What the Lord’s Supper Is All About
Text: 1 Cor. 11:17-34
Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you. Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you.
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you…
Our Scripture passage this morning is a famous one. It is one of only a few New Testament sources for the Lord’s Supper, and it contains the verse that has been used as the primary grounds for “fencing the table” and, by extension, the practices of penance and confirmation. Many of us have heard it read in church from our earliest days.
For most of us, however, this familiarity has not actually helped us to understand the proper meaning of the text. Usually, only portions of the passage were read, and they were taken out of context and given a foreign meaning. Some of us have recognized this over the years and had to “relearn” the passage. Perhaps others are still not sure what it means. So this morning, I would like for us to try our best to read this section of 1 Cor. 11 afresh. Let us hear what the Apostle Paul is saying to the original audience, and let us see if we can identify their “problem” and the Apostle’s solution. This may bring some surprises, but it will help us understand the true message of the Lord’s Supper.
What Was the Problem?
One way that we can understand Paul’s writing is to make a very general outline. He begins with the problem that he is addressing, divisions in the church. This is found in verses 17-22. “Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you…” After this, Paul then calls the Corinthians to remember what the Lord’s Supper is all about. He does this in vs. 23-26 by telling the original institution of the Supper by Jesus. Finally, Paul concludes with two corrective applications, found in vs. 27-34. So we see that there is a problem, a theological answer to the problem, and then two practical answers.
Outlining it this way shows us the big picture. Paul was correcting a problem with the Corinthians’ worship, but he was also correcting a problem with their view of one another. The way that they were abusing the Lord’s Supper indicated a failure to understand who the church is, and this in turn indicated a failure to understand what Jesus’ sacrificial death means. As is taught in many places in the Bible, Christ and the church are united. Therefore, if we love Him, we must love one another. Reasoning backwards, the way that we treat one another, shows what we really believe about Jesus.
Let’s get a little more specific now. Paul says that there are “divisions” in the congregation. “When you come together as a church,” he writes, “I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it” (vs. 18). What kind of divisions were these? They seem to have been along economic lines, between the rich and the poor:
…in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? (vs. 21-22)
The people were not eating together, as a unified body, but were instead bringing their own food and eating it separately. They were not sharing this food with others, and this meant that the rich were able eat and drink much, while the poor had to go hungry. This shamed the poor and sent the message that they were inferior Christians. It’s hard to tell if Paul is being hyperbolic when he says that some of the Corinthians got drunk, but at the very least, he is indicating that some were eating as much as possible while others had to go hungry.
Now, as a side note, we can ask how this was even possible. Given how we do the Lord’s Supper today, this sort of problem doesn’t seem like a major threat. How would any of us manage to pig out on the bread or drink all of the wine? Things were obviously a little different in Corinth.
What we see in this text is that the Lord’s Supper was originally an actual meal. It was a ritual feast that involved a full meal. It was probably the case that this was the same thing as the “agape feast” we hear about in Jude vs. 12, and it was an attempt to replicate the Last Supper that Jesus shared with His disciples. The special “sacramental” part of the meal most-likely took place at the end of it all, though we don’t know all the specifics.
This way of celebrating the Lord’s Supper fell away sometime around the turn of the 4th century. The form that replaced it made the abuses in Corinth less possible, but the new form gave opportunity for new errors to come into the church. Indeed, the false doctrine of transubstantiation was something of a “natural” development because of the way that the Supper began to be celebrated. It stopped being an actual meal that the church ate together, and it became a sort of performance by the priest, as the people watched him from afar. This changing the meaning of the sacrament entirely, and the people nearly stopped eating and drinking entirely. The priests would call people down front to the altar, sometimes separated by a rail, and had them receive a strange wafer that looked nothing at all like bread. They didn’t take any wine at all.
At the time of the Protestant Reformation, these errors were identified and combated, and the Reformers also changed the way the Supper was done. They began to pass the bread and the wine across the aisles of the congregation. This wasn’t exactly eating a meal together, but it was much closer than the previous method. Some groups have tried to go further and have their people actually sit together around a table, but so far they haven’t been able to make this work without other practical challenges, and today there is no one obvious “way to do it.” I think we should try to get as close to the New Testament example as possible , but I think we should do this carefully and in a way that doesn’t create new divisions and factions.
Now, back to Paul. He criticizes the Corinthians for turning the Lord’s Supper into a wordly meal. They made it just like the rest of life in the Roman Empire. The rich people were privileged and the poor were shamed. In Paul’s mind, this was so bad as to actually contradict the sacrament. He says, “you come together not for the better but for the worse” (vs. 17) and “therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper” (vs. 20). The way that the Corinthians were abusing the Supper actually prevented it from being the Lord’s Supper, and it turned a blessing into a curse. We see their problem. By allowing divisions and factions in their worship, they contradicted the message of the Supper.
As strange as this sounds, there are ways in which the modern church has made a similar error. Not too long ago, churches in America were segregated. Blacks and Whites were not communing together, and this was not simply a spontaneous arrangement. It was a carry-over from sinful views of society. Not even the church could overcome this sort of division. And in our own day, churches segregate in new ways, usually along social status or special interests. We need to fight against this. While our congregation will certainly have its distinctive features, it should be open to all believers, and we should be open to fellowshipping with all kinds of believers. We shouldn’t want to stick just to our own kind but instead to fellowship with anyone who calls upon the name of Christ.
What is the Lord’s Supper All About?
In order to correct this divisiveness, Paul points back to the original Lord’s Supper:
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” (vs. 23-25)
From this we can see that the Lord’s Supper is not just an ordinary meal, and we are not free to conduct it however we like. Rather, it is a solemn occasion, a ritual-meal that commemorates the death of Christ and testifies to the New Covenant.
Paul even says this about what we are doing when we partake of the Lord’s Supper, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (vs. 26). Our eating and drinking together is a proclamation, and it is meant to send a message to God and to the world. We are proclaiming the gospel, and we are supposed to do this until Jesus comes back.
This proclamation actually ties in to the “remembering.” In English, the linguistic connection is not as obvious, but the Greek word for “remembrance” is the same as the Greek word for “memorial.” That means that the “remembrance” that’s going on isn’t only our personal remembering in our hearts. It is that, but it’s more than that. It’s also a public memorial which is directed towards the world and even to God.
How do we know this? Think back to the first covenant memorial in Scripture, the rainbow. What does God say about the rainbow? Gen. 9 puts it this way:
This is the sign of the covenant which I make between Me and you, and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be for the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. It shall be, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow shall be seen in the cloud; and I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. (Gen. 9:12-16)
Did you catch all of that? The rainbow was a covenant sign which God placed in the clouds in order for Him to see it and in order for Him to remember His covenant. Something similar is going on with the Lord’s Supper. We are calling upon God to remember and honor His covenant, only now it is the New Covenant. “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood… Do this as my memorial.” The memorializing and the proclaiming are the same thing.
This is why we cannot partake of the Lord’s Supper in hypocrisy. We cannot call upon God to remember Christ’s sacrifice while we hate our brother. We cannot call upon God to look favorably upon us, to forgive us our sins, and to consider us as righteous in Christ if we are judging each other according to the world, favoring some members and looking down upon others. When the Corinthians did that, they made themselves liars, and you could even say that they took the Lord’s name in vain. They contradicted their message by their actions, and it was plain for all to see.
Finally then, Paul moves to his application. There are basically two basic. Verses 27-32 explain the “unworthy manner” that the Corinthians should avoid. We will come back to this section in a later sermon because the explanation can be complex. Paul’s second application—his second “therefore”— is in verse 33-34, and it explains things by returning to the original problem: “Therefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (vs. 33). Don’t break up the church into factions or groups but instead eat together. Wait for one another. Share what you have. Be one body together. That is the practical way that the Corinthians can partake worthily.
For us, this means that we must conduct ourselves as Christians. We must practice what we believe. And we have to do this in and out of church. Our worship service should be a model for what the rest of our life is like, and it should reflect the radical and equal love and forgiveness that Christ shows to us. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together, we should actually—truly—look like the gospel. We must truly love one another as Christ loves us, and we must truly be willing to put one another ahead of ourselves, even if that requires us to sacrifice.
As we said, we will come back to these concluding verses in another sermon. We will try to explain what the “worthy manner” of celebrating the Lord’s Supper is, as well as what Paul means when he says that a man should “examine himself.” You might expect me to conclude the application section on that note, but that will have to wait for a longer explanation. But I also don’t want to conclude on that note because that’s not actually the note Paul concludes on. He does call the Corinthians to examine themselves. That’s true. But he calls on them to examine themselves so that they can partake, and he says that the right way is waiting for one another and eating together in unity.
So this morning I want to call upon you all to partake together in unity. Whatever is causing division in your life, between you and Christ, but also between you and other believers, you should confess and repent of. I want you to do this so that you can eat with one another sincerely. I want you to be able to actually mean what you say when you proclaim Christ’s death, and I want you to actually be able to eat the Lord’s Supper.
Because the truth is, if you are not able to eat this Supper in unity with the other people in this room, then you are not able to eat it at all. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t be able to eat it. I mean that you cannot eat it. If you eat of this Supper while you are at the same time judging someone in this room, then you cannot eat the Lord’s Supper. You falsify its proclamation by your hypocrisy, and it will not be a means of blessing but of chastisement to you. So do what you need to do to eat the Lord’s Supper. Make things right with your brother. Be at one.
Now, at this point you will probably say to me, “Oh, I’m willing. But they won’t get their act together. The problem’s not on my side. It’s on theirs.” To that I say, “Practice what you preach.” Did God wait for you to get your act together before He sent Jesus to save you? Did God say that He would redeem you only after you came to Him and made things right? No. He took the initiative. In worldly terms, we could even say that He took the loss. He sacrificed His Son, who was of the same nature with Himself, for the sake of evil sinners, and that was the only way that they could be forgiven and transformed. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Do you believe the gospel? Then I say to you to extend forgiveness first. You can’t change how people feel about you, but you change how you feel about them. Put to death all feelings of hostility and judgment. Give them to Jesus. Call upon God to make things right. Look at the face of the person with whom you are quarreling and see your face in theirs. Then see Christ’s face. Discern the body.
Don’t partake of the Lord’s Supper by preaching works righteousness. Don’t partake of it by playing favorites. Don’t partake of it by telling yourself that you’re really not so bad but the other people are. No, partake of the Supper rightly, by judging in mercy and seeing your fellow believers as one body with you, the body of Christ. What you do to your fellow believers, you do to Christ, and the way that you treat them shows the world what you believe about the gospel.
At our church we celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week, and that’s a good thing. It means that every week we are testing ourselves to see if we indeed practice what we preach. We are about to do it this morning. Do it in joy. Do it in faith. But do it in truth. Let us proclaim the body of Christ by being the body of Christ together.
Let us pray.