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Rethinking the Lord’s Supper

by on June 26, 2014

There’s a lot of superstition surrounding the Lord’s Supper – especially in evangelical circles. Here’s a different take on the subject, from our series on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 11.


There’s a kid’s poem by A A Milne I’ve always liked:

I often wish I were a King,
And then I could do anything.
If only I were King of Spain,
I’d take my hat off in the rain.
If only I were King of France,
I wouldn’t brush my hair for aunts.
I think, if I were King of Greece,
I’d push things off the mantelpiece.
If I were King of anything,
I’d tell the soldiers, “I’m the King!”

In life there are people at the top of the heap: the rich the powerful the clever the strong. There are others at the bottom of the heap: the poor and sick and so on. The ones at the top of the heap like to set themselves apart, They want everyone to know how important they are. What are some of the ways important people set themselves apart from the unimportant? Talk to the person next to you.

Some of the staff at a school where I worked were having a heated discussion about the end of year speech day music performances. there was disagreement about what to perform. I offered a view that was a bit different, and one of the older teachers got annoyed. ‘We don’t usually look for opinions from our junior staff’ she said. Right! I was put in my place good and proper. I’d thought we were a group of colleagues, thrashing out an issue. Suddenly it seemed we were a pecking order, a hierarchy where only the voices of the powerful were welcome. 

Pecking order. Who’s strong, who’s weak. Who’s got status and respect, who has none. It’s in every human group. you can see it among children in the playground. One girl suggests playing skipping ropes. No one moves. Another girl suggests the same game, everyone jumps up to play. She was the leader. Pecking order. It’s as old as the human race. And everyone is interested. We all want to know who’s in charge. Who’s powerful. 

In the Roman world people didn’t try to hide their interest in the pecking order. They were very open about it. The place where it really showed up was at meals. A rich man would invite others to a dinner. There was a small dining room where maybe ten guests could recline at the table and eat. Next door there was a large living area that could fit in a few dozen. The high status guest would be ushered in to the dining room to relax in comfort with their host. All the rest would stand out in the hall. The best food would go into the dining room, for the honoured friends. Everyone else would get the leftovers. It was very clear to everyone where they stood. Literally!

Paul is writing to this church in the Roman city of Corinth. They have grown up with these strong class distinctions. Everyone in their place. Everyone treated differently. Now they’ve come to trust in Christ, and they’ve started sharing this special meal together: the Lord’s dinner. Or the Lord’s Supper. But they’ve brought in their Roman mindset about status and pecking order. Let’s take a look, v.17

Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.  18 For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it.  19 Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine.  20 When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper.  21 For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.  22 What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you! 

The church family at Corinth would gather at the home of one of their wealthy members, someone with a big house where they could all fit in. And they would have this special meal together. But the rich and high status people were programmed to sit apart, to have different food. They’d bring along their rich fancy food. They’d sit by themselves and tuck in, meanwhile in would come to servants and slaves and shopkeepers and all the little people, some of them so poor they hardly brought anything to eat. And maybe the master of the house had some old bread for them to chew. 

Paul hears about this and he is furious. That meal you’re having: It is not the Lord’s supper at all. Don’t you remember what the Lord’s supper is?  v.23

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread,  24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”  26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” 

Jesus had them all share in the same loaf of bread, drinking from the one cup: And as they ate and drank, they were sharing in Jesus body and blood. They were sharing in Jesus’ death. One loaf, one cup, one Christ. All together. No divisions, unity. That was the Lord’s supper. Paul writes  Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all share in the one bread.  (1 Cor. 10)”

Paul writes, if you want to take part in that special supper, you can’t divide up into rich and poor.  We all have an equal share in Jesus. 

And this is the meal where we celebrate Jesus gift, his self-giving. Christ gave up his own life for us. The one was was rich, in heaven, came down and made himself poor for us. The King came as a servant. He took the lowest place. ‘This is my body that is for you’ – he gives it up for sinners like us. That’s what we remember when we take this meal: Jesus’ death. “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” 

How can you come to this meal, and stand on your rights, insist on your status and your high position and exclude the others. How can you? When the whole point of the meal is remembering how Jesus gave up his position? It’s not the Lord’s supper you are eating!

What Jesus did overturned all our ideas about status and privilege and pecking order. He turned all that on its head. How can you have a pecking order when your king is down in the lowest place? It’s just not possible. 

So when Jesus died and rose, a new society was started.  A new family where we are all brothers and sisters. All equals. Where the weak and the poor are specially honoured, and the strong and brought low. No more trampling the little ones. No more pushing your weight around. The first and last and the last first. Jesus insisted on this. 

This new society is called the church. And it starts here at the meal table. This new society is built around people sharing meals together in this new way – remembering Jesus. If the meal table is different, everything else will be different as well. 

We haven’t always been good at living this. Sometimes the church has grabbed power and money and pushed around the little people. Just like they were doing at Corinth. Rich, fat bishops have eaten their meals behind closed doors, cut off from the people. But the real church of Jesus – it looks quite different. Not prestige and power and cathedrals and gold statues. No the church is a place where there is a simple welcome for the little ones. 

Pope Francis has helped by moving out of his fancy vatican palace and living in simple boarding house accomodation, eating in the common dining hall with the brothers, travelling on public transport. Rubbing shoulders with little people day by day. Pope Francis has caught the vision of what Paul is talking about here.

Well, you might be wondering, how much does all this matter? If in the church people stand on their position and demand status, and there’s a pecking order, and the poor people are put in a lower place, does it matter that much? Is it really so bad?

God thinks it is. V.27

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.  28 Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  29 For all who eat and drink without recognising the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.  30 For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.  31 But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged.  32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. 

This is a strong warning. The judgement of God. That world where the strong push around the weak, where the rich grab everything for themselves, and stand on their privileges, and the poor have nothing –  that world where little people are ignored and excluded – that world has been condemned by God. It stands under his judgement. Its days are numbered. Jesus said, “It is finished”, and he meant all of that. Under God’s wrath. 

Some people love that world, the world where they can climb to the top of the heap, treading on the heads on everyone else. The world where money can buy you anything. Some people love the feeling that they are more important than their neighbours, the feeling that they are in charge. 

Paul says, those people and that world stand under the judgement of God. And all the prophets and Jesus agree with Paul on this. It’s all going to be swept away. God will not put up with it much longer. And if you or I want to be part of that world, we put ourselves under God’s wrath too. 

There is no room in God’s new society for those old ways. God will not tolerate them. How much does this matter? It’s life and death. It’s that important. Jesus has died to make a new society. If you humiliate and exclude the brothers at the meal table, you destroy what Jesus died for. If we bring this behaviour into the church family, God will judge us severely. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.’

So when you come to eat the Lord’s supper, when you come to share in the fellowship of the church family, Paul says here is what you need to do. ‘Examine yourselves and only then eat and drink’. Are there people in the gathering that you are excluding? Are there weak ones, poor ones, little ones, who need special honour and care? Have you shown them a special welcome? Have you served them? Check yourselves. Have you realised that this little gathering is different from the old meals you used to attend? This is the body of Christ gathering: God’s new society. Have you ‘recognised the body?’ And acted appropriately? Examine your behaviour. And only then eat this sacred meal. 

We will have the Lord’s supper together on a Thursday evening soon, and we need to keep this in mind. Is there anyone here that I am divided from, who I am looking down on, thinking I’m better? If so, we need to repent. And really, every time we meet as the body of Christ, this is true. If I am holding myself aloof, instead of sharing in the unity of the body – it’s not Christ I’m celebrating: it’s myself.  We need to repent of that, or we will come under God’s judgement.

Paul finishes the chapter with this instruction: So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.

The words “wait for one another” have the sense of, receive one another. It means Wait, so that you are sure everyone is included, and you can eat together. In unity.  

Jesus has become the servant of all, and died so that we can sit down together at God’s table and have fellowship in his family. It’s extraordinary what he’s done for us. As we celebrate and enjoy God’s hospitality, let’s make it a true celebration of Jesus’ self-giving. Let’s not distort that into something that denies the Saviour we celebrate.

From → Bible talks

  1. nice to read one of your sermons

    • Thanks Bruce!

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