For all the strangeness of the previous section, this one suffers for the opposite reason. Our familiarity with the words of institution of the Lord's Supper may let us miss the reason Paul cites them here. The Corinthian observance of the sacrament was so far removed from the reality it symbolized that their meetings do more harm than good (v. 17) and their communal meals do not deserve the name Lord's Supper (v. 20).
Paul tells the Corinthians that obvious social divisions when you come together destroy the unity the Lord's Supper celebrates so that it ceases to be the Lord's (v. 20) and is merely your own supper (v. 21). The Greek word for supper identifies “the main meal in the Hellenistic world, usually eaten toward or in the evening” (Fee, 539, n. 43) or a cultic meal held in honor of a deity (Conzelmann, 195, n. 21). Early Christians apparently observed the Lord's Supper either as or in connection with a full regular meal.
When Paul objects to the Corinthian observance of the Lord's Supper, his goal is not to separate the sacrament from meals designed to satisfy hunger nor to urge them to use grape juice instead of real wine. His concern in 11:21b is not to attack the problem of starvation or drunkenness, but Corinthian excesses. Some do not have enough to eat and drink while others overdo both. Paul's concern is not with Corinthian table etiquette but with their practice, which, by humiliating those who have nothing, abuses the church of God (v. 22).
Paul does not directly address the structural problem of the inequitable distribution of wealth (see v. 22). But neither does he get lost in petty symptomatic issues (vv. 22, 34). He does not lecture the rich on the sin of gluttony, nor the poor on the virtues of frugality and industry. But he will not countenance the parading in church of the social and economic distinctions his class-conscious hearers took for granted. When the classes came together, it was customary for those of the higher classes to eat from a better menu, with larger portions, and in an inner dining room while the lower classes ate inferior and inadequate fare in an outdoor courtyard (Fee, 534-45). Corinthian toleration of such class distinctions within the church indicates that they misunderstand the unity the Lord's Supper celebrates. Indirectly Paul's call for self-emptying, not self-exaltation, attacks the class system in a way that few Christians have fully appropriated.
Paul takes for granted that the church is a heterogeneous entity. His solution is not one church for the rich, another for the poor; one for Jews, another for Gentiles. Unity in Christ counts for nothing if it merely accommodates existing distinctions as the Corinthians are doing. His challenge to their abuse would seem to reject the homogeneous unit principle of the modern Church-Growth Movement as a mission strategy. This is not to say that it does not work; it may work simply because it allows the church to be conformed to the world's patterns. The question is not, Does it grow a church? but, Is the church it grows Christian? Do we celebrate the Lord's Supper or our own?
“The verbs ‘received’ and ‘passed on’ . . . are technical terms from Paul's Jewish heritage for the transmission of religious instruction” (Fee, 548). In 11:23-26 Paul appeals to tradition to explain why he is displeased with the Corinthian observance of the Supper (see vv. 2, 17, 22). Their abuse is not in the frequency of their celebration. The term whenever (vv. 25, 26) assumes that the Supper should be perpetually observed but does not prescribe how often. We can only guess what Paul might say about the typical infrequency of the Supper's celebration in churches of the Wesleyan tradition.
Paul's formation of the Lord's Supper tradition is not exactly like any of the other three versions in the NT (note esp. 1Co 11:26). Only Luke and Paul mention Jesus' command for repetition of the Supper, Do this in remembrance of me (Lk 22:19; 1Co 11:24-25). These distinctive features may explain why Paul reminds his hearers of familiar tradition (11:23). His reference to the historical setting for the first Lord's Supper on the night he was betrayed (v. 23) recalls that it was “one of us” who handed Jesus over to his enemies. What a poignant reminder of our continuing need for the gift of new life and forgiveness the Supper celebrates (Fee, 549)!
The Corinthians seem to have forgotten why they observed the Supper. Because it was intended as a reminder of Jesus' self-sacrificing death in their behalf, their self-centered observance unworthily memorialized the Lord's body and blood (see v. 27). Their arrogance (4:8-10) exposed their forgetfulness of its intention to point them beyond the salvation begun in the Lord's death to its future culmination in his second coming (11:26). Their social elitism abused one another, the sacrament, the church, and the Lord. It neglected the very point of Christ's death—to create one new people, in which distinctions based on human fallenness no longer mattered (Fee, 557-58). Thus it was not the Lord's Supper they celebrated (v. 20) but their “own supper” (v. 21 nrsv).
The Corinthians observed the Supper in an unworthy manner (11:27). “Worthiness” is not concerned with one's spiritual status but with one's attitude in observing the sacrament (Conzelmann, 202, n. 108). Paul calls for self-examination (v. 28), not morbid introspection, as the means of worthily observing the Lord's Supper. We examine ourselves that our observance of the sacrament may be consistent with its intention. Though unworthy, we may observe the Supper in a manner that worthily reflects our grasp of its significance, for us (see v. 24). The question is not Are we worthy? but Does our celebration proclaim Christian faith and unity?
Failure to judge ourselves will result in divine judgment (11:29-34). Paul does not imply that sickness and death come as God's judgment on especially unworthy observers of the Supper. Rather he calls his hearers to consider these sicknesses as divine discipline, intended to spare the church as a whole from the coming condemnation of the world (Fee, 565-66).
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