1 Cor 11:23-33
There is always something of a tension in the apostle Paul’s ministry and letters. On the one hand, there was no getting around the fact that Paul had not been one of the original twelve apostles. He hadn’t even been part of the group who was with the Lord after his resurrection. Instead, he had been a fervent and active persecutor of Christ’s Church.
And so, at times Paul had to defend the legitimacy of his apostleship. He had to assert that he wasn’t dependent on anyone else, but instead he had been called by Christ. As Paul told the Galatians, “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man's gospel.
For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
On the other hand, Paul made it clear that what he taught was nothing different from the truth that had been handed on by the apostles of Jesus and was believed by the Church. This can be seen in his letters when it is apparent that he is using language he did not make up, but instead was part of the shared life of the Church. And then there are times, like in our text, when the apostle even explicitly calls attention to the fact that what he passed on to the churches he founded had in fact been handed on to him by others.
The apostle does this in our text tonight as he deals with the problems that had arisen at the Corinthian celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar. Just before our text Paul has said: “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.”
At Corinth, and most likely in other churches as well at this time, the Sacrament of the Altar was celebrated in the setting of an actual meal. That is, of course, how Jesus instituted the Sacrament as he did so during the course of a Passover meal – we hear this in the phrase, “after supper” in reference to the cup. For this reason, it would not have seemed unusual to Jewish Christians. The meal pattern would have also been very similar to what happened in Greco-Roman meals, and so Gentile Christians would seen nothing strange about this either.
The problem was the Corinthians were following the meal etiquette that was present in the Greco-Roman world. It was assumed that the host and his close friends ate in the dining room which probably held no more than a dozen people. Everyone else would eat in other parts of the house. The host and his friends would get the food first; they would get the most food; and they would get the best food. Those in other parts of the house just had be satisfied with whatever they got.
Only a more well to do Christian would own a house that could host the congregation. And so at Corinth, in the meal that accompanied the Sacrament, the more wealthy Corinthians were treating the less well off in the way that would at any other meal. But of course this was not just any other meal. It was a meal in which the Sacrament of the Altar was celebrated. And for that matter, this was not just any other setting. It was Christ’s Church where things did not work in the way of the world.
In the previous chapter, Paul had already said about the Sacrament: “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 has stated something that he knows the Corinthians believe: that the Sacrament is the true body and blood of Christ. And then he has provided further information as he points out that the Sacrament joins Christians together as the Body of Christ. It is the Sacrament of unity.
As Paul addresses the problem at the Corinthian celebration of the Sacrament, his answer is to take them directly back to the source – to the Words of Institution. He says in our text, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you.” This does not mean that Paul received this directly from Jesus, but just like when Paul refers to the resurrection tradition in chapter fifteen, it means that the ultimate source is in Jesus. Paul knew it because others in the Church had delivered it to him. What Paul had received, he had also then delivered to the Corinthians. This is the true language of “tradition” in Church – handing on the same thing that finds its source in the Lord.
The tradition handed on by the Church located the source of the Sacrament in the events that we remembering tonight – the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples on the night when was betrayed by Judas to the religious leaders and arrested. But of course, it is not as if the Jewish leaders and Judas had accomplished this on their own. Instead, it was part of God’s plan to win salvation for us. And so the Greek verb translated as “betrayed” is also used in the New Testament in statements that say Jesus was “delivered up for our trespasses” and God “did not spare his Son but give him up for us all.” The language of “betrayed” reminds us that this betrayal was part of God’s plan to sacrifice Jesus for us.
The words Paul delivered to the Corinthians go on to say that Jesus “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.” The words “do this in remembrance of me” recall the setting in which Jesus instituted the Sacrament – he did it at a Passover meal. As we hear in our Old Testament lesson the Passover meal was not a one time event. They were to continue to celebrate it as a memorial. The celebration of the meal was to cause Israel to remember the deliverance from slavery that God had worked in the Passover. In the same way, the celebration of the Sacrament causes Christians to remember what Jesus had done for us to win forgiveness and salvation.
Jesus gave thanks over bread and said, “This is my body which is for you.” Our Lord said he was giving them his body to eat. More literally in the Greek, he identified this body as being “on behalf of you.” This idea of “on behalf of” is expressed by Paul in Second Corinthians when he writes that: “one has died for all, therefore all have died, and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”
In the Sacrament of the Altar, Jesus gives to us his body that was sacrificed on the cross in order to save us. He gives into our mouth the very price he paid, and in so doing he applies that forgiveness and salvation to us. He leaves no doubt that this is for you as he places it into your mouth.
Next we hear the reference to the Passover meal setting – the meal setting that continued to be true in Corinth – as the tradition says: “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.” Our Lord said the wine in the cup is the new covenant because it is his blood which established this.
When Yahweh took Israel into the first covenant, Moses read the Book of the Covenant to the people, and the people responded that they would do what the Lord had spoken and be obedient. Then Moses took blood from sacrifices and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” This action indicated that Israel was now in the covenant with God.
In the end, Israel was unfaithful to God. They broke the covenant. And so Yahweh said through the prophet Jeremiah, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” God said of this new covenant, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
By his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has established this new covenant. We have learned that this new covenant includes not only Israel, but all people – Jew and Gentile alike. In the Sacrament Jesus gives you the blood that he shed on the cross. He gives you the blood of the new covenant, and in so doing demonstrates that you are included in the new covenant. You are forgiven because of the blood of Jesus shed for you, and so you are part of God’s people.
We have gathered tonight to remember what happened at the Last Supper. As Jesus’ words indicate, every celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar he instituted that night causes us to remember Jesus and his sacrifice for us. But the Sacrament is about more than our mental action of remembering. Here Jesus Christ uses bread and wine to give us his true body and blood. He gives us the very price he paid for our salvation to include us in the new covenant. We remember him, because of what he is actually doing in our midst.
Finally, Paul adds a statement that describes what is happening tonight. He says, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.” Jesus’ death is proclaimed every time the Words of Institution are spoken in the consecration. During the medieval period, these words were spoken silently by the priest. But in the Reformation, Martin Luther identified them as words of Gospel that needed to be heard by the people.
And then, as we eat and drink the true body and blood of Christ we proclaim his death, because we are receiving the body and blood given and shed for us on the cross. We come to the Sacrament as repentant sinners and proclaim Jesus’ death by receiving his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.
We do this until he comes. This statement reminds us that it is the risen and ascended Lord who gives us his true body and blood. In each celebration of the Sacrament, the living Lord is present in his true body and blood as he gives us the forgiveness he won on the cross and strengthens us in the faith. Yet by doing so, each celebration of the Sacrament points us towards the return of our Lord on the Last Day. The Lord who comes to us in a hidden way through the means of bread and wine in the Sacrament will return in almighty glory and power – and no one will be able to ignore it because every knee will bow before him.