“When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk… When you come together to eat, wait for each other.” ~1 Corinthians 11:20-21, 33
Paul’s instructions/corrections to the Corinthians regarding the communion meal are the earliest and oldest written accounts in existence about the Lord’s Supper. What we find is not an elaborate or systematic blueprint of the church’s meal; we have a narrow and focused response to a very particular and localized problem. However, in this response in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11, we find Paul’s very clear Lord’s Supper theology that informs and instructs the Lord’s Meal today: the church’s supper should be shared as a communal act that breaks down barriers between people and proclaims and promotes Christian unity. That’s what the meal is all about. But that’s not what’s happening at this church in Corinth.
The main overarching problem in Corinth is division within the church. Paul acknowledges the issue right out of the gate. He appeals to them in the name of Jesus to “agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10ff). The same exhortations appear again in chapter three where Paul points out their jealousy and arguing and pleads with them to stop. Elsewhere, it appears that these Christians were taking pride in their spiritual gifts, exalting some gifts over others, differentiating and dividing along lines of giftedness. And those decidedly anti-Christians attitudes were being expressed and manifested on the Lord’s Day at the table.
The Problem: Not Waiting for Others (11:21, 33)
Paul tells them they’re gathering for the Lord’s Supper, they’re calling it the Lord’s Supper, they’re saying all the right prayers and repeating all the right rituals, but it’s definitely not the Lord’s Supper. “You’re each eating your own supper,” he says. Why? Because you’re not sharing. You’re not waiting. You’re thinking only of yourself. You’re showing no regard for your own brothers and sisters who are going hungry while you’re stuffing your face and getting drunk. The problem is not that they were eating a full meal — the Lord’s Supper had always been a full meal (dipenon) and would be a full meal for another couple of centuries — it was that they weren’t sharing. This meal wasn’t about Christian unity, it was about taking care of one’s own needs over those of another. This, of course, is in direct violation of the way of Jesus. The rich homeowners were eating and drinking while the working class members of the church were getting nothing at all. This meal was being shaped by the culture instead of the Christ. The Gospel of Jesus is intended to break down barriers, to destroy division, and unite all people in his salvation blood. Instead, around this Corinthian table, poor people were being humiliated in the corner while rich people were gorging themselves in the main dining room. Even if they had no idea what the Lord’s Supper was about, common courtesy demands they refrain from getting fat and drunk while others are going hungry. Instead, they were making a mockery of the Gospel by their selfish behavior.
The Corrective: Pointing to Jesus (11:23-24)
Paul tells the Corinthians he cannot praise them for their awful behavior at the table. Their manners need correcting. So, he reminds them about their Lord. He reminds them that Jesus, “on the night he was betrayed,” gave up his very body and blood for the sake of others. The meal, Paul says, remembers the self-giving nature of our Savior. Our covenant with God, he recalls for these Christians, is based on sacrifice and service. It’s ratified by death. Around the table, we proclaim with one another that death and resurrection. Our actions at the table with one another must reflect and express that same sacrificial and servant-hearted nature of our Lord “until he comes.”
The Instructions: Wait for Each Other (11:33-34)
Paul does not discourage the eating of the meal. He does not command them to stop eating and drinking at the Lord’s Supper. Instead, he tells them how to eat and drink together around the Lord’s table. This follows his obvious pattern in correcting other abuses in the Corinthian congregation. He doesn’t tell them to stop speaking in tongues; he says, “When you speak in tongues, do it this way.” He doesn’t tell the disruptive women to stop praying; he says, “When the women pray, do it this way.” He doesn’t tell them not to eat meals at their Lord’s Day gatherings; he says, “When you come together to eat, do it this way.” Wait for each other. Eat and drink together. Share with one another. Consider the needs of others more important than your own. Now, if you’re unable to wait, if you’re incapable of restraining yourself, if you just can’t help it, go ahead and “eat at home so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment” (1 Corinthians 11:34). Don’t stop eating the Lord’s Supper. Eat it together, Paul says, in a way that honors the forever-giving nature and way of our risen and coming Lord.
Conclusions: Communal Intent of the Meal
Over the past 1,300 or so years, culture has turned the Lord’s Meal into a time of silent, individualistic piety. The Supper is restricted to the recesses of each individual’s mind and personal thoughts. In Corinth, the communion meal was restricted to class and socio-economic status. Today, it’s mainly a private affair. We have turned a celebratory meal designed by our God to proclaim and express unity and community and salvation into an individual ritually swallowing a crumb and drinking a sip while silently staring at the floor. I’m not completely certain how we recover the communal aspect of the church’s meal while worshiping in an auditorium with several hundred people, but we must try. Maybe we could use bigger portions of bread and more juice in bigger cups. Maybe we could all hold the cracker bits and tiny cups and wait for each other to eat and drink at the same time. Maybe we should enjoy a time of welcome and hospitality — a time to “shake hands and be friendly” — leading up to our time at the table. Singing together during the meal. Reading Scripture together during the meal. Instructing our churches to share with one another in the pews our favorite words of Jesus, our favorite deeds of our Lord, our favorite passage of Scripture, or our favorite song during the meal. Truthfully, there is more communion happening while passing a hot dog to a stranger at a football game than in most communion services in our churches on Sunday mornings. The form is the function; the medium is the message. It’s important that we recover the communal aspect of the Lord’s Supper.
The Lord’s Supper is serious. Not because it’s quiet time or meditation time or a time to solemnly reflect on Jesus’ death. It’s serious because the communion meal bears witness to the Gospel. It reflects and expresses the good news of salvation from God in the sacrificial death and powerful resurrection and eternal reign of the Christ. Judgment will come to those who deny the Gospel message and its values around the table (1 Corinthians 11:27-29). My advice would be to make sure communion is not about you. Make sure it’s about the people around you.