This past Sunday I began the sermon by talking about the mildly legalistic and very conservative roots of my church upbringing. A controversy that I remember being debated during my childhood years regarded the propriety of building a fellowship hall as a part of an addition to the church structure, as some people were adamantly opposed to seeing any sort of eating event going on in the sacred space of the church building. And a passage they used was that which we look at today in 1 Corinthians 11. They jumped to quote these lines from this Scripture: “Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in?” … and … “Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home.”
That sounds rather certain! How can you argue with that? I remember being impressed with these verses at first glance. But this is an illustration where knowing both the historical background and the context makes all the difference.
Today, let’s go the passage to get it fresh in our minds, followed by a somewhat lengthy commentary below. The material is from the master’s thesis of a particular young man and Greek scholar in Dallas many years ago. Some of you may know him, as he is the lead pastor of a church in Maryland.
1 Corinthians 11:17 – In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!
11:23 – For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 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.” 25 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.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
11:27 – So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 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.
11:33 – So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment. And when I come I will give further directions.
Here we see Paul’s most detailed teaching on the subject of the Lord’s Supper. It is often forgotten that the context of this passage is a rebuke of the Corinthian church for their perversion of this sacred memorial. Yet in this rebuke there is to be seen a fleeting glimpse of the meeting of the early church beyond Jerusalem.
The Apostle begins by telling them that their coming together was resulting in evil rather than good. Whereas the meeting should have been for their benefit, it was in fact for their harm. The report that Paul had received was that divisions and factions existed in the body. Their stated purpose in gathering – to observe the Lord’s Supper – was not in reality being carried out.
The problem appears to be centered around the rich and the poor in the church. The rich apparently came to the meeting first with their own food. Instead of waiting for the others to come (who were maybe still working), they ate and drank to the full, so that some were hungry, while others were drunk. Possibly those with Gentile Greek backgrounds even reverted to celebrating this supper like those from their heathen sacrificial feast days. Whatever, the Corinthians were not truly celebrating the Lord’s Supper.
The Apostle Paul’s rebuke in verse 22 contains three elements. First, eating and drinking was not the reason for the service of the church; this they could do in their own homes. Secondly, their actions demonstrated a lack of reverence for the meaning of the Lord’s Supper and the meeting of the church. Thirdly, they shamed the poor by not waiting for them and not sharing from their abundance. How different this was from the situation in Acts 2 where anyone who had a need was taken care of by those who had more. The conclusion of the matter was that they could all wait for one another and not emphasize the eating to such an extent.
A question we might ask is why did the early church celebrated the Lord’s Supper in the context of a communal meal? The answer involves four known factors, to which this author would like to suggest a fifth possibility.
First, it was likely that during this time was when there was a sharing of all things in common. Certainly this involved more than food, yet as the community met together they expressed their spiritual bond to one another and to Jesus Christ over the fellowship of a common meal.
Secondly, it is a fact that to pious Jews (as were many of the earliest Christians) there was no meal that was not sacred. Before a Jew would eat even the simplest item of food, he would always pause to express his praise and thanks to God. Eating was for the Jew a religious experience.
Thirdly, the earliest leaders of the church were the disciples who had shared many meals with the Savior. These must have been memorable experiences that they vocally shared with the Christian community – reflecting on such as the feeding of the multitudes and the post-resurrection meals together.
Fourthly, and of greatest influence no doubt, is the memory of the institution of the Lord’s Supper by Jesus in the context of a common meal together. Christ’s instructions for them to remember Him by eating the bread and drinking the cup were implemented by the disciples in the same context in which it was given.
The fifth suggestion – in line with the theme of this research – is to propose that the early church communal meal may have had roots in a communal meal observed by Jews on the evening of the Sabbath in their synagogues. There is evidence that in this same era, these gathering places were used as a dining hall after the study of the Torah.
So it is very possible that the Jews who became the first Christians were accustomed to having these dinners together on the Saturday evening of their worship and instruction in the Law. They may have simply continued this on a different evening – the first day of the week, resurrection Sunday. And they may simply have changed the content of the teaching to that of the gospel as the fulfillment of the Law, adding also the new instruction of the remembrance of the Lord’s Supper.
In any event, these are the elements, then and now: worship, fellowship, unity in faith, instruction, and remembrance. Then and now, these elements make the institution of the church the greatest thing that exists on Planet Earth.