Because the Corinthian church is treating the Lord’s supper like a Greco-Roman banquet, Paul says some in the church are eating the bread and drinking the cup unworthily. What does it mean to eat and drink unworthily?
Paul reminds the Corinthians the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was handed down from Jesus himself (12:23-26). Presumably Peter and the disciples communicated the institution of the Lord’s Supper, since they witnessed the Last Supper. This is the earliest version of the Last Supper, since the gospels were not written for at least 10 years after Paul wrote 1 Corinthians.
There are several important elements of this tradition. First, the bread and the cup are taken from the regular elements of the Passover meal, but Jesus uses them as a prediction of his death on the cross. Second, Paul calls the cup the “new covenant in my blood.” This is an allusion to Jeremiah 31:31-33, where God says he will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and Judah when he establishes his kingdom “in that day.” The death of Jesus in some ways initiates that covenant. A covenant is usually confirmed with a sacrifice and a meal (sharing bread and wine). Jesus is therefore claiming his death on the cross is in some ways the beginning of the New Covenant predicted by Jeremiah.
Paul says sharing the bread and the cup are symbols of deeper spiritual realities, initiated by the Lord Jesus himself and practiced by all the Church. It is dangerous to abuse the practice to pursue worldly goals!
As often as the church gathers and shares this meal, they are proclaiming his death until he returns (v. 26). There is nothing in the tradition to indicate how often the meal is to be shared (weekly or once a year), only that it is a practice that is to continue until the Lord returns.
But when the church celebrates the Lord’s Supper, they condemn themselves because they are “eating unworthily” (12:27-34). What does it mean to “eat unworthily”? As I explained in a previous post, the shared meal is reinforcing divisions between the rich and poor. If the church was treating the Lord’s Supper like a Greco-Roman banquet, then gluttony and drunkenness are also possible.
In a modern context, most churches practice a ritual for the Lord’s Supper, Communion, or Eucharist. It is nearly impossible to be a glutton or a drunkard while taking communion is a typical evangelical church (using pre-fab bread chunks the size of a chicklet and sugar-free grape juice!) Even if we cannot dishonor the celebration in quite the same way, by treating the celebration flippantly or as a means of grace to cover or sin, we may be “eating unworthily.”
To avoid discipline, believers ought to examine themselves before they participate in the memorial meal. Paul says, “Judge yourself so you do not fall under judgment by God!” How does the believer examine themselves?
- Confession of sin. Communion ought to be a solemn time of introspection. While it is not the case that God will strike a person dead who takes communion if they have an unconfessed sin, it is a time to spend a few moments reviewing and confessing our shortcomings.
- Meditation on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Communion services really need to focus on the crucifixion burial and resurrection of Jesus. The scripture and the songs intentionally point our minds and our hearts toward Jesus’ self-sacrifice.
- Commitment to being a pleasing child of God. An important corollary to confession is really committing oneself to living a life that is pleasing and honoring to God, a life that makes God smile at his dearly love child. Even if we have failed our commitment pleases him.
- Unity of the church, the body of Christ. Everyone is sharing the same cup, and the same loaf, declaring together the same thing about Jesus’s death.
The celebration of the Communion ought to highlight unity of a church around Jesus and his death and resurrection. What is happening in Corinth is the exact opposite of this; they are (once again) emphasizing social divisions and creating discord and disunity. How we behave during worship and how we think about worship in the church must be based on Scripture, and a sincere desire to please God as our heavenly father. By importing ideas from our culture, we corrupt our worship and run the risk of facing God’s judgment.