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1 Corinthians 11:17-34

Whose Meal is This? The Lord's Supper or Ours?

1 Corinthians 11:17-34

Teaching Moments

1. The problem Paul encounters in 1 Cor. 11:17-22 is division (v. 18, schisms) and factions (v. 19, heresies). They are not waiting for the whole church to assemble, but they are proceeding with the "supper" before everyone arrives (cf. vv. 21,33). They had gathered to eat the "Lord's supper" but they instead ate their own "supper" because they were hungry and thirsty (vv. 20-21,34). This reflected a socio-economic problem in the church since those who have homes would not wait on those who have nothing (v. 22). According to Paul, this violates the tradition which he received from the Lord and had handed on to the Corinthians (v. 23).

2. The problem is occasioned by the breakdown of unity in the context of a meal. Paul describes this supper with various terms: supper (11:20); communion (10:16); Lord's table (10:21); breaking bread (10:16). The church in Corinth ate a supper (11:20,21,25). This was the regular evening meal in the Greco-Roman world. The two major courses of the banquet were the "supper" proper which was followed by the sumposion (symposium)--a drinking party. In a religious context this would have included a chant to a god. These "suppers" paralleled the Greek practice of a "potluck" dinner. It could take place in homes or at sacrificial meals in Greek temples. It is fundamentally identification. Paul did not forbid the meal, but regulated it in the light of abuses. Paul wanted them to come together "to eat" (11:33; in 11:20-22,27-28 "eat" is also used). They ought to come together as an community or church (11:18) which unites as the body of Christ (11:29).

3. Greco-Roman meals were occasions of social stratification, drunkenness and disorderliness. They were also at the center of most social institutions or social occasions (e.g., funerary banquets, sacrificial banquets, philosophical society meetings, trade guild meetings, religious society meetings). Plutarch's Table Talk (ca. 100 C.E.) is an example of the extensive discussion of table etiquette in the ancient world. Rick Oster offers this summary of the problems generally associated with Greco-Roman meals (appeared in the journal Leaven):

  a. In practice, ancient meals were very hierarchical in arrangement. The high degree of social and economic stratification (rich/poor; free/slaves) that prevailed in the Graeco-Roman world was imported into arrangements for dinner. Accordingly, the best seats, the best food, the best wine, the best company and the best entertainment were reserved for the affluent, the noble born, the free, and the prestigious. Several pagan philosophers and rhetoricians complain about this practice of bringing social stratification into the meal experience. These writers argue that mealtime and the meal experiences should be communal meals that are not destroyed by societal concerns for "rich and poor" or "free and slave."

  b. Ancient mealtimes were often characterized by disruptive speech and argumentative cliques. We have testimony both in the literary and epigraphical record from antiquity that religious guilds and fraternal organizations had to adopt "Rules of Order" to keep a sense of orderliness, especially at their symposia or evening meals. [As one Latin inscription from Pompeii stated it, 'Be sociable and put aside, if you can, annoying quarrels. If you can't, go back to your own home."--from Oster, 1 Corinthians (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1995), 277.]

  c. Drunkenness was a regular problem at these Graeco-Roman meals and banquets. Both the quantity and the quality of wine served was so important to ancient men and women that there was often an attendant in charge of this (cf. John 2:8-10). Graeco-Roman authors whose values included moderation in drinking criticized their peers who regularly became intoxicated at these meals.

4. The tradition that Paul cites is that the bread was broken in remembrance of Jesus before the supper and, after the supper (v. 25), the cup was drunk. The seriousness of the occasion is the connection this meal has with the Lord's death (v. 26); it was the night of his betrayal (v. 24). This is the tradition that Paul applies as a norm or standard for the practice of the Lord's supper in Corinth.

  a. Here the norm is the "Lord's supper". It is his table, not ours. Therefore, we are to treat each other as fellow-servants, as fellow-members of the body. Just as the gospel is for all, so the Supper is for all who share faith in the gospel. The meal ought to proclaim the gospel, but their actions had undermined the gospel itself. It did not reflect the values of Christ.

  b. Consequently, one must not eat or drink in an "unworthy manner," which refers to the divisive context in which it was being eaten at Corinth (v. 27). Christians must "discern the body" when eating. (The NIV adds "of the Lord" which is not in the Greek text.) Does this mean the body of Christ in the bread? I think not since it is likely Paul would have said "body and blood" as in v. 27 if this were his meaning. Rather, it concerns the problem at Corinth--the unity of the church (Christ's body). Paul had earlier made the same shift from "body" (=flesh of Christ) to "body" (=church) in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17. It think he does the same thing here. But this is a difficult text. Because the body has experienced schism and factions, many within the church are weak and ill (v. 30). The body must examine itself about the manner in which the supper is conducted (v. 28).

  c. Here form and function must reflect appropriate theological meaning. Form should serve the function of the supper. The Corinthian form undermined the theological meaning of the supper. The church, then, needs to give attention to the form as well as the elements, order and meaning of the supper.

5. Paul believes they should continue to eat the supper, but wait for everyone so that no one will go hungry. In the context of this communal meal where food is shared, the communion of the body and blood of the Lord through the bread and wine will result in a communion with each other through the oneness of the body. Paul gives them three instructions.

  a. Instruction 1: wait till everyone arrives before you eat the supper.

  b. Instruction 2: if you are hungry, eat something at home before you assemble so you can wait for everyone to arrive.

  c. Instruction 3: Paul will settle everything else when he arrives.

Questions for Discussion

1. Had you been there, what would you have seen, heard and felt as the Corinthians observed the Lord's Supper? [Some were drunk, and others were hungry. Social distinctions of rich and poor; different groups eating together divided from others. Social stratification at meals; perhaps even appointed seats.]

2. How was the Lord's Supper being distorted? What purpose of the Supper was being undermined by the way in which the Corinthians observed the Supper?

3. How does Paul's recitation of the institution of the Supper (which reads like Luke 22:19-20) answer the problem?

4. What does Paul mean by eating and drinking in an "unworthy manner"?

5. What sort of "self-examination" (v. 28) is appropriate for the Lord's Supper? How does this relate to "judging" ourselves (v. 31)?

6. How would you explain the meaning of the Lord's Supper to a non-Christian?

7. Does Paul forbid eating a supper together in the context of the Lord's Supper? Where and when does he say we need to eat? [Watch the language here closely. Paul does not say we should not eat together, even as the Supper of the Lord; but that we should wait for each other. He wants us to continue to eat together, but we should simply wait for everyone to get there. Waiting here is a sign of unity and community rather than reflecting the factions within the body. If people cannot wait, then they should eat something before they come so they will be able to wait for everyone to arrive for the communal meal.]

8. How can form (the way in which we observe the Supper as a corporate body) affect the function and meaning of the Supper? What does our present "form" say about the Supper?

9. How might we change the "form" of our present observance to enhance the biblical meaning of the Supper?

10. What are some ways in which we do not "discern the body" in our participation in the Lord's Supper?


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