Table Manners: Coming ‘Together’ for the Lord’s Supper

Table Manners: Coming ‘Together’ for the Lord’s Supper

Text: 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

Summary of the Text:  In this passage, the Apostle Paul rebukes the Corinthian congregation for having divisions and factions, which were becoming obvious during the Lord’s Supper; a meal which should reflect the selfless attitude of Christ and the unity of the believers.

The thesis of the Sermon:  How should the church behave during the Lord’s Supper? The church should ‘come together’ in a time of self-examination during communion while celebrating the unity found in Christ.

Introduction: 

No East or West 

In Christ there is no East or West,

In Him no South ot North,

But one great fellowship of Love

Throughout the whole wide earth.

In Him shall true hearts everywhere

Their high communion find

His service is the golden cord

Close-binding all mankind.

Join hands then, Brothers of the Faith,

Whate’er your race may be! –

Who serves my Father as a son

Is surely kin to me.

In Christ now meet both East and West,

In Him meet South and North,

All Christly souls are one in Him,

Throughout the whole wide earth. 1

What a lovely poem about Christian unity! The audience of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians would, more than likely, given lip-service to this verse. However, their actions around the table of the Lord painted a scene of disunity and selfishness.

In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Paul scolds the Corinthians for having divisions [schismas or schisms] and factions [hairesis or heresy], which were evident during the Lord’s Supper; a meal which should reflect the selfless attitude of Christ and the unity of the believers. This sermon will explore the factors surrounding this passage and endeavor to reveal the proper approach the church should use while celebrating the Lord’s Supper.

To do this, the sermon will consist of three sections. First, we will examine the problem of disunity at Corinth. Second, the pattern of communion delivered by Paul to the church. Third, we will consider the purpose of the Holy Meal in the life of the believer today.

The Problem at Corinth vv. 17-22

In this section, Paul shifts to another issue with the Corinthian public worship services. A point Paul is obviously annoyed by. He writes, “…I do not praise you” (17) … “Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you” (22).  Paul is profoundly disturbed by the Corinthians.

What is the issue Paul being unhappy with? He writes, “…because you come together not for the better but for the worse” (17).  Instead of being an edifying assembly the Corinthians worship services are driving a wedge between them! Paul elaborates

For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; an in part I believe it. For there must be factions among you, so that those who are approved may be evident among you (18-19).

These divisions (or schismas) and factions (or Hairesis) were dividing the believers at Corinth into competing parties rather than complementary members.

First, the statement “when you come to together as a church…” needs some explanation. Although we have sanctified the term “church” (or ekklesia), in Paul’s world the term could be used for any type of gathering of people. However, the Evangelist Matthew use the word ekklesia in a new way in Matthew 18:20. He writes, “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (NASB Matt 18:20). The presence of Christ within the gathering made it a sacred assembling.

During this sacred gathering, the Early Church practiced having a love-feast or agape meal (think of a spiritual potluck) and the Lord’s Supper was the pinnacle of the meal. The first half of the gettogether would consist of a shared meal (see Acts 2:42), which lead up to sharing of the Communion meal. However, the Corinthians were divided at a meal, which was meant to reveal the unity in Christ. Ben Witherington III writes,

These divisions seem to have created been created by some of the well-to-do members of the congregation treating the agape meal like a private dinner party, perhaps a banquet followed by a drinking party (convivium). The result of this was that the social stratification of the congregation was overemphasized and exacerbated. A serious division between the haves and the have-nots was thus threatening the fragile unity of the Corinthian community. 2

Witherington further explains customary etiquette at such dinner. He states,

It was the normal practice to rank one’s guest in terms of social status , with those of higher status eating with the host in the dining room and others eating elsewhere an getting poorer food. 3

It is easy to see if this were the case at Corinth that these practices were an affront to the Gospel’s message of unity among the classes!

Furthermore, in verses 20-21, Paul paints a picture of the situation at Corinth. He writes, “…for in your own eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk” (21). There is a debate to which is the proper interpretation of these verses. Some argue that the well-to-do member were not waiting for the poorer members to arrive before they began the feast (see verse 33). On the other hand, some say it was merely that the wealthy members were consuming what they brought instead of sharing with the less fortunate congregants. (In my opinion, it could have been a bit of both!) Whether the individuals are eating before others have a chance or eating what they brought, it is equally disgracing to the purpose of the gathering. This meal was an opportunity for all to share a common meal without distinctions of a class being drawn. We can witness Paul’s disgust in the Corinthian division by looking at the rhetorical questions he leveled at them in v. 22.

For clarity, let’s put it in the modern vernacular. The Corinthian congregation was full of social cliques. The haves was not sharing with the less fortunate. They were even having a big potluck (or church social) to rub it in! Should this be? God forbid! Paul states earlier in the letter, “Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread” (NASB 1 Cor 10:17).

On a side note, Paul has a positive point about the divisions and factions. In verse 20, he writes, “…so that those who are approved may become evident among you.” These schisms and heresies allow for the true believers to rise the surface.

The Pattern of Communion vv.23-26

In verse 23-25, Paul recounts the Last Supper shared between Jesus and his Disciples. Paul states he has, “…received from the Lord…” this pattern of communion. He also has shared this with this congregation in the past at some point in time. They know better than to partake in this sacred meal like they are doing.

Although selfishness was witnessed in the Corinthians meal, Paul directs them to the most unselfish act of Christ, which is commemorated in the Lord’s Supper. As Baptists were practice two ordinances, believers’ baptism and communion. The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His Second Coming. 4

Of course, the matter of how Christ is present in the communion meal has been a subject of heated debate. Catholics adhere to the doctrine of transubstantiation where it is believed the element physically change into the body and blood of Christ. Luther suggested consubstantiation where the elements, although not changed, are the literal body and blood by faith. David Guzik offers some great commentary on the intense argument over how Christ is present in the Eucharist.  He writes,

John Calvin taught that Jesus’ presence in the bread and wine was real, but only spiritual, not physical. Zwingli taught that the bread and wine are mere symbols that represent the body and blood of Jesus. When the Swiss Reformers debated the issue with Martin Luther at Marburg, there was a huge contention. Luther insisted on some kind of physical presence because Jesus said this is My body. He insisted over and over again, writing it on the velvet of the table, Hoc est corpus meum – “this is My body” in Latin. Zwingli replied, “Jesus also said I am the vine,” and “I am the door,” but we understand what He was saying. Luther replied, “I don’t know, but if Christ told me to eat dung I would do it knowing that it was good for me.” Luther was so strong on this because he saw it as an issue of believing Christ’s words, and because he thought Zwingli was compromising, he said he was of another spirit (andere geist). Ironically, Luther later read Calvin’s writings on the Lord’s Supper (which were essentially the same as Zwingli’s) and seemed to agree with Calvin’s views. 5

As Southern Baptists, we align more with Reformers like Zwingli. Zwingli states,

We believe that Christ is truly present in the Lord’s Supper; yea, we believe that there is no communion without the presence of Christ. This is the proof: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt 18:20). How much more is he present where the whole congregation is assembled in his honor! But that his body is literally eaten is far from the truth and nature of faith. It is contrary to the truth, because he himself says: ‘I am no more in the world (Jn. 17:11), and ‘the flesh profiteth nothing’ (Jn. 6:63), that is to eat, as the Jews then believed and the Papists still believe. It is contrary to the nature of faith (I mean the holy and true faith), because faith embraces love, fear of God, and reverence, which abhor such carnal and gross eating, as much as anyone would shrink from eating his beloved son…We believe that the true body of Christ is eaten in the communion in a sacramental and spiritual manner by the religions, believing, and pious heart (as also St. Chrysostom taught). And this is in brief the substance of what we maintain in this controversy, and what not we, but the truth itself teaches. 6

The Purpose of Communion vv. 26-34

The Apostle Paul has already acknowledged the unity expressed through the meal in 1 Cor 10:17. However, there are individual responsibilities for every communicant. The first responsibility is capture in v. 26.  Paul writes, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (26). While partaking in this meal, the believer is look back to Christ’s death (“…which is for you…v.24) acknowledging the sacrificial atonement Christ has provided them for there sins. Not only is the believer to look back with grateful hearts but also look forward with hope for the Second Coming. Both looking back, and forward are done in faith. The purpose of the ordinance is for reflection of both realities. The believer’s eschatological state of “already/but not yet” is captured beautifully in the communion meal.

The second responsibility of the communicant, it to not only observe the past sacrifice and future hope but to look internally at oneself. Paul states, “But the man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat the bread and drink of the cup” (28). Communion should never be taken in a state of rebellion to God’s word. It is a time to reflect inwardly in repentance. Once this inward examination is complete, the believer is to look outwardly. Not in judgment but in a spirit of unity and brotherhood. Brothers lovely correct each other, if and when it is needed. This time of eschatological reflection and examination is the purpose of communion.

What if you neglect these responsibilities? Paul writes, “Therefore whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthily manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord” (27). Paul is clear that God chastises irreverent believers who take lightly the Lord’s Supper (see vv. 27, 29-30). What does Paul mean “in and unworthily manner”? Does this mean you have to be perfect or sinless? No. D.A. Carson explains,

In this particular context, the unworthy eating of the bread and drinking of the cup has to do with their attitudes and actions towards each other, especially the needy who have suffered acute embarrassment. Attention is being drawn to their status and circumstances in the meal, in a community where these social divisions were meant to be abolished in Christ (cf. 1:30). They were guilty of sinning against, or possibly the grounds of, the body and blood of the Lord. All must test of examine themselves before they participate. In this context, the examination has to do with attitudes of a party spirit and lack of compassion towards the ‘have-nots.’ 7

If you are guilty of this nonchalant attitude while partaking of the Lord’s Supper the penalty can be severe (see 30-33).

Conclusion

In this passage, the Apostle Paul rebukes the Corinthian congregation for having divisions and factions, which were becoming obvious during the Lord’s Supper; a meal which should reflect the selfless attitude of Christ and the unity of the believers. The Corinthians possibly acknowledging the brotherhood of Christians with their words but not their deeds. Let us not follow their example, but Christ’s model.

We, as believers, should reflect backward to Christ’s death on the cross and forward to His triumphant return. As well as, look inward for self-examination, while embracing the unity in Christ as we partake in communion. Let us have Table Manners: Coming Together in Unity for the Lord’s Supper.

 

 

 

  1.  Charles R. Swindoll, Swindoll’s Ultimate Book of Illustrations & Quotes (Nashville , TN: Thomas Nelson , 1998), 598.
  2. Ben Witherington, Conflict and community in Corinth: a socio-rhethorical commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 241.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Baptist Faith & Message 2000, www.sbc.net
  5. David Guzik, “Enduring Word Bible Commentary 1 Corinthians Chapter 11,” Enduring Word, , accessed January 27, 2018, https://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/1-corinthians-11/.
  6. Zwingli’s Distinctive Doctrines, accessed January 27, 2018, http://biblehub.com/library/various/creeds_of_christendom_with_a_history_and_critical_notes/_52_zwinglis_distinctive_doctrines.htm#1.
  7. D. A. Carson et al., New Bible commentary: 21st century edition (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1998), 1179.