“Therefore, 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. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body [of the Lord] eats and drinks judgment on himself.” ~1 Corinthians 11:27-29
I’m trying to keep these Around the Table posts from being too long. So allow me today to clean up a little bit from yesterday’s observations from Paul’s Lord’s Supper correctives in 1 Corinthians 11.
A lot of our distorted communion theology comes from the misunderstanding and misapplication of two key phrases in these three verses. These two phrases, as we’ll see more clearly in future posts, have been used and misused in all the worst ways to shift the Lord’s Supper over the centuries from the celebratory communal meal as it was originally intended to today’s solemn introspective snack.
Eating in a Worthy Manner
The word Paul uses here is not an adjective, it’s an adverb. It’s anaxios, which could be translated as “unworthily” or “unworthy manner.” The word describes the way one eats and drinks, not whether one is worthy to eat or drink in the first place. None of us is worthy to eat and drink in righteous relationship at the same table as our God. Or, put another way, all of us, by the grace of God and the blood of his Son, are worthy to share a meal at the Lord’s feast. Our worthiness to be at the table is not in question; that was settled at the cross of Christ. Praise God! What’s in question is how we eat when we’re gathered at our Lord’s Meal with other Christian brothers and sisters. According to the particular situation that Paul’s addressing there in Corinth, eating in an unworthy manner means eating in a way that only concerns yourself or your peers. It means eating in a selfish way that erects barriers between people and groups of people. It means drawing lines at the table between people of different backgrounds, different life circumstances, or different color, language, or race. Eating in a worthy manner is not about silently meditating on the cross of Jesus or reflecting on one’s own sins committed during the previous week. It’s not about quickly judging yourself and deciding you’d better not take a cracker crumb this week or, yeah, I’m good enough to participate today. It’s not private introspection; it’s public action. Worthy manner means considering the needs of others around the table more important than your own. It means sharing. It means paying attention to the people around you. Which leads us to…
Recognizing the Body:
First, it’s not “recognizing the body of the Lord.” The earliest original Greek language manuscripts do not contain “of the Lord.” Those three words were added to the text somewhere along the way, probably several centuries later, undoubtedly to help shift the mood of the Supper to one of quiet reflection. (There was a reason for that. Again, we’ll see it more clearly and explore it more thoroughly in upcoming posts.) Everyone at the table, in Paul’s words, must recognize the body while they eat and drink. Recognize the body? How can that possibly mean anything other than the Church?
Earlier, in the same conversation, Paul has used “body” to describe the church: “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:17). Later, in the same letter, he leaves no doubt as to what he means when he uses the word “body” at least 17 times in 16 verses to mean “church” (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). This is just the way Paul writes; he loves to refer to the gathered saints as “the body.”
“…for the sake of his body, which is the Church.” ~Colossians 1:24
“…to be head over everything for the Church, which is his body.” ~Ephesians 1:23
“For we are all members of one body.” ~Ephesians 4:25
“…just as Christ does the Church — for we are members of his body.” ~Ephesians 5:30
To recognize the body at the Lord’s Supper is to recognize God’s Church as a united community. This is about acknowledging the communal meaning of the Meal. The Lord’s Supper is a powerful witness to unity, it’s a strong testimony to a tangible fellowship that transcends all barriers. Especially in the context of the particular issues in Corinth, Paul’s command to recognize the body can only mean to recognize all the people around the table together. This is not about concentrating on the battered body of Jesus hanging on the cross. It’s not about tuning out distractions, not making eye contact with anybody, being super quiet, so as individuals we can focus on the death of our Lord. It’s just the opposite; it’s exactly the opposite! It’s explicitly about tuning in to everybody and everything around us, about making eye contact and physical contact with our brothers and sisters, it’s a command to talk and visit and smile and chat and welcome and serve, to focus on the resurrection community we’re blessed by God to share together.
You know, the communion meal is genius. It really is. God knew what he was doing when he gave us this Supper. Because you can’t do communion by yourself. You can’t do communion on TV, you can’t order it on-line, and you don’t get communion at a drive-thru. In order to do communion, you have to be within arm’s reach of other people. You must be within touching distance of other Christians. You have to share a loaf, you have to serve a cup, you have to look at each other. Doing it by yourself is not communion. Doing it by yourself even in a room full of hundreds of people is not communion. Distorting these two key phrases in 1 Corinthians 11 has profoundly damaged our Lord’s Supper. Expressing the intended communal aspects of the meal is what’s required. It’s what must be recovered.