1 Cor 11:23-32
I’m not going out on a limb when I say that Corinth was the most divided and troublesome congregation that the apostle Paul dealt with during his ministry. Paul wrote four letters to Corinth that we know of – we have the text of two of them. He made multiple visits to Corinth – and they were not all pleasant.
The Corinthians thought that they were really wise when it came to spiritual matters – when in fact they had no clue about anything. Dealing with them was like dealing with an adolescent. They misunderstood the Gospel and what it means for life in this world. Some thought it freed them to use their sexuality in any way they wanted. Some thought it freed them to take part in different aspects of pagan rituals. They misunderstood the very thing we are preparing to celebrate at Easter – the resurrection of Jesus Christ and what this means for our own resurrection.
They were antagonistic towards Paul – their father in Christ who had preached the Gospel to them in the first place! And they were divided against one another. They set themselves against each other by choosing sides. In fact Paul had to begin 1 Corinthians by addressing this very issue as he wrote, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.”
This was the character of the congregation in Corinth. And so it should come as no surprise that division was also found at the center of the Church’s life there – at the celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar. Just before our text Paul says, “But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part…. When you come together, it is not to eat the Lord's supper. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.”
Now you know that this is the night when our Lord Jesus instituted the Sacrament at the Last Supper with his disciples. What you may not realize is that Jesus did not speak his words over the bread and cup at the same time. In fact, this took place at different times during the course of the Passover meal. You can hear it in our text tonight – words that we hear at every celebration of the Lord’s Supper: “In the same way he also he took the cup, after supper.” At the Last Supper, the eating of a meal separated the reception of Christ’s body and the reception of his blood.
In some parts of the first century Christian Church this practice of a meal between the reception of the body and the blood of Christ continued. This is really not surprising because this pattern in many ways resembled how meals were done in the Greco-Roman world. It was the practice at Corinth.
And this is where the problem arose because there were certain assumptions in the first century world about how a meal like this worked. It was assumed that a person’s friends reclined in the best dining area with them. They got the best food. And they got it first.
Now you probably realize that in the first century there were no Christian church buildings. A congregation met at someone’s home. And what kind of Christian do you think had a home that was large enough to host everyone at once? It was a wealthy Christian. At the meal that took place in the midst of celebrating the Sacrament, these wealthy Christians were acting the way they would normally act at a meal they hosted. Their wealthy friends were with them in the dining room while the poor Christians were put in other rooms, or perhaps had to eat out doors in the open courtyard that stood in the center of the house. They and their friends got the best food and got it first, while the poor Christians had to wait and receive whatever was left over.
You can guess what this caused. There was frustration. There was anger. There were divisions. There were divisions at the celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar. In fact, the very celebration of the Sacrament had become a cause of division. Paul replied in judgment: “What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.”
Paul would not commend them because of what he had just said in the previous chapter about the Sacrament – a statement that he had made in order to lay the groundwork for addressing this issue. He had said, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
Paul could assume that the Corinthians believed the Sacrament is the true body and blood of Christ – the Greek form of his question assumes a positive answer. But he then went on to tell them that the Sacrament was not only about the individual. It was also about the group, for the body of Christ received in the Sacrament unites together Christians as the Body of Christ. Because of what the Sacrament is and what it does, it is the Sacrament of unity and divisions have no place there.
And so in our text as Paul addresses the situation at the Corinthian celebration of the Sacrament, he takes them back to what it is – he takes them back to our Lord’s words. He reminds them about the tradition he had received – the one that he had handed on to them. He said, “the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”
Jesus had instituted the Sacrament on the night he was betrayed over to death. As his words declare, in the Sacrament Jesus gives us his true body to eat and his true blood to drink. Our Lord uses bread and wine to give us a participation in the body and blood of Christ.
That is what the Sacrament is. In the Sacrament we receive the body that was given on behalf of us on the cross. We receive Christ’s true blood to drink – blood that assures us that we are included in the new covenant as the forgiven people of God. In the Sacrament Jesus Christ gives us his love and forgiveness in a bodily manner. He embraces us with his love as he gives into our mouth his true body and blood given and shed for us for the forgiveness of our sins.
This is what the Sacrament does. And it does something else as well. As each person receives this body and blood of Christ, it unites us together at the altar as the Body of Christ. It joins the different members into one forgiven whole.
Yet do we really understand what this means? Divisions have no place at the Sacrament because it is the place of unity; the place of forgiveness. Those who want to receive forgiveness from God must be willing to forgive others. As Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Those who come to the Sacrament are those who have forgiven others.
The celebration of the Sacrament calls upon us to forgive one another. It calls husbands and wives to forgive each other for the thoughtless words and deeds with which they have harmed on another. It calls parents to forgive children for disrespectful words and actions. It calls brothers and sisters to forgive one another for things done and said simply to antagonize. It calls congregation members to forgive one another for perceived slights and actual wrongs. It calls upon us to do this because of the forgiveness and love Jesus Christ has already given to us.
There is a moment in the liturgy of the Sacrament that drives home this very point. It is called the Pax Domini, which means “peace of the Lord.” After the consecration – after our Lord’s Words of Institution are spoken over bread and wine – it is the body and blood of Christ that is present on the altar, just as our Lord says. At that moment the pastor gestures to the body and blood of Christ and says, “The peace of the Lord be with you always.” This is first the declaration that in the body and blood of Christ we do have peace – forgiveness before God. But it is also a call to be at peace with one another if we are to approach the altar and receive the Sacrament. It is the call to be reconciled with one another – to forgive one another just as Christ has forgiven us.
In our text tonight, Paul recounts what Jesus did at the Last Supper in order to remind the Corinthians – and us – about what the Sacrament of the Altar is and what it does. It is the true body and blood of Christ given by our Lord using bread and wine. It is the body and blood given and shed for us on the cross by Christ and when our Lord gives it to us he giving us the forgiveness that he purchased by his death. Yet it is also the body and blood of Chris that joins us together as one Body – a body that lives in the unity of the love and forgiveness provided by Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord.