So Paul was not very happy with the Corinthians, at this point in his letter. Apparently they were doing some things right as a church, but there were some things like this in which they were falling short. To understand just what it was they were doing wrong, I’m going to ask you to use your imagination a little, and to imagine putting two of our church activities together into one.
The first one is communion. Now, communion represents, of course, a meal. Our eating a little bread and drinking a little grape juice reminds us, among other things, of a whole meal – a meal like the Passover meal the Jewish people eat to commemorate the exodus from Egypt so long ago; a meal like Jesus had with his disciples the night before he was crucified. Jewish meals like these two had an official opening moment and an official closing moment, a beginning and an ending, sort of like our saying grace and having dessert. The opening of a Jewish meal was the breaking of bread, with a prayer; the closing was a second prayer, of thanksgiving, over a cup at the end of the meal, tying the whole thing together. If you look at both of our Scripture readings today closely, you will see that they describe the cup as being “after supper,” the closing event. So our breaking bread together with a prayer represents the opening of a meal with Jesus; our passing a cup with a prayer represents the ending of a meal with Jesus. Communion is symbolic . . . of a whole supper.
So the second church activity I’d like you to think of is one of our covered-dish dinners, like before our Annual Meeting, of after our service at New Providence. Imagine that we’ve all brought one of our casseroles or salads or desserts today, and that in between the bread of communion and the cup of communion, we’re holding a covered-dish dinner! Bread; dinner; cup. It’s a combination-event, in our minds, today: communion and covered-dish dinner, all rolled into one.
If you can picture that, then you have an idea of the way the church at Corinth worshipped. Their observance of the Lord’s Supper was combined with what they called an “agape meal,” or “love feast.” Eating dinner together was part of their church time together.
Now let’s imagine right ways and wrong ways to hold our combination communion/covered dish dinner. Listen and decide if this is a right way or a wrong way: As we gather for church, with the food we’ve brought, each at our usual arrival times, between 9:00 and 10:30, imagine that those of us who arrive first decide we don’t want to wait until 10:30 to eat the food we’ve brought, with everybody else. The three Sunday School classes, in their three separate rooms, pull out their food and eat at 9:30, as soon as they gather. The Property Committee-slash-general conversation group, in the Assembly Room, pulls out its food and begins to eat at about 9:50, or whenever it seems like most of the usual suspects have arrived. The choir dumps out its pickanick baskets together and eats at 10:15 – instead of rehearsing! One of those groups has brought wine for the dinner, and goes ahead and polishes off all the wine, getting rather tipsy (You can decide which of those groups that might be). So by the time the folks who come at 10:30 show up, they find that half the crowd has eaten already, so that there won’t be an official opening breaking of the bread together; and that the wine drinkers are already ready to start sleeping it off. Now, would that be the right way to hold our church time together, or the wrong way? (Go ahead, tell me; what do you think?) It’s a no-brainer, right? Pretty obvious.
Yet this was exactly the pattern the Corinthians had fallen into. The ones who gathered first didn’t want to wait for the later ones. The ones who brought wine for the dinner decided to get a head start on drinking it. There was no prayer together, over the breaking of the bread, to start the dinner together.
And even worse, some of the church members were so poor that they were counting on sharing the food other people had brought to even get any dinner that day; if they arrived too late, they wound up without dinner at all. This is not the spirit of Christian fellowship that Jesus intended when he asked us to dine together to remember him, is it? No wonder Paul is a little miffed at his young congregation. He describes again and again for them the way the Last Supper was held, to remind them of Jesus’ example: break bread together, eat together, have the closing cup together. And he offers them a simple, practical solution: when you come together, wait for everyone before you start. The communion/covered-dish sacrament does not begin until 10:30.
Paul’s disappointment with the Corinthians boils down to the attitudes they had approaching the supper: thinking of themselves and their bellies alone, instead of remembering the poor members they needed to share with; breaking the one church community dining together into a bunch of little factions, each eating separately; thinking of the occasion only as a time to consume goodies, rather than a time of fellowship and worship. Their attitude was all wrong.
And it’s easy for us to condemn that attitude too, and to wonder how they missed the point so badly. But as with any instruction we find in the Bible, we better check first and make sure our houses don’t contain too much glass before we toss any stones at the Corinthians. Do we always approach the Lord’s Supper with the right attitude? To use Paul’s words, do we need to “examine ourselves” too, as we come to the sacrament?
Exhibit A – Matthew 5: Jesus says, when you’re coming to the altar, coming to worship, and you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, go first and be reconciled to your brother or sister, before you come to the table. Have we made peace, tried to heal any hard feelings with any fellow church members, before we come to this table together? For that’s part of our communion attitude.
Exhibit B, from Christian history: Churches have literally gone to war with each other, and burned people at the stake, over their understanding of how communion works. Is the bread and wine literally Christ’s body and blood, or just symbolically? Do we gather primarily to remember, or to be literally, physically fed? How often are we to celebrate this sacrament? Even today, sniping exists between denominations over thoughts that “they’re doing it wrong,” and Christians of some churches refuse to join in the Sacrament with Christians of certain other churches, instead of finding unity in our common conviction that our connection with Christ is real and special in the supper. Do we individuals indulge any feelings of superiority, or contribute to any divisions, over this table and this sacrament? For that’s part of our communion attitude.
Exhibit C: What this supper is about, as summarized by our Book of Order, is: remembering Jesus and all he has done for us, and continues to do for us; giving thanks to God, for creation, for our salvation, for God’s presence in the world; asking for God’s guidance, and for God’s blessing of the Christian community, and for spiritual nourishment through this sacrament; joining together with our fellow believers, in this common meal. Remembering, thanking, asking, joining. It is not about: critiquing the details of how the bread and cup are served; judging the elders’ and deacons’ “performance”; feeling smug that we’re doing it “right”; getting angry if something is done “wrong”; or making sure that we’re finished precisely between 11:26 and 11:30. Remembering Jesus; giving thanks to God; asking for God’s help to be faithful disciples; strengthening the bonds of community: those are communion attitudes.
A commentary on First Corinthians by Doctors Walther and Orr, of Pittsburgh Seminary, summarizes Paul’s description of communion this way: When Paul speaks of an “unworthy manner” of approaching the supper, he is not talking about liturgical procedures, but about the way we come together around the table. The church, as the body of Christ, aims to be what being with Jesus Christ himself was: a fellowship where the poor are fed, the lonely are befriended, the sick are visited, the grieving are comforted, and sinners are forgiven.
When our approach to the Lord’s Supper carries us in that direction, then we’ve accomplished good “table manners.”