*Editorial Note: Part 1 of Dennis’s article, subtitled “Disrupting the Status Quo for the Sake of Solidarity,” posted on January 17th. Part 1 intentionally stopped suddenly to provoke thought and invite a prayerful, formational response in you. We encourage you to return to this piece first, read it thoughtfully, and engage the ‘Selah Formational Reflection’ before you continue to Part 2 below.
Part 1 Review: Disruption Was Needed in Corinth
Christians in Ancient Corinth — particularly those belonging to the upper strata of society — operated comfortably within Roman society, but that comfort created a wedge between them and their Christian siblings. Something needed to be disrupted. (Part 1’s Cliffhanger)
St. Paul’s Command to Disrupt Segregated Meal Practices
It appears that in Corinth some Christians of high social status attempted to maintain their status in the church when the way of Jesus calls for equity and not hierarchy. With these notions about division in mind — particularly regarding social status — we can consider 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 more thoroughly. The section opens with Paul indicting the church for factionalism (v. 18: “When you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you”). The problem that agitates Paul is not simply potluck protocols. His concern is about equity. In Corinth some Christians of high social status attempted to maintain their status in the church when the way of Jesus calls for equity and not hierarchy. Click To Tweet
Scholars debate the particulars, but it seems that the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper, was connected to a communal meal served either before or after the church gathered for common worship and teaching. We know the practice developed into what was called the agape meal, sometimes translated, “love-feast.” In this situation, the problem is that what was designed to be the Lord’s Supper according to v. 20 has turned into “your own supper” in v. 21. The reality is that people with economic means enjoy their leisurely meals, well in advance of others — who were most likely laborers and enslaved people that showed up later without any food. To add insult to injury, it is possible that some enslaved people were serving the wealthier people because that’s how Roman society worked.
Regardless, what is clear is that the wealthier members of the Corinthian church eat sumptuously and drink to the point of excess while others have nothing. Paul says, “I can’t commend this behavior!” In fact, he refers to this as a schism, or division, the same word he used back in 1:10. As one of my doctoral professors, the eminent Joseph Fitzmyer, put it, “Real table fellowship is lost through the inequity expressed…and individual selfishness causes further social divisions and factions, neglect of the poor, those whom Paul calls ‘have-nots’ in v. 22” (Fitzmyer, p. 435).1
Note the path Paul takes to correct the problem. He does not immediately offer words of correction. They will come a few verses later. He first turns to that meal Jesus had with his disciples. Keep in mind that Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels, so Paul gives us the earliest account of the institution of the Eucharist. He uses formal language of handing down important tradition when he says, “For I received from the Lord what I passed on to you” (1 Corinthians 11:23). A sacred tradition was taking form among our early Christian forebears to eat together in the way that Jesus ate with his disciples before he was crucified.
The Lord Jesus broke bread and said, “This is my body” (v. 24). He offered a cup and said, “This is the blood of the new covenant” (v. 25). On that terrible and wonderful night, Jesus put himself at the center of the meal. He is the bread and wine. He is the nourishment. He is the giver. He is life. Paul gives us the earliest account of the institution of the Eucharist. A sacred tradition was taking form among our early Christian forebears to eat together in the way that Jesus ate with his disciples before he was crucified. Click To Tweet
Paul recounts that when the Lord instituted the Eucharist he said to do it with him in mind: “Do this in remembrance of me” (v. 24). We eat together — particularly the Eucharistic meal — with Jesus as our focus. We look back to his death: He gave his body and blood for us. Yet we eat this meal until he comes, so we look forward to the future as well. How we treat one another even in eating together says something about how we honor the Lord Jesus Christ. Eating together — across all sorts of barriers — is disruptive to the status quo of segregation and hierarchy.
A Sober Self-Examination
There is a sober warning in vv. 27-30 for those who refuse to disrupt the status quo:
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. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died (1 Corinthians 11:27-30).
In v. 27, Paul says, “whoever eats the bread and drinks the Lord’s cup unworthily are literally “liable to,” “answerable to,” or “obligated to” the body and blood of the Lord. The body and blood of Jesus are the basis for the communal meal. Therefore, self-examination requires acknowledging the body of Christ. For some scholars, the word “body” in v. 29 refers to recognizing the presence of Jesus in the bread. For some others it means acknowledging the presence of Christ in the gathered Christian community — which Paul calls a “body” in 1 Corinthians 12. I tend toward the latter understanding, especially given this context.
Paul seems to be pleading that when the community eats together, self-examination requires acknowledging that each person is connected to another as parts of Christ’s body. This is why we pass the peace of Christ at the Eucharist — to ask for forgiveness if necessary and thereby affirm our connection to each other. And in this connection, we do not eat in such a way to shame those who have less than we do, or to highlight our social status. We are to recognize the body of Christ.
Wait for Each Other
The explanatory phrase in v. 30, “For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died,” is usually taken as a description of God’s judgment rather than the reason for judgment. We typically read v. 30 to mean, “because you don’t acknowledge the body, you are being punished with sickness and death.” That is possible, of course, and would suggest that Paul is explaining why the community has had people who were inexplicably sick and dying. Yet, v. 30 opens with the words “for this reason” whose referent is ambiguous — the antecedent of the pronoun “this” is not clear.
Rather than referring to the sickness and death punishment, it could be that Paul is describing the consequences of the wealthy ignoring the impoverished. In that case, he would be concluding, “The reason some among you are sick and dying is because you [powerful people] do not ensure that they are eating as well as you!” Said another way, inequities at the Eucharistic mealtime have physical consequences for those who are on the margins, and that reality is a sign of judgment on those who do have plenty. Inequities at the Eucharistic mealtime have physical consequences for those who are on the margins, and that reality is a sign of judgment on those who do have plenty. Click To Tweet
The remedy to the problem introduced in vv. 17-18 includes sober self-examination — which is something our society in the United States often struggles with. Not many want to look within at the past with a critical eye. But self-examination is part of the path toward health. Paul says in v. 31 to engage in self-examination to avoid chastisement. Yet, self-examination is not the only solution to the inequity problem.
Paul also gets practical and says that when you come together to eat, we must “wait for one another.” In other words, you acknowledge the body when you value each other’s presence. Food isn’t the issue for the wealthy — they can eat at home! For Paul, the point is unity — and that unity is reflected in how the Corinthian Church gathered for a common meal. It was unacceptable for there to be social class divisions played out in the church’s gathering. It was unacceptable for people with money and status to shame those who did not have.
And please note: it was not the job of the impoverished Corinthians to get their act together and be as successful as the powerful people. That’s how many American Christians approach poverty — they often blame the poor. Paul does not do that because he knows it is incumbent upon those of high status to adjust their behavior which has been causing problems for others. Simply put, Paul takes sides.
When he says, “wait for one another,” he directs his admonition to those who had not been waiting! They had been eating plenty and getting drunk because they had the means to arrive early. In essence, Paul says, “wait for your sisters and brothers. If you are hungry, eat at home! Don’t distort this fellowship with your selfishness.”
Disruption through Receiving One Another in Christ
The Greek word translated “wait for” can also mean “receive,” which is to say that it is incumbent upon those with means to reject the segregated ways of the broader society.
In our day we no longer have government-sanctioned segregated dining facilities, but our society marginalizes people in housing, employment, education, and a host of other arenas, putting fellow humans in vulnerable situations. Unfortunately, many Christians will not disrupt such segregation but instead use the Scriptures to perpetuate inequity. We are called to reject society’s push to create vulnerable populations by modeling something different as members of the Body of Christ. We must model solidarity, a unity founded upon common faith in Jesus where all children of God are siblings through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. As siblings in Christ, we receive (“wait for”) one another because shaming the vulnerable is contemptible but living together in relational solidarity is Christlike. As siblings in Christ, we receive (“wait for”) one another because shaming the vulnerable is contemptible but living together in relational solidarity is Christlike. Click To Tweet
1Joseph Fitzmyer, First Corinthians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 435.