them also guilty. They cannot do it. Others see the danger of rejecting marginalized people, which would also be sin. They cannot take that step. But here is the problem. In our efforts to do what we believe God wants us to do, we have fallen into division. This spirit of judgment has not been on one side or the other, but on both sides. I am not interested in deciding who has been more guilty. In my own thinking we have done all of this together.
You see our problem: In the effort to avoid one sin we have fallen into another. In my reading of the New Testament, the call to unity is one of the strongest themes of all. In John 13, Jesus makes mutual love the mark of the Christian. In John 17 Jesus prays and asks for Christian unity as the decisive argument that God is real and that Jesus is the Son of God. In Ephesians 4, Paul states forcefully that there is only one body. In 1 Corinthians 1 he asks, “Is Christ divided?” The answer is, “No! Christ can never be divided, nor can the body of Christ, which is the church.”
I want to ask you each to do something over the next several weeks. Ask of yourself, “Did I say something to hurt a brother or sister?” Then find that sister or brother and make things right between you. Don’t try to undo the past. We can’t. Don’t think that we can put everything back together. We can’t. But we can make sure that true organic Christian unity is restored, even as we move in different directions. You may ask yourself in this process of self-examination: “Did someone hurt me? Do I feel judged?” Then go and talk with that brother or sister and make things right. I am referring now to things that really were said, not to thoughts we may have had or emotions that flow. You may wonder if you need to tell someone, “I thought bad things about you.” If you only thought them, don’t start saying them now!
Next Sunday we take communion. Some of you may say, “I can’t. I have been hurt too badly.” If your conscience forbids you, listen to your conscience. Even if our conscience is mistaken, it is the medium by which God speaks to us. But I would add something: If you think you need to be truly worthy to take communion, you may as well give up now. We are all unworthy. Our sin at that point becomes one of hypocrisy if we think that we are righteous. Communion invitations get at this truth in different ways. Here is one such invitation:
Come to this table, not because you must but because you may, not because you are strong but because you are weak. Come not because any goodness of your own gives you the right to come, but because you need mercy and help. Come because you love the Lord a little and would like to love him more. Come, because he loved you and gave himself for you. Come and meet the risen Christ for we are his body.
We need mercy and help in our life together, so I invite you to prepare yourself for communion next Sunday. If you can, make things right with people around you this week. If you can’t get it done this week—perhaps some conversations are too difficult to have now—then take communion as part of your preparation to talk to those you must speak with. Don’t delay those conversations too long, or they will submerge and infect your life from beneath, but don’t hurry them either. Take the time you need to become fully the body of Christ again.
I have started this process for myself. I invite you to join me. Don’t try to do it for anyone else. We don’t examine each other; we examine ourselves and move towards fuller communion with all of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
9 October 2016
Text: 1 Corinthians 11: 17-34
Correcting an abuse of the Lord’s Supper
17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 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. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 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. 22 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!
23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: the Lord Jesus, on the night 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, 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.’ 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
27 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. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.30 That is why many among you are weak and ill, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32 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.
33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.
And when I come I will give further instructions.