Communion – Religious Ritual or Something More?
1 COR. 11:17-34 --- (Note: first time I’ve used ‘The Message’ by Eugene Peterson in worship) 17-19Regarding this next item, I'm not at all pleased. I am getting the picture that when you meet together it brings out your worst side instead of your best! First, I get this report on your divisiveness, competing with and criticizing each other. I'm reluctant to believe it, but there it is. The best that can be said for it is that the testing process will bring the truth into the open and confirm it.
20-22And then I find that you bring your divisions to worship -- You come together, and instead of eating the Lord's Supper, you bring in a lot of food from the outside and make pigs of yourselves. Some are left out, and go home hungry. Others have to be carried out, too drunk to walk. I can't believe it! Don't you have your own homes to eat and drink in? Why would you stoop to desecrating God's church? Why would you actually shame God's poor? I never would have believed you would stoop to this. And I'm not going to stand by and say nothing.
23-26Let me go over with you again exactly what goes on in the Lord's Supper and why it is so centrally important. I received my instructions from the Master Himself and passed them on to you. The Master, Jesus, on the night of His betrayal, took bread. Having given thanks, he broke it and said,
This is my body, given for you. Do this to remember Me.
After supper, he did the same thing with the cup:
This cup is My blood, My new covenant with you. Each time you drink this cup, remember Me.
What you must solemnly realize is that every time you eat this bread and every time you drink this cup, you re-enact, in your words and actions, the death of the Master. You will be drawn back to this meal again and again until the Master returns. You must never let familiarity breed boredom or contempt.
27-28Anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Master irreverently is like part of the crowd that jeered and spit on him at his death. Is that the kind of "remembrance" you want to be part of? Examine your motives, test your heart, come to this meal in holy awe.
29-32If you give no thought (or worse, don't care) about the broken body of the Master when you eat and drink, you're running the risk of serious consequences. That's why so many of you even now are listless and sick, and others have gone to an early grave. If we get this straight now, we won't have to be straightened out later on. Better to be confronted by the Master now than to face a fiery confrontation later.
33-34So, my friends, when you come together to the Lord's Table, be reverent and courteous with one another. If you're so hungry that you can't wait to be served, go home and get a sandwich. But by no means risk turning this Meal into an eating and drinking binge or a family squabble. It is a spiritual meal—a love feast.
As for the other things you asked me about, I'll respond to those things in person when I make my next visit.
In these verses Paul is talking to a church that was royally messed up, had all kinds of problems, and was in significant conflict/division. Specifically, Paul is dealing with problems that were happening during the observance of the Lord’s Supper. This problems were so bad that he said that the meetings were actually "not for the better but for the worse" (v.17). He said, “Your communion service brings out your worst side instead of your best.” That’s quite a statement, isn’t it?
This may be hard for us to understand. For us today, Communion/the Lord’s Supper is usually observed in the context of a worship service – usually in the sanctuary. Because of this, it may be hard for us to visualize the circumstances to which Paul was addressing himself. Let me try to explain:
The early church had developed a really nice tradition in connection with the observance of the Lord’s Supper. They had a fellowship meal that was called an Agape or Love Feast to which each member brought what he or she was able to share. You and I would call it a pot-luck or tureen dinner. All the resources/dishes were brought together, and the whole church sat down to a common meal. And doing this provided a really, really nice picture of the oneness they shared in Christ. It was a way of creating and developing real Christian fellowship in the church.
Then, after the meal, the Lord’s Supper was celebrated. And this kind of had a certain…’naturalness’ to it, since Christ had instituted the practice at the close of the Jewish Passover meal.
BUT – There were things going on in the Corinthian church that totally shot whatever love or fellowship this meal might have had, and instead created a situation so bad/harmful that Paul rebuked the people strongly.
Here’s what happened: When they met, instead of being one family, they tended to divide up into separate (and I mean separate) groups. This was, more than likely, an extension of the divisions along social lines back then. I say this because Paul mentioned how the richer members seemed to be aloof and keep to themselves, instead of sharing their food and have fellowship with those who were poor.
Also, there were some people who were having so much to drink that they were becoming drunk. And then, in this atmosphere where sharing and one-ness has been totally forgotten and people were getting drunk, the church tried to celebrate the meal that symbolizes the sacrifice Christ made. And the whole thing became nothing but an empty religious ritual and even worse – It became a mockery of what it was and is supposed to be.
And one of the major points Paul is making here is this: It doesn’t make any difference if the right words are spoken and the right actions are performed if the condition of the hearts of the people are in contradiction to the true meaning of the Lord’s Supper. And that is something that is still true today – If the heart isn’t right, the actions don’t matter. If the heart isn’t right, then this becomes just a religious ritual.
But Paul has a method of addressing and correcting the abuses that are going on. And that method is to make several statements that will remind the people about the real meaning and importance of the meal. He gives the people 4 BIG things to focus on. Why? Because he knows that, if he can get these folks to focus on these 4 things, that will go a LONG way to correct what’s going on.
FIRST – He wants his readers to remember the setting, the history. The Lord’s Supper is something that is rooted in history/historical events. It had to do with a certain Person – the Lord Jesus – and it was a certain night – "the same night in which He was betrayed"(v.23) – and it was at a certain place with certain people – the upper room with the disciples. And Jesus, knowing what was ahead of Him, took bread and wine and He ordained/instituted something wonderful for His followers to remember Him by.
The Lord’s Supper, when it was first observed, looked forward to the events that provided our salvation – Christ’s death on the cross and His Resurrection. Paul wants these people – and us – to remember and focus on that.
SECOND – The Lord’s Supper is about God’s gracious gift to us in His Son. This meal refers to the love that Christ has for us and how far He was willing to go to save us – The elements symbolize the work of Christ on our behalf. We see Him use these symbols, and we hear Him describe how He is giving Himself for us because He loves us. Paul wants his readers – and us – to remember and focus on that.
THIRD – The Lord’s Supper celebrates a new covenant or relationship. The history of
And Paul’s reminder here to his readers is that they have entered into a covenant relationship with God through Jesus Christ – and this covenant has demands connected with it. The “one-anothers” of the New Testament would be some examples of the terms and demands of that covenant. He wants his readers – and us – to remember and focus on those things.
FOURTH – Paul wants his readers to understand that there is, in the observing of the Lord’s Supper, a proclamation. He said that whenever Christians partake of the bread and the cup, "you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes".
There’s a lot in that. What Paul says is a word of evangelism, and also a word of hope, and also a word of accountability, and also a word of warning. “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ is coming again!” Those words communicate the gospel message; they communicate the hope/expectation of His coming; they communicate or remind us of our accountability to Him; and they communicate the warning of judgment to those who do not believe.
Paul knows that, if he can get the people to focus on those things – Focus on the setting; focus on God’s grace; focus on His indescribable gift to us in sending Christ; focus on the covenant relationship you’re in with God, and with each other; focus on the fact that He is coming again; focus on the fact that you’re accountable to Him; focus on the reality that there will be judgment – If he can get the folks to focus on those things, a LOT of the problems in this church will be corrected. Why? Because right focus will give rise to right attitudes, and right attitudes will give rise to right actions.
Paul goes on in verses 27-34 to apply what he said about the institution of the Lord’s Supper to the abuses being practiced in the church. His main point was that the observance ought to cause everyone who participated to "STOP AND EXAMINE YOURSELF" by giving the warning not to drink of the cup "in an unworthy manner".
Think about that for a second – What does it mean to take the Supper "unworthily"? Does it mean that we are to be unworthy of such a sacrifice? Does it mean that those who do not have perfect lives should not participate? Does it mean that if we can think of any way in which we do not measure up that we should not participate?
The answer to all these questions is "NO". The Lord’s Supper is a continuing reminder that there IS forgiveness for the sinner and strength for the weak and the weary. No, the warning here is not to come to the table when we are indifferent to His presence with us, unrepentant for our sins, unloving/uncaring towards other Christians, or think lightly (or not appreciate at all) about His great love and sacrifice on our behalf.
I don’t want Communion to become a religious ritual for us. I want it to be something more. I believe that, when we have the right focus/focuses, it is fellowship and involvement in the life of Christ and his body, "the Church".
Focus on the setting.
Focus on God’s grace.
Focus on His indescribable gift to us in sending Christ.
Focus on the covenant relationship you’re in with God, and with each other. Focus on the fact that He is coming again.
Focus on the fact that you’re accountable to Him.
Focus on the reality that there will be judgment.
Why focus on these things? Because right focus will give rise to right attitudes, and right attitudes will ensure that Communion does not become just a religious ritual. It will be something more – something that involves us in the very life and body of Christ.