Because I’m writing these articles first online (perhaps later as a small book), I will take the liberty to edit as I’m going. This happens as I realize the need for improvements in the writing or content, sometimes reflecting comments and questions being sent to me. Speaking of the questions that arise, I will also be able to answer some of them in the practical section about implementation, Part V, and in Part VI, a section I will add just for questions and answers. Finally, let me note that my aim, as the title reveals, is more about aligning the practice of the Lord’s Supper with Scripture than providing an in-depth study of the meaning of Christ’s words at his last Passover meal in the gospels, which is often addressed in other works.
So far we have covered the following:
Part I, The Lord’s Supper is a Weekly Meal
Part II, The Lord’s Supper is a Meal for Intentional Fellowship
Part III, The Lord’s Supper is a Meal to Proclaim Christ’s Death
It is best to read these prior to what is below — “The Lord’s Supper is a Meal That May Bring Judgment.”
The Lord’s Supper is a Meal That May Bring Judgment
The members of the church at Corinth did not know why so many of them were feeling weak and why they were getting sick more often than normal. They did not understand the increase in deaths among them either. They surely did believe such things could happen to Christians for no apparent reason. They also likely did not believe that sickness and death had to be related to sin in believers’ lives.
Paul, however, saw the cause of their weakness, sickness, and death with apostolic eyes:
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep.
But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world. (1 Corinthians 11:27-32)
Guilty of the Body and Blood
Let’s return to this frightening prospect of being guilty of the body and blood of the Lord introduced in the last article. The Corinthians did not have emotional guilt about what they were doing in their gathering. In fact, they appear to be oblivious to their problem, as I have already mentioned. But they did have true guilt because of the obvious divisions which to them were apropos according to the cultural norms but were not acceptable in the new order in Christ. We learn something here about the placement of guilt. We do not have to know that what we are doing is wrong for it to be sinful. In fact, in the Old Testament, the once-a-year sin offering by the high priest on Yom Kippur was to cover sins which the Israelites were not aware of during that year. We can sin without knowledge, much like the person speeding may not be aware she had exceeded the speed limit when caught.
But why does Paul say that they were guilty specifically of the body and blood of the Lord? The answer is found in the union of believers and Christ. Christians are so truly one with him that sin against the believer is considered sin against Christ. For instance, Saul, who would be known to us later as Paul, his Gentile name, was confronted with this revealing question when the glorified Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul was not persecuting Christ in his view. He was persecuting Christians. But Jesus thought of this differently because of the union he has with his church. To persecute the church was to persecute him.
See how Jesus identifies as one with the believer in the following passage. Note the words I have emphasized:
Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’ (Matthew 25:34-40)
When a merciful act is done to believers (“these brothers of Mine), they are done to Jesus. The reverse is true as well, as seen in the larger passage (see Mt 25: 41-46). These are not words from Jesus about helping just anybody. They are about how we treat fellow believers. In this category, neglecting Christians is neglecting Christ and showing mercy to Christians is showing mercy to Christ. Therefore, because Christians in Corinth were in fact “the body of Christ,” the Corinthians neglect of the poor brothers among them was an act against Christ himself. He places them in the category of being murderers of Christ. Such an indictment makes one shudder. The Corinthians could not in fact murder Christ again by their inconsiderate actions toward the others, for that death had already taken place once-for-all, but they could be thought of as ones who similarly act murderously against Christ in neglecting the church’s unity and fellowship.
Eating and Drinking Judgment
Those who ate the special bread and drank the special cup of the Lord in an unfitting manner must have trembled when hearing these words as the letter was read. It placed them on the side of the perpetrators of Christ’s death because their actions toward the body of believers were against Christ. This would have seemed unimaginable! This is the reason Paul wants the Corinthians to examine themselves when eating the bread and drinking the cup. They were not only eating their own meal when eating with such neglect of others (v 20-21), but were committing these unjust actions against the Son of God. At whatever point the cup and bread were shared among themselves their hypocrisy was at its apogee. They were drinking and eating judgment to themselves. Their failure by neglectfully creating divisions in their larger meal was all the more shameful when the special bread and cup were eaten, the dramatic picture of their unity.
Sickness and Death
Such a serious sin cannot have a light sentence. “For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep” (v 30). “For this reason”— that phrase — connects the judgment to the sin. It is a serious sin with a concomitant sentence.
As we know, not all sin receives such a direct consequence as Paul detected was occurring in the Corinthians’ case. It took Paul’s trained eye to see into the spiritual cause of the sickness and death taking place among them.
I can only imagine how their minds were processing the information Paul was sending. It was “my brother” or “my father” or “my daughter” or “my son” who was ill or had died. Now they knew why. These deaths were not only a loss to the families but to the church as a whole.
As to the question of how many constitutes the “many” and “a number” and “some,” we cannot be sure. It may help to consider that the church in Corinth met in Gaius’ home. I used his name in my fictitious story in the first article, but it was truly his home that was the place where all the believers met at the time. We find this information in a statement by Paul, via his amanuensis, who said from Corinth that Gaius was host to the whole church (Romans 16:23). A large home would hold around 50 or so people, with 9 eating in the triclinium and perhaps 40 or so in the atrium or courtyard. This helps us to imagine at least what “many,” “a number,” and “some” may have looked like.
But there is a remedy for the consequent sickness and death for the Corinthians. As we have mentioned, each church member could “examine himself” as he or she eats the bread and drinks the cup. In other words, the church members could curtail the ongoing damage if they consider what is happening in the Lord’s Supper carefully, and especially when they take the symbolic bread and cup, around which this meal is built. The death of Christ is to shape their meal together and, beyond this, their lives as a whole. It is as if he is saying, “Stop and think before you eat and drink the very symbol of the extremity Christ endured in loving sacrifice for believers to provide unity and fellowship between you and God and each other. Weigh it, and act accordingly, so that you do not continue to distort the unity that Christ has bought.”
Put another way, Paul teaches that in their examination of themselves they are to “judge the body.” Here he does not mean to judge the body as in bringing judgment upon it themselves, but to judge it in terms of evaluating it and discerning who these people are and in changing behavior accordingly. Note below that the first highlighted phrase and second are about the same thing. He isn’t talking about the physical body of Christ represented in the bread when he uses “body,” but the church.
For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. (1 Corinthians 11:29-31, emphasis mine)
“Judgment”in this sentence is that which comes upon them in the form of sickness and death, but “judge” in this sentence is evaluative, that is, it is about a mental exercise of weighing what the body is — it is the body of Christ, the church — and therefore correcting their actions.
A Greater Mercy
Before giving the Corinthians a second corrective action, he reminds them that the purpose of God bringing on them consequences for their actions is not to be penal, but is medicinal. It is only harsh because this is the kind of medicine that will work in their case.
But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world. (1 Corinthians 11:32, emphasis mine)
This judgment of God, the judgment of persons in the church who are truly guilty of the body and blood of Christ and are experiencing physical suffering and death as a result, does not mean that they are now put outside of the church and Christianity. Rather, God’s mercy is involved even though the sin is egregious. The physical maladies and death are acts of God’s loving redemptive discipline toward the church meant to turn the church in the right direction. If this were not so, they indeed would be “condemned along with the world.” This means, left to their sin it would be apparent that they are not a true or redeemed church at all and in fact are condemned just like all other humans, even though “Christian” by name.
Paul is speaking on principle here. He uses “we” throughout these two important sentences in order to make clear that this is the way God habitually works with us as believers. Like a loving parent who corrects his or her child, so God corrects us for obedience sake. Sometimes that correction is severe, as we see in this case. But it is meant for good for the church, even though people have died.
Yet Paul has a second corrective action for the church which follows from self-evaluation.
Play the Host
So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you will not come together for judgment. The remaining matters I will arrange when I come. (1 Corinthians 11:33-34)
The Apostle finishes with one more apostolic command. Note that Paul does not say to suspend or curtail meals together, though he recommends eating at home. No, he still states that the practice of the church will be to “come together to eat.” So, the Corinthians are to continue their Supper together in Gaius’ home despite all Paul has said. But when they “come together to eat,” they are to “wait for one another.”
The word “wait” does not necessarily mean to delay until everyone can eat together. The assumption in the text is that they are all there already, but that some are going ahead to eat their food in disregard of others. “Wait” means “welcome” or “play the host” to the others in the church, an acceptable use of the word. In other words, they were to act proactively toward others when they meet. Paul no doubt meant that they are to greet each other as they enter, but more importantly here he means that they are to share their food with one another in a welcoming and hospitable manner. They are to be alert to the body’s needs and not shame the poor by leaving them to their meager food while the wealthier eat sumptuously. We get our idea of “inconsideration” from this failure that the Corinthians displayed. Change that, he says, and act as though you are the host to all.
Paul says, again, “If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you will not come together for judgment.” He means that eating at home prior to coming to the feast is appropriate only because not controlling hunger at the Supper is dangerous. Eat something earlier at home if this is your problem, so that appetite is not at the forefront of your time together. Do not let appetite for food characterize your meal together, even though it is truly a feast to be enjoyed, but let your fellowship and sharing characterize the meal — the sharing of your food and love with others.
I realize that somewhere along the line, Christians learned to have potluck meals together, a good invention. But imagine coming together in a different way, perhaps like you have experienced in a picnic when baskets were brought with food for your family. The idea Paul is after would be to pull out that blackberry pie from the basket, slice it in many pieces, and go around to share it with everyone else! You may have none left, but the spirit of sharing would be emblematic of the love Christ had for you in his sacrificial death and the oneness his death created. Just imagine such a meal!
Paul has more to say to them about all of this, as he mentioned. I would love to have heard it. He gave them some alleviating action to start with. But ultimately this is a matter of the heart, like everything else in the Christian life.
How will this look in our churches today? I will seek to answer that question in the next article.