1 Corinthians 11.17-32: connecting the dots

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June 24, 2012 by jmar198013

Next item on my agenda: your meetings. I’m afraid I’ve got nothing good to say about them. It seems that they’re more trouble than they’re worth. Where do I begin? I’m hearing tales that when you’re supposed to be getting together, you’re actually splitting into cliques. And frankly, I’m inclined to believe it’s true. After all, how else would your favorites get their due credit if you weren’t allowed to rank each other? Point is, when you get together, it obviously isn’t to eat the Lord’s Supper. Not when you’re all so intent on attending to your own suppers. Not when some go hungry while others get drunk. Surely you can wine and dine yourselves in the privacy of your own homes. Unless, of course, you have so little regard for God’s community that you don’t mind shaming its poorer members. Do you expect me to pat you on the back for acting this way? Get real, people!

Allow me to refresh your memory about the teaching I got from the Lord and handed over to you. On the night Jesus was handed over, he took some bread. He offered thanks to God. Then he divvied up that bread and said, “This is my body. This is for you. Remember me by reenacting this bread-breaking.” Likewise, after dinner he took the cup and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Whenever you drink from this cup, drink to my memory.” So until the Lord comes, every time you eat this bread or drink from this cup, you are performing his death.

So let me connect the dots for you: whoever eats the Lord’s bread or drinks the Lord’s cup in a way that is not fitting treats the Lord’s body and the Lord’s blood in a way that is not fitting. Thus, contrary to your current practice, the only discrimination that should occur is each person inspecting their own fitness. That way each one may eat the bread and drink the cup with a truthful memory. Because those who eat and drink without considering what makes this body different only eat and drink judgment against themselves. This is precisely why so many of you are weak and sickly. Indeed, this is why many of you have died. If we would only judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But be comforted: the Lord judges his people to discipline us, so that we won’t be condemned along with everybody else.

Sometimes interpreting Scripture is a lot like connect-the-dots. You draw lines between various points and hope you end up with a recognizable image. You also hope you end up with the appropriate picture. The fact that the Bible is so ancient, so distant, so seemingly removed from us makes this game of connect-the-dots all the more complex. The points of reference get scattered, fewer and farther between. It’s difficult to judge whether or not you’re drawing the line of interpretation between the correct points. You become less certain that you can draw a line between two points and say, “This is that.” Yet interpreting Scripture is an ongoing task of the church. You have to do it–rather,  we have to do it–but it must be done with caution, with patience, and with prayerful humility.

1 Corinthians 11.17-32 is one of those passages that, in my experience, the church has not adequately connected its dots with. We are told that the problem with Corinth is that they failed to distinguish the Lord’s Supper from a common meal. They didn’t know the Lord’s Supper from a church potluck or a family dinner. Because they failed to make this distinction, they ate the Lord’s Supper in an “unworthy manner.” When the dots are connected that way, the picture we get is the Corinthians gorging themselves on the Lord’s Supper. Nothing is being done decently or in order. Everything is covered in crumbs. People are cutting in line, body-checking each other over bread. A brother vomits drunkenly into a potted plant in the foyer. Then, we draw a line between that scene and our own staid and reverent observance. What a contrast there is between the bedlam at Corinth and our own loaf-pinching, sipping Welch’s grape juice out of tiny cups way of doing it. When those are the dots we connect, we get to pat ourselves on the back for having better manners than the Corinthians. Jesus must be very proud of us.

The problem with connecting the dots that way is that it cuts off many of the lines of interpretation the text actually calls for. It leaves a lot of dots just floating around, unconnected. Let me name some of them. Do we have problems of class warfare in the church, like the Corinthians did? Why were there needy, hungry people in the church at Corinth, anyway? Weren’t they taking care of their poor? Are we? Or are we, like the Corinthians, giving our approval to a culture that gives some far more than they need while others get little or nothing? As long as we are content to connect the problems at Corinth to bad manners, ignorance, or having a kitchen in the church building, we don’t even get to ask those questions.

For his own part, Paul connects the dots between the problems at Corinth and the example of Christ. On the night he was betrayed, Paul recalls, Jesus divvied up bread and wine amongst his disciples. That’s his starting point. Okay, let’s start making some connections. When Jesus passed around the bread and wine, did John get more because he was Jesus’ favorite? Did Peter get less than John because Jesus doubted the sincerity of his friendship? Did James the Less get less than Peter and John because he wasn’t as awesome and outgoing as them? Did Judas leave the table hungry because Jesus knew he was about to throw him under the bus? Of course the answer is no–the disciples didn’t get access to Jesus’ bread or wine based on how they ranked with him. Connect the dots: in light of Jesus’ example, the Corinthians didn’t have permission to rank their favorites. Neither do we. This body, says Paul, is different.

Perhaps the most helpful dots Paul connects are the ones between the death of Christ and the life of the church. He says that when we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death. That word,  proclaim, is quite pregnant. It means that the Lord’s Supper is a way me make Christ’s death present. We put ourselves “there.” We bring him “here.” It means that the most crucial dots we connect are the ones between Christ giving his body for us and how this body goes about making Christ present for others. And that provides starting points for nearly endless lines of interpretation. The witness of Jesus is the dot to which all the dots that comprise the witness of the church need to be connected.

How does the church, as a body encompassing vast diversity, recognize and reward the giftedness of each of its members without ranking some above others? In other words, returning to the example of Jesus on the night he was betrayed, how do we makes sure that James the Less is fed as adequately as John or Peter? Connect the dots.

Can we make room at our table even for our enemies? Even for those who are ready to kill us? Remember Jesus sharing his bread with Judas. Connect the dots.

How do we live in contrast to a society that selectively rewards those who already have plenty, while leaving the needy to fend for themselves? Remember Paul’s solution to the troubles at Corinth. Connect the dots.

Connect the dots. Connect them carefully, patiently, and most of all humbly. But keep on connecting the dots . . .


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