At our Lent Bible Study last night, we were thinking of how the Eucharist in the Early Church was a real meal, so real that at Corinth some ate and drank so well that they became drunk. The only reason we have Paul's extended piece on the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 is that he found it necessary to write to correct this abuse.
Early in the letter Paul had written to the Corinthians:
'Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.' (1 Corinthians 1:26)
Not many, notice, but some nevertheless. Some were well-educated, powerful and of noble birth and this is something that sometimes goes uncommented on.
Firstly, those who were rich must have been truly genuine and committed to the Christian message or else why join a movement that was mainly comprised of the poor, slaves, and those from a much inferior social class? What was happening in the early Church was truly exciting: the rich were mixing with the poor as equals and as brothers and sisters in Christ and, whatever else we may say, this is much to their credit.
Secondly, their commitment to Christ expressed itself in the willingness of the rich to support the new movement in material terms. Paul himself refers to the support he had received from Philemon. We know that the first Christians met in the homes of rich people who were willing to open them up for the purpose. It was here that the Lord's Supper and the church services took place. To be able to afford a house big enough to accommodate a sizeable group of people would have meant that you were seriously rich. That despite being rich, and therefore socially well-connected, you were willing to open your home to slaves and the like to come and eat in is really remarkable.
So before we rush into condemning the behaviour of the rich in Corinth - as we must and as Paul does - it is worth remembering all this. So what was going wrong at Corinth? Essentially, it seems that the Church would decide a time to meet. The meeting itself took the form of a meal celebrating the Lord's Supper. The rich being rich could get to the meeting on time without any problem. After all, that's one of the advantages of being rich, you have control over how you live your life and when you can come and go. The poor, especially slaves, have no such control. They have to do as they are told and need the permission of others before they can do anything.
The problem at Corinth was that the rich, instead of waiting for the poor to turn up, got on with their gathering, sharing in the meal together, so that by the time some of the Church had managed to get there, there was no food left and so they left the meeting hungry.
At our study last night, I asked the question how would most Vicars, as advised by their Church Councils, deal with such a situation if something like it occurred today. I suggested that 9 times out of 10 (if not more), the following approach would be adopted:
1. Obviously, we must be careful not to appear ungrateful to the rich who are so kindly providing places for us to meet, generously giving to support the ministry, and even providing food and wine for us to enjoy at our meetings. Where would we be without their commitment?
2. We can perhaps keep back some food and drink for those who can't make it to the meeting on time. Then there will be something for them to eat and they won't go away hungry.
3. We should also encourage the slaves to be more responsible in their time-keeping and ask them to try harder to get to the meetings on time.
I can guarantee that at every Church I have known that this would be the basic approach. So how does Paul deal with the situation? We need to remember that he is normally very diplomatic when dealing with pastoral issues. In Romans 14 and 15, for example, his advice is a model of diplomacy, tolerance, and compromise. Here, however, his reaction is one of absolute outrage:
'What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!' (1 Corinthians 11:22)
He is not in the least intimidated by the wealth and power of the rich. He is not prepared to compromise what he believes to be central Christian truths to keep the favour of the rich. After this expression of outrage, he then goes on to describe the Last Supper Jesus held with his disciples drawing this conclusion:
'Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.' (1 Corinthians 11:27)
He continues to tell them that it is because of their unacceptable behaviour at the Lord's Supper that some have become sick and died (11:30). This phrase 'an unworthy manner' has been taken to mean that each of us as individuals should not receive Communion if we have sin in our lives. It has caused much angst and soul searching. It is, of course, right that each of us take receiving Communion seriously, but we need to see that what Paul meant in using this phrase was that the rich should show respect to the poor. Receiving in an unworthy manner in Paul's terms is less about sin in our personal life and more about failing to show respect to a fellow member of the Body of Christ.
That Paul is talking primarily about our relationship with one another rather than our individual relationship with the Lord is confirmed by the conclusion that Paul himself draws at the end of this passage:
'So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation.' (1 Corinthians 11:33)
So simple: wait for one another! You are in this together regardless of whether you are rich or poor. In Christ who you are, where you come from, which school you went to, what job you do, how much you earn, how popular you are, all count for nothing. Wait for one another! No-one is more important than anyone else. Wait for one another, make sure you value all equally, for only then will you be eating the Lord's Supper in a worthy manner. Any celebration of the Lord's Supper then that doesn't include every member of the Body of Christ, whatever their age or background, is not the Lord's Supper and is to put at risk the physical and spiritual health of all who take part.
All that Paul writes, of course, only makes sense if the Lord's Supper was a real meal. It is also worth noting that as Paul founded the Church at Corinth and was its pastor for its first 18 months, it must have been Paul who established the practice of having the Church's meeting over a meal. Ironically, however, the consequences of what Paul writes here were that the Lord's Supper became less about sharing a real meal and more about what the meal signified. Probably this was a right and necessary development, but we should not forget that originally the Lord's Supper was a real meal that all could share in as had been the Last Supper itself.
The development of the Lord's Supper from being a real meal to the Eucharist in the liturgical form in which we now celebrate it, will be the subject of our next Lenten Study!