Read 1 Corinthians 11:17-34
Wow! That is not a gentle Jesus meek and mild passage is it. Paul does not mince his words. He condemns the Corinthians for what they are doing. He says he cannot praise them. Their meetings do more harm than good. There is a bit of cutting sarcasm. What they were doing could not be called the Lord’s Supper. And he talked about them being under God’s judgement.
Does God really make people sick and cause them to die because they are not observing the Lord’s Supper properly?
Here it is in black and white! There is a lot of talk these days about how a loving God would never judge anybody. But that is not what the Bible says – by any means. The god those people are talking about is a different god because the God of the Bible certainly does judge things that are wrong. That is one of the many great things about Him. He is a God of justice and righteousness. What is wrong is wrong and God will deal with that. Some people prefer to invent a god they like but it is important that we get to know the God of the Bible. Very clearly, the teaching here is that God does judge and He judges in real ways (sickness and death) and because of real-life things such as the way people took Communion.
So, what on earth could be so serious as to warrant this reaction from God – and this negative reaction from Paul? It centres around the body of Christ which we are considering at the moment.
1 Cor 11:29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgement on themselves.
Without discerning the body of Christ. That is the problem. And again in v.34 it is apparent that it was the way they were eating that was resulting in judgement.
1 Cor 11:34 Anyone who is hungry should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgement.
Eating and drinking without discerning the body of Christ. What does that mean? What were the Corinthians doing wrong?
The body of Christ could, of course, refer to the literal, physical body of Christ, crucified on the Cross. Or, it could refer to the church. Which is Paul meaning here? I suspect Paul is being deliberately ambiguous – that he intends it to have two meanings, both of which are true.
Without a doubt Paul is referring to the actual body of Christ. Vv.23-26 contain the words that are used in almost every Communion service: For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night 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, after supper He took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.
You proclaim the Lord’s death. The bread and the wine represent the Lord’s broken body and shed blood. Clearly, that is talking about the crucifixion. It is not talking about the church. It is very obviously talking about Jesus’ body on the Cross. Then Paul links that with the sin in the Corinthian church, in the very next verse.
1 Cor 11:27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.
In other words, the Lord’s Supper is sacred and not to be treated lightly. The bread and the wine are hugely significant because they represent the body and blood of Jesus. What could be more sacred than His sacrifice and His suffering on the Cross. We should never receive the bread and the wine casually or, as Paul puts it “eat the bread and drink the cup in an unworthy manner”. If people think that they can come to Communion and it is all just a bit of a laugh, or even something that doesn’t require much thought, then they are dishonouring what is sacred. The Cross speaks of the righteousness of the holy God in judging sin. He is not to be taken lightly. But it also speaks of the love of God Who gave His Son to take that penalty so that we might be forgiven. That profound love of God that was willing to suffer more than we can even imagine, is not to be sniffed at. The right response, when we think of the Cross is to fall on our faces in wonder and awe, and repentance, and praise and gratitude. Anyone who can saunter past the Cross chatting about the weather or the cricket, shows disdain for the sacrificed body of Jesus.
Obviously people who have no idea of its meaning will not honour the Cross, but the Corinthians claimed to have faith in Jesus. What excuse would they have for treating Jesus’ death unworthily?
“Discerning the body of Christ” would then mean that people were eating Communion without recognising the sacrifice – without seeing in it the cost of the Cross – without remembering the horror that Jesus endured – the terrible scourging, the nailing to the Cross, the suffering of hanging from those nails and the ultimate death – without remembering that Jesus took in His body, our sins and died for them. If the Lord’s Supper does not take us back to the Cross where we see the broken body of Jesus and the shed blood, and we remember that He died for us, then we have not discerned the body of Christ. We have seen it only a strange meal or a religious ritual but we have not recognised again the true horror of what the bread and wine represent. If we haven’t discerned the body of Christ in all of this, then we have taken Communion unworthily. Jesus had said, “When you do this, remember me.” They were not remembering Him. And this passage warns that there are consequences of that.
That is why Paul says (v.28) that everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink of the cup. We need to take time to remember what this is all about and we need to look at ourselves and be sure that we know what we are doing and we are sincere in what we do.
Generations of Presbyterians before us had services on Saturday night in order to prepare for the Lord’s Supper in Sunday morning. They wanted to be sure that they were in the right place to take Communion and, if they needed to repent of sin in their lives before receiving Communion, then they took time to examine themselves and to repent. And, if they didn’t feel they were in the right place, then they would not take Communion. It was too holy to take lightly.
No doubt it is possible to take that too far. Some people might never feel they were “good enough” when, in fact, Communion is for those who have failed and who seek forgiveness. They shouldn’t stay away from Communion. They should come to Communion. Communion is where they can receive that forgiveness. But it is true that it is absolutely necessary that we take it seriously and we examine ourselves.
But there was something else going on in the Corinthian church as well. They were divided. This is where Paul gets a little sarcastic. In v.19 He says, “Oh of course there have to be divisions don’t there. If you weren’t divided, how would we know who were the really godly ones who have God’s approval?”
Because of their division, what they were doing simply could not be called the Lord’s Supper. Jesus was saying, “Don’t attach my name to it. It is not my supper. I do not approve of what you are doing. Don’t call it “Christian”. It is not Christian.” That was because their division had led to selfishness. It seems that some of them were getting to this meal early (and it would have been a full meal together that included the bread and the wine.) Those early birds were having their own feast, and getting drunk. Others could not get there until later –perhaps the slaves who didn’t get off work until later; v.22 talks about those who had nothing – and they, who were probably in most need of food, were missing out because others had eaten it all. This is terrible. In a church, people were taking advantage of their privileged place to simply look after themselves. As a consequence, their brothers and sisters were left to go hungry.
Paul said, “Do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? Do you show contempt for the church that God has said is one body?” So, on the one hand, they were ignoring the Cross; on the other hand, they were showing contempt for the church. So, not discerning the body of Christ seems to mean both forgetting the sacrifice the bread and wine represent, and not recognising the nature of the church. V.27 links their eating and drinking with not recognising the Cross. Vv.22, 34 link their eating and drinking with not recognising the church. They were taking Communion without remembering that this was a family meal, not an opportunity to pig-out.
We have talked before about how central unity is to the body image. There are many parts but one body. We have talked about how important unity is to God. His master plan is to unite all things under Christ. But the Corinthians had forgotten that they were meant to be a body. They had forgotten the nature of the church. They thought these events were all about them. They were blind to the body of Christ.
It does perhaps shock us to read a passage about God’s judgement on people in the church but let’s remember the purpose of judgement. Look at v.32.
1 Cor 11:32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.
The reason God judges is to turn us around before it is too late. He judges now because He doesn’t want to have to judge us later. Discipline now is designed to redeem us. A loving God does judge. Judgement is an expression of love from a God who wants us to be saved.
Both the Cross and the church are enormously important to God. Both are holy and are to be treated as holy. As we come to Communion, look at the Cross and see the body of Jesus. Remember that the bread and the wine represent the sacrifice of His body for you and your sins. Know that God wants us to be saved because He loves us. But also, as we come to Communion, look around at the people here with you and see the body of Christ. These are the people that God has united you to in the one body. You do not do this alone; you do this with your brothers and sister. We are joined together as intimately as the parts of the body are joined. You might say, “These people and I are one body. I need them and they need me. I love them and I will serve them.”