On Not Corrupting the Lord’s Supper

1 Corinthians 11:17-34
The Corinthians’ Problem with the Lord’s Supper

Paul was provoked to write because of scandalous behaviour at what he calls ‘The Supper (or Dinner) belonging to the Lord’ (kyriakon deipnon) when the wider community of faith ‘came together’ in the city (which may not have been weekly).  This probably occurred at night since the only ‘days off’ were pagan feast days in honour of the gods.  This may be the reason the ‘meal’ is called a deipnon, an evening dinner or supper.  ’Supper’ is a rather old-fashioned word, though it’s not easy to find something more suitable.

The problem was that the wealthier members who arrived first gorged themselves at a communal meal, some to the point of being drunk, while the (literally) ‘have nots’ – poorer members and slaves – were hungry when finally they arrived (11:17-22, 33-34).  In effect, the wealthier members created their own ‘private dinner party’ from what should have been a meal for all alike, rich and poor, slaves and free.  By their actions the wealthier members created ‘schisms’ or ‘heresies’ (11:18,19) in a community that should have been united in Christ in love and care for one another.  In other words, by expressing the sharp and unjust socio-economic divisions of the wider community they ‘despised the church of God’ and they ‘humiliated’ the (literal) ‘have nots’ (11:22).

With verse 21 Paul gets to the point of his argument, as explained by the introductory ‘For.’

each goes before before [others]
in eating his own dinner.

Some scholars suggest that Paul is critical because a small number of wealthy members ate and drank fine food within the triclinium or dining room (that would accommodate only about ten persons) whereas the rest of the members ate inferior food separated from them in the atrium or courtyard.  Attention is drawn to a description of a meal given by a wealthy host found in Letter 2.6 of Pliny the Younger.

The best dishes were set in front of himself and a select few,
and cheap scraps of food before the rest of the company.
He had even put the wine into little flasks,
divided into three categories…
One lot was intended for himself and us,another for his  lesser friends …and a third lot for his and our freedmen.

Does Pliny’s account point the way to understanding Paul’s displeasure with the Corinthians, especially when understood in terms of a small triclinium for the wealthy separated from an atrium for the poor?  To be sure, there were ‘have nots’ among them (verse 22) which implies that there were also rich members. The ‘have nots’ were ‘hungry’ and, presumably, (some of) the wealthy were ‘drunk,’ so well furnished were they with wine.

This reconstruction of the situation, however, depends too much on our limited grasp of the size of houses in Corinth.  After all, there are only a few houses in the Achaian capital which have been unearthed by archaeologists.  The few excavated villas in Ephesus, however, are significantly larger than those investigated in Corinth.  In any case it is pure speculation to say that the wealthy ate in the triclinium and the poor in the atrium.  It is equally possible that all ate in an atrium (if it was, in fact, a private home; it may have been a hired hall).

A better understanding is based on critical words which appear later: ‘When you come together to eat, wait for one another’ (verse 33).  So understood the ‘sin’ of the Corinthians was that some began eating the meal ‘before’ others.  It follows that those who began before others appear to have been the wealthier members who had time not only to eat but also to drink enough to be intoxicated and those who came later were the ‘have nots’ who were hungry.  Possibly these latter were slaves as well as poorer members whose only ‘food’ on their eventual arrival was the bread and wine of the Holy Communion.  In Paul’s mind the better endowed members should have waited till others arrived and, moreover, shared their food and drink with them.  That some were ‘drunk’ while others were hungry points in this direction.

Here we see something of Paul’s passion for the poor (cf. Gal 2:10), a passion he shared with James (Jas 1:9; 2:1-7; cf. 1:10-11; 5:1; 1:27) and which he expressed elsewhere for the ‘weak’ (2 Cor 11:29).  In this both apostles were following the example of the Lord (e.g., Matt 11:28; Luke 6:20; Mark 9:42; cf. Is 11:4), and the prophets before him (e.g., Is 2:17; Jer 22:16; Amos 4:1).

The Meaning of the Lord’s Supper

Like Jesus and the prophets Paul was deeply offended at this injustice by powerful and wealthy members of the covenant community towards the poor and the weak among them.  Paul’s point is unaffected whether or not the Remembrance Meal is part of a wider communal meal.  It was scandalous to him that while all were ‘equal at the foot of the cross’ they were unequal at the Meal at which the Lord and his cross was to be the focus of the members’ attention.

Thus Paul must tell them what it means to belong to the ‘new covenant’ by reminding them of the ‘tradition’ he ‘delivered’ to them five years earlier when he established the church (11:23-26).  He ends by issuing a dire warning that they will be ‘condemned with the world’ if they fail to recognise that the ‘coming together’ of the church is a sacred occasion (11:27-32).  Many are ill and not a few have died recently, which Paul takes to have been the displeasure of the Lord in his judgement of them (11:30-32).

Accordingly he tells them that the Dinner of the Lord is only metaphorically a ‘dinner.’  It is a sparse ‘meal’ consisting of some broken bread and wine from a cup.  By the rich creating a ‘private dinner party’ of food and drink it is no longer the ‘meal’ Jesus intended that they eat.  So what did the Lord intend when he instituted the Remembrance Meal at the Last Supper on the night he was betrayed by Judas Iscariot?

We find three elements in Paul’s words (11:23-26).  There is the action of Jesus repeated by the leader taking the loaf, giving thanks to God and breaking it and then taking the cup with wine and offering thanks.  There are the words of the Lord which the leader repeats over the loaf and the cup, ‘This is my body [broken] for you’; ‘this cup is the new covenant in my blood.’  Then, finally, those present together eat the broken bread and drink the wine from the cup.

The Corinthians’ failure to discern that all the congregation – rich and poor – is the ‘body of Christ’ is historically the first known instance of the corruption of ‘Table of the Lord’ (1 Cor 10:21).  Other departures were to follow.  Christians need to return often to the New Testament to ensure that their beliefs and practices at the ‘Table’ are in line with those teachings.  Otherwise distortion and corruption of the Lord’s command will occur and we risk his severe censure, even his condemnation.

Jesus’ ‘Meal’ is Semitic in idiom recalling the dramatic acts of prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel which gave power to their words.  The increasingly Gentile church after apostolic times, however, misunderstood this symbolism and spoke instead in ‘realistic’ language like Ignatius’ reference to the bread and wine as the ‘medicine of immortality and the antidote to death.’  Doctrines of re-offered sacrifice by episcopally ordained priests, transubstantiation and ‘real presence’ evolved over time.  The Reformers recaptured a truer grasp of Jesus’ intention, though many Protestants – perhaps in reaction to pre-Reformation errors – tend not to have the ‘high’ view of the Remembrance Meal we find in Paul.

Our Problem with the Lord’s Supper

One current problem is that we tend to focus too much, relatively speaking, on the consuming and not enough on the watching and listening. When Jesus said, ‘Do this’ he meant all three.  Yahweh told Moses and Aaron to institute an annual Passover Meal as ‘a day of remembrance for you…throughout your generations’ recalling the redemption from Egypt (Exod 12:14).  At the Dinner of the Lord the ‘doing this,’ that is the watching, the listening and the consuming by those present call to ‘remembrance’ Jesus himself. Furthermore, by ‘doing’ all three things those present at the Dinner of the Lord ‘declare the death of the Lord until he comes’ to one another.

Many Anglicans, myself included, feel that Cranmer in his BCP service showed deep insight into the biblical teaching.  To recapture Jesus’ intention that we watch and listen as well as consume I think that the act of breaking the bread and offering thanks for the cup should be clearly visible to all and that his words now repeated should be clearly audible to all.  Otherwise all the focus is on just one aspect, the eating/drinking, which seems to me not what Jesus intended as his way for us to ‘remember’ him.  Furthermore, Paul’s teaching that the ‘doing this’ proclaims the death of the Lord till he comes remains rather lopsided without due attention to the watching and the listening.

Who presided at the Table of the Lord (in the house of Gaius? – Rom 16:23) when the whole Corinthian community of faith gathered  (1 Cor 11:18; 14:23)?  Paul gives no clue as to the identity of the leader.  It is a reasonable conjecture, however, that the most senior presbyter present repeated Jesus’ actions and spoke his words as a remembrance of him.  At the Passover Meal the father of the household took the place of leadership.  In the synagogue the place of honour was given to the most senior elder.  It is probable that the early churches followed the same general principle of ‘experience’ and moral and spiritual ‘respectability’ to secure the dignity and significance of the Dinner of the Lord.

Cranmer’s linking of administering the Lord’s Supper to those who were ‘tried and tested’ for preaching in the churches is sound and should be followed should Lay Administration  become legal.  The idea that the Remembrance Meal is only valid and effective if an episcopally ordained priest presides at the table has no basis in the teaching of the apostles.  The related priestly and sacerdotal view of the Remembrance Meal as a re-offering of the sacrifice of Christ is clearly contrary to the biblical teaching (see Hebrews 9:23-10:10).

In short, the lesson of history is that the teaching of the Apostle Paul and other New Testament writings must be closely adhered to if Dinner of the Lord is to retain the meaning and significance intended by Jesus.  Not least, we should establish our theology and practice from the Bible and not by reaction to what others do or have done.

July 1999