27 March 2017

1 Corinthians 11:17-22

“When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper.” (v. 20)

Psalm: Psalm 126


Paul was passionately concerned for the wellbeing of the church in Corinth. He had lived there for about 18 months and had founded the church there (Acts 18:1-11). He then moved on, but continued to offer teaching and guidance to the church through letters. This section of 1 Corinthians is concerned with the church's worship practices.

Here, he is discussing the church's way of celebrating the Lord's Supper, and is strongly critical of their practice. His words seem to take it for granted that every time they come together, they share a full meal, described as "the Lord's supper". Other early Christian texts such as the Didache make the same assumption. But for Paul, what the Corinthians do is not the Lord's Supper at all but contradicts what the Lord Jesus intended.

Many Methodists are familiar with the faith tea, where everyone brings something to share. Paul presupposes that this meal should work along the same lines, with the sharing of the bread and wine embedded in a meal where all contribute and all share. What went wrong in Corinth? Paul's words strongly suggest that class differences were preventing genuine sharing. The well-off brought plenty, and ate and drank it themselves. The poor people brought what little they could, and went home hungry. The meal reflected the social stratification of Greek and Roman banquets rather than covenant fellowship in Christ. The Letter of James offers similar evidence for a lack of respect for poor Christians (James 2:1-7) and, like James, Paul is very critical of their practice - verse 22 especially reveals his frustration and disbelief that they could behave this way.

Why is he so disappointed in them? Their approach is wrong at a number of levels. It demonstrates a failure of pastoral concern for the badly-off. It counters Jesus' passion to stand with the poor. It means that this meal cannot properly be called 'the Lord's Supper' at all, because it does not honour the Lord's way of life or respect his authority. If Jesus was really there, Paul implies, they would be ashamed of themselves.

To Ponder

  • In what ways would it change your understanding of the Lord's Supper if it were routinely celebrated in the context of an ordinary meal?
  • How can you make God's passion for the poor come alive in your own life, especially as part of a people in a covenant relationship sealed by the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper? 

Bible notes author

The Revd Caroline Wickens

Caroline is a Methodist presbyter, currently serving as superintendent of the Dudley and Netherton Circuit just outside Wolverhampton. She is married to Andrew, an Anglican priest, and has two teenage children.