1 Corinthians 11:17-26
Dining Room vs. Foyer
So what’s going on in this story and how does it relate to us today? It’s pretty clear that the way they celebrated Holy Communion was a whole lot different than the way we do it. They’re sitting around a dinner table in someone’s home—we gather around the Lord’s Table in our church-house. Just in the last century, archaeological digs in the city of Corinth did a lot to explain the situation for us. We’ve discovered that the typical Roman home highlighted with two spaces for guests—the dining room and the foyer. The dining room could fit about nine people and usually your best buddies and close family were the ones invited to eat in there. Another 30-40 could sit or stand in the foyer—where those of lower class and social status hung out and got the leftovers. Like in airlines today, those with money and social status go to first class (dining room), while others are stuck in coach (foyer). So what is going on in the church here is not at all out of the ordinary for their day in time. In fact, to do anything else would be really weird. So why is St. Paul scolding the people so hard for just doing what their culture taught them is the right thing to do?
From Consuming to Receiving to Giving
As I looked a little closer at the wording Paul chose to fuss at his people I think I understand. In verse 19, The Greek word translated as, “to come together,” can mean “to assemble for a meeting, as well as “to be united.” When the Corinthians come together as a church they paradoxically do not come together in unity and peace. So the big sin here is the division—the gap between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots. As we read further, we see the root causing this division. In v 21 we read, “Each of you takes his own supper” in the KJV and NASB.
The Greek word here for take, prolambano actually has a stronger connotation of “devour” or “consume.” So the original recipients of the letter heard their pastor saying, “Each of you is consuming and devouring your dinner—while your friends in the foyer are going hungry, you’re getting drunk!” In v 18 Paul makes clear that the main problem is the division between the haves and the have-nots. And the root issue behind this division seems to be the consumption and devouring going on in the dining room contrasted with those hanging out in the foyer who are hungry. How have our lives been centered in the dining rooms, spending our time and resources on ourselves, our friends, and family who already have plenty? How has the inner city been like the foyer where the people with less get our leftovers when we get around to it?
Paul hears of this going on in his church in Corinth—that they are over-consuming, prolambano, at Communion. So he reminds them of the purpose of Communion, to remember how Christ did the exact opposite of what they are doing. Rather than taking and grasping for more, Christ gave of Himself—through broken body and shed blood— and calls us to do what He did. Let me say that again. The purpose of Communion is to remember how Christ gave of Himself and then for us to respond to this good news by being the Body of Christ in the world—redeemed by His blood.
This is spelled out in vv 23-26 as Paul recalls the words of Jesus Himself as He instituted this holy meal. Look with me at v 23—a word from that same root for consume pops up again, followed by it’s opposite—“For I received from the Lord that which I also gave to you.” Prolambano – consume; Paralambano – receive. These are from the same root but mean very different things. When we consume and when we receive, we end up with the same final product, but we go about getting it in different ways. When we consume we get it when we want it and we only have to rely on ourselves—when we consume, we’re in control.
On the other hand, when we receive, we often have to wait; we rely on others and have to approach them humbly with hands out. So when we receive Communion tonight, we’re going to do it a little differently. Throughout our daily lives, many of us have been grabbing and devouring. When you come forward to receive Communion, come with your hands open—Drew will place a piece of bread into your hands. Receive the body of Christ.
Look at verse 23, “The Lord Jesus on the night in which He was given, took bread.” Who gave Him? Some say Judas, and so many translations read, “betrayed.” But this Greek word (same as the one earlier in the verse) is very rarely used in that sense. It usually just means “to give” or “deliver” or “hand over.” So who gave Jesus over? Was it Judas? Yes. But who else gave Jesus? Think about John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son. . .” This is the gospel, God gave His Son over to death for you and for me. The class division in Corinth cannot be solved by trying harder or becoming more polite. The way to bridge the gap between rich and poor is by the same way the gap between us and God was bridged—the gospel. We cannot find true reconciliation by becoming more socially aware or through working hard to serve in the city. To truly give, we must first receive. For Paul to give the story of the Last Supper, he first had to receive it from the disciples. For us to give of ourselves as Jesus calls us to, we must first receive God’s gift to us, life in Jesus.
Be God’s Gift
And we pick up on the action in v 24. “And when He had eucharisteo. . .when He had given thanks. . .” Wait—eucharisteo? That’s Communion, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper—eucharisteo. . . Eucharist. . .give thanks. It’s what Jesus did in response to what God has done. It’s what we are called to do in response to what Jesus did. It’s why the Catholics call this the Eucharist—it’s why we call the liturgy the “Great Thanksgiving.”
In Holy Communion we celebrate this gift and find our life-source in this gift. And central to the scriptures is being thankful for this gift. God has given us Jesus—His body was broken and blood poured out on the cross so that we could have life. So central to the scriptures is this command, “Be thankful” for this gift and live a life of gratitude and generosity for the gift God has given you. The word eucharisteo is made up of basically two Greek roots: “eu,” which means good, and “charis,” which means grace or gift. So to be thankful in the Greek literally means to be a good gift. Be a Eucharist. Read on with me in verse 24:So Jesus “took a loaf of bread, and when He had eucharisteo (given thanks), He broke it and said, ‘This is My body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”
This is the body of Christ, broken for you. The first Christians called the church the “body of Christ” because we are to be for the world what Christ is to us.
We are to break ourselves open and pour ourselves out so that others can receive life. Some of you know exactly what this is. You have given your life to somebody—you broke yourself open and poured yourself out—you served them, you listened to them. When they were going through an addiction you walked with them the whole way through it. When they broke through to the other side they said, “Thank you . . . I don’t know what I would have done without you.” What was that? It was a Eucharist. You broke yourself open and poured yourself out so that someone else could have life.
The good news is that we don’t have to already be there. We don’t wait to come to the table when we have it all right. Instead we come to the table very aware that we don’t have it all right. But it’s not your mom or your husband or your teacher or your boss criticizing you. No—the incredible thing about this sacrament is that it’s not my table—it’s not the table of the United Methodist Church. This is Christ’s table.
Holy Communion shatters consumerism. We consume to fill the huge need in us. In Communion we’re called to give of ourselves to meet the huge need out there. As we receive the bare elements of bread and cup, not even enough to fill us, the whole ideology of what we hear in all commercials is reversed. We don’t deserve more; we are privileged to receive little. Consumption takes on a new meaning. We consume the body and blood of Christ and in response we offer ourselves for the world. It is absurd to go from the communion table and continue our blatant consumption.