A. Craig Troxel
In 1 Corinthians 11:17-22, Paul rebukes the Corinthians for setting up a distinction that God had removed among the people of God. That is why Paul cannot commend the Corinthians in their observance of the Lord's Supper (vss. 17, 22), as he can in general (11:2). In his reprimand, Paul tells this congregation that it would be better if they did not meet at all. When they gather together, "it is not for the better but for the worse" (vs. 17).
Paul says this because their observance of the sacrament bore little or no semblance to the Lord's Supper. What fed this mockery of the Lord's Supper were the distinctions ("divisions") that they were making in their midst. In chapter 1, Paul addressed the Corinthians' party spirit, their false allegiance to particular preachers. But here he directs his rebuke toward their dividing along economic lines, their allegiance to economic status and social class. Paul says that such divisions serve a purpose (vs. 19): they have a way of distinguishing the false from the genuine believer. Such divisions reveal who in the church is "approved" by God, because they show who authentically and truly believe.
Paul charges the Corinthians with sacrilege-that is, profaning the sacrament. The travesty of their practice was such a mockery of the Supper that Paul cannot bring himself even to call it the "Lord's Supper" (vs. 20).
The Lord's Supper was wrapped around a common meal, and for good reason. The Lord Jesus Christ based his sacramental meal on the Passover, the meal that honored and memorialized Israel's exodus out of Egypt. Just as the Passover meal would begin with thanksgiving pronounced over the first cup of wine, so the Lord Jesus took the cup and gave thanks (Luke 22:17). The Passover meal would proceed with grace being spoken over bread, the eating of the lamb, bread, and herbs, and a prayer spoken over an additional cup of wine. Similarly, we read how the Lord took the bread and gave thanks (vs. 19), and then, after supper, took the cup and proclaimed its meaning as the new covenant in his blood (vs. 20). Last of all, as in the Passover, a hymn was sung (Mark 14:26). In this way, the holy meal and the common meal became connected and linked in early church practice. Nevertheless, the problem at the Corinthian church does not emerge from the combining of the two meals.
The first problem with this church stems from the manner in which they ate their common meal. They ate their own food, and they ate it individually-each of them went "ahead with his own meal" (1 Cor. 11:21). In other words, they were not combining their food, and problems arose from that. First, it was supposed to be a common meal. Second, and more importantly, what if you were poor and could not bring much, if any, food? The point is that those who had an abundance of food were not sharing it, and the result was that this was not a family meal-not when fellow church members went away hungry.
But what were the poor and destitute supposed to do? On the one hand, they could not stay at home and abstain from the meal, because it included the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, which they were commanded to observe. On the other hand, if the poor did come to church to partake of the meal, it only served to remind them that they were not really part of this church family. They were "second class citizens," just as they were in wider Roman culture.
What the Corinthians were observing was not the Lord's Supper; it was the Corinthians' supper. Their meal did not speak of the cross or the way of the cross. It did not suggest self-sacrifice, giving, sharing, and unity. Instead, it represented selfishness, class distinctions, and disunity. Here was a great opportunity for the wealthy to exhibit Christian love, hospitality, and unity, but they turned it into the exact opposite.
In the Lord's Supper, Jesus says, "This is for you." The Corinthians' supper said, "This is for me."
Contemporary societies are no different from that distant Roman society in Corinth. We still struggle with favoring the "haves." We still struggle with indifference to the "have-nots." But when such things get into the church, it is disastrous.
As a church and as individual Christians, we must beware of becoming like the world. Anything that sends a message that some in our midst are privileged members, while others are not, discredits and counters the gospel message. In fact, it makes a mockery of what the church proclaims.
The gospel unites people of different socioeconomic strata, ethnic backgrounds, ages, and genders. The gospel counters the prejudice and favoritism that the world practices. If our message or practice is the same as the world's, then we have not understood the full significance of the cross. Wealthier Christians are obligated to share and be "rich in good works" (1 Tim. 6:17-18), and all church members must look to the needs of others (1 John 3:17). Our attitude toward fellow believers is not to withhold, but to share. Selfishness and hoarding contradict the cross and the meaning of family, sacrifice, love, and being a disciple of Christ.
These verses speak to us where we live. They address our weaknesses and our tendency to sin through pride, greed, materialism, worldliness, selfishness, and indifference. This passage underscores our responsibility to provide for each other's needs. We are bound together as one family. Our burdens and joys are shared. And when some in our midst are unemployed, uninsured, or have some other pressing need, it presents an opportunity to show that we understand what it means to give ourselves to one another. What does it say about our Christian fellowship when we do not ask about or even notice the needs of others around us? Our brothers and sisters need to know that the household of faith is concerned for their welfare. This world needs to see consistency between our preaching that Christ gave himself and our practice of giving ourselves. It is not just that we must imitate Christ in the grace of giving, as we give from our wealth to help those with less. We must also reflect with humility upon the gospel itself, and how it addresses our own impoverishment.
When exhorting the Corinthians about the grace of giving, Paul states, "You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich" (2 Cor. 8:9). Christ did not become poor by ceasing to be God. As John Murray has said, Christ became poor by addition, not by subtraction. It is also true that Christ lived in material poverty throughout his earthly ministry and life. He owned nothing, was usually empty-handed, and had no place to lay his head. Yet this is not what Scripture means when it says that Christ became poor.
The Son of God impoverished himself by becoming a man. He took to himself a body that could be bruised and damaged, that could bleed and die. But his impoverishment involved more than his taking on our nature; it also meant suffering in our nature. Christ shouldered the weight and penalty of our sin. He endured God's wrath. He bore the curse of our sin, and a portion of that curse was feeling the forsakenness of his Father, as he cried, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Here is where Christ became the poorest, because here is where he was the richest.
This is how we became rich. Christ impoverished himself for our sakes. He won our truest treasure through the riches of his grace. Yet this happened only because he gave of himself and shared his blessings and the merit of his redemption. It meant that he had to undergo the separation that our sin deserves. He who was the light of the world had to dwell in darkness for those agonizing hours at Golgotha because he bore our sin. Not even the Son of God could fellowship with the Father of lights (James 1:17), when he was fellowshiping with the darkness of our sin (1 John 1:5).
Through his humiliation, suffering, and death we have wealth as new people. We are new, redeemed creatures, the new Israel, the temple of the Holy Spirit, adopted as sons of God. Ours are the endless benefits in Christ, the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit. As coheirs with Christ, we look forward to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. But surely where we are most rich is in our fellowship with the living God. Our former enmity toward God has been put away, and we are at peace with him. We commune with our Father through the Holy Spirit and have access to the throne of grace. In this life, we already enjoy the sweetest company known to man in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and we will enjoy that company for all eternity in the life to come. Here is where we are, and will be, the richest. No people on earth are as rich as we are. We are rich because the Son of God became poor for our sakes.
Let us show one another and prove to the world that we understand the implications of the gospel: in our unity as brothers and sisters, as we encourage and strengthen each other as one family, as we share from our fatness, as we give, as we love, as we demonstrate that we follow the way of the cross and truly are disciples of the one who gave himself for our sakes.
The author is the pastor of Calvary OPC in Glenside, Pa. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2005.