Eucharist and solidarity: reading 1 Corinthians 11.17-34 with John Howard Yoder

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October 25, 2013 by jmar198013

Now I don’t praise you as I give the following instruction because when you meet together, it does more harm than good. First of all, when you meet together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and I partly believe it. It’s necessary that there are groups among you, to make it clear who is genuine. So when you get together in one place, it isn’t to eat the Lord’s meal. Each of you goes ahead and eats a private meal. One person goes hungry while another is drunk. Don’t you have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you look down on God’s churches and humiliate those who have nothing? What can I say to you? Will I praise you? No, I don’t praise you in this.

I received a tradition from the Lord, which I also handed on to you: on the night on which he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread. After giving thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this to remember me.” He did the same thing with the cup, after they had eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Every time you drink it, do this to remember me.” Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you broadcast the death of the Lord until he comes.

This is why those who eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord inappropriately will be guilty of the Lord’s body and blood. Each individual should test himself or herself, and eat from the bread and drink from the cup in that way. Those who eat and drink without correctly understanding the body are eating and drinking their own judgment. Because of this, many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few have died. But if we had judged ourselves, we wouldn’t be judged. However, we are disciplined by the Lord when we are judged so that we won’t be judged and condemned along with the whole world. For these reasons, my brothers and sisters, when you get together to eat, wait for each other. If some of you are hungry, they should eat at home so that getting together doesn’t lead to judgment. I will give directions about the other things when I come. (1 Cor. 11.17-34 CEB)

Due to various abstract debates about the meaning and practice of the Lord’s Supper, something of its original logic has been lost to the ages. Notice, in this famous passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, what is at stake–or better, what is not at stake. It is not a debate about transubstantiation and the elements. It is not a debate about who is permitted to preside at Eucharist. It is not even, as some in my own heritage in the Churches of Christ have contended, Paul forbidding kitchens in church buildings (an incredibly anachronistic reading, as there were no “church buildings” back then). Rather, what is at stake is the very witness of the church. Paul insists that whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you broadcast the death of the Lord until he comes. Now, this broadcasting of Jesus’ death is a given. It’s not a matter of we do Eucharist right and Jesus’ death is proclaimed; we do it poorly and his death is silenced. That’s not what Paul says. We do communicate Christ’s death in the Eucharist, and it is a word spoken either faithfully and truthfully; or it is a word that frustrates and betrays the death of Christ. Paul’s criticism of the Corinthian church is that their meals are not really of the Lord, because they are not faithful to his passion. Jesus did not die, Paul is saying, so that we can humiliate those who have nothing. When in the church conditions obtain such that one person goes hungry while another is drunk, this is an insult to the memory of Christ. No worse–it is a sinful forgetfulness, rather than a faithful remembering, of Jesus. That is not how things were done at the table Jesus sat for his disciples and friends–and table fellowship was a central component of Jesus’ ministry, according to the Gospels. So the fundamental logic of the Lord’s table, according to what Paul is saying here, is a logic of social and economic solidarity. Now in the church today, we do not usually see things this way. Even in fellowships where landmines related to the nature of the elements or how many cups to use during the Lord’s Supper have been sidestepped, the theology behind it is often anemic, and in practice it becomes an event of individualistic piety. Now it is true that Paul instructed that each individual should test himself or herself, and eat from the bread and drink from the cup in that way. But look at that instruction in the broader context of Paul’s argument there. Paul is instructing the Corinthians, rather than discriminate against the poor of the church and look down on them, to turn their discriminating judgements upon the poverty of their own lives. Far from making the Lord’s Supper an expression of individual piety that we just happen to perform in concert with others, Paul meant by these words to enrich the soil of solidarity in the churches. This is why Paul follows up by instructing the Corinthians when you get together to eat, wait for each other. Such waiting communicates that we value our brothers and sisters. It broadcasts our solidarity in the crucified Lord.


Why do we not see it this way? Mostly because we have read this passage anachronistically. Perhaps we read it in light of controversies about the elements between Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation. Or perhaps it is because we read it with local controversies, such as the number of cups required or whether to have a kitchen in our church building, in mind. John Howard Yoder, however, rightly locates the meaning of of this passage in Paul’s recourse to the actual words of Jesus: This is my body, which is for you; do this to remember me . . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Every time you drink it, do this to remember me. When did Jesus speak these words? During the final Passover meal he celebrated with his disciples (cf. Luke 22, esp. vv 19-20; cf. John 6.54). Yoder observes:

What were they to do in his memory? It can’t mean, “Whenever you celebrate the mass” or “the Lord’s Supper”: there was then no such thing as “the mass” or “the Lord’s Supper” . . . Jesus might have meant, “remember me whenever you celebrate the Passover,” but that is not what his hearers evidently took him to mean. Jews in his day, as in ours, celebrated the Passover once a year. The meal just before Jesus’ death was in a Passover setting, but what the disciples did in his memory was not a once-a-year-event.

What Jesus must have meant, and what the record indicates that his first followers took him to mean, was, “whenever you have your common meal.” (Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1992, 2001. 14-16)

Now some two millennia of church history separates us from the events recorded in the NT. We tend to be attached to our understandings of the Lord’s Supper, and defensive when those assumptions are challenged. In my own fellowship, I have actually heard preachers and teachers try to explain how 1 Corinthians 11, far from presupposing a common meal as the appropriate Eucharistic setting, was actually Paul instructing the Corinthians not to consume the Lord’s Supper in the context of a common meal. However, this explanation strains the bonds of interpretation to the point of breaking. He doesn’t say, “stop having common meals”; he says, rather, “When you have these common meals, don’t satiate yourselves while excluding the poor.” Paul’s warning that, when you get together in one place, it isn’t to eat the Lord’s meal, does not mean that its being a common meal makes it not the Lord’s Supper. What makes it not the Lord’s Supper is how they are treating the poorer members. Jesus would not have excluded his friends from getting a just share of the food at his table; thus to so act betrays the meal, and worse, betrays Jesus. 

In fact, it is quite easy to follow a clear trajectory from Jesus’ practice of table fellowship with disciples to the practice of table fellowship (including Eucharist) among the earliest Christians. Table fellowship was a crucial facet of Jesus’ ministry (cf. Mark 2.15-22 and parallels; 6.35-44 and parallels; 7.1-23 and parallels; 14.3-9 and parallels; Luke 7.36-50; 10.38-40; 14.1-4; 15.1-2; 19.1-10; John 2.1-11). This practice of table fellowship continues on even after Jesus’ death and resurrection. For instance, in both Luke 24.36-43 and John 21.11-14, the risen Christ appears to his disciples and shares a meal of fish with them. Yoder also points out one of the more theologically pregnant post-resurrection accounts of Jesus, his appearance to two disciples on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24.13-32):

The disciples on the way to Emmaus did not recognize the person who had joined them on the road, talked with them, and reprimanded them for not knowing the scriptures better. They did not identify him until they sat at table and he took over naturally his old role of thanking God for the bread (24:30). Only then did they know who he was. (16)

Further, Jesus’ ascension occurred just after Jesus and his disciples had finished a meal together (Acts 1.4). This practice of common meals, which Jesus had fostered among his followers, obtained in the early church, and indeed, was a crucial identity marker for them (so Acts 2.42-46). These common meals are often translated rather literally in our Bibles as “the breaking of bread.” Again, in my own fellowship, we have often used Acts 20.7 as a proof-text for why we celebrate the Lord’s Supper on Sunday, and only on Sunday: And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them (AV). But this passage is not referring to the Eucharist as a distinct act, a set-apart ritual meal; reading it in light of Acts 2.42-46, and Jesus’ regular practice of eating with his disciples, the implication is that the disciples had gathered for just such table fellowship. This shared eating, table fellowship, fostered a holy social and economic solidarity within the church. Yoder asserts that:

Only because that meal [the breaking of bread mentioned in Acts 2.42-46] was at the center of their life together could it extend into the formation of economic community: “no one claimed for his own use anything that he had” (4:32). The “common purse” of the Jerusalem church was not a purse; it was a common table. It arose not as the fruit of speculation or discussion about ideal economic conditions; it was not something added to what was already going on. The sharing was rather the normal, organic extension from table fellowship. Some of the first Jerusalem believers sold their estates voluntarily . . . because in the Lord’s presence they ate together; not the other way around. (16-17)

This concept of table fellowship as an agent for economic and social solidarity, incidentally, reappears throughout Acts. For instance, the organizational change in the Jerusalem church that brings hellenized Jews into positions of prominence was occasioned by the need to ensure equitable distribution of bread to hellenized widows (Acts 6). The famous apostolic council of Acts 15 is really about hammering out conditions for table fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians; note the dietary focus of the decision made by the council: Gentile Christians are instructed to refuse food offered to idols, not to consume blood, and not to eat the meat from strangled animals (Acts 15.29; cf. 15.20). So what we have in the Gospels and in Acts is this expanding movement of table fellowship. Jesus and his disciples share a common table; Jesus opens that table to people deemed unworthy or unclean by society–the poor, the outcast, lepers, “sinners.” And this creates an economic and social solidarity. It creates an alternative family, really. So what began as sharing a table extends to creating a common household. It leads to sharing in other areas. And it leads to an openness to welcoming others to that table, into that growing household. That’s what we’re seeing in Acts 6 and Acts 15–the church opening itself to the presence first of Jews from outlying areas, and then to Gentiles. So this meal that Jesus has established provides the grounds for peace, for a social cohesion and sharing appropriate to a household. This significance of the Lord’s Supper, which we have unfortunately attenuated into a ceremony, is more or less lost on the church of today.

Apparently, it had also been lost on the Corinthians, and this brings us back to 1 Corinthians 11. Again, Yoder:

Most of the requests for guidance [to which Paul responds in 1 Corinthians] have to do with table fellowship: with meat that had been offered to idols (Chapters 8 and 10) and with class-segregated tables (Chapter 11). If their meal failed to reflect the overcoming of social stratification, Paul told the Corinthians that the participants would be celebrating their own condemnation (11:29). In celebrating their fellowship around the table, the early Christians testified that the messianic age, often pictured as a banquet, had begun [cf. Isa. 25.6-9] . . . Bread eaten together is economic sharing. Not merely symbolically, but also in fact, eating together extends to a wider circle the economic solidarity normally obtained in the family . . . [Acts 4:34] “There was not a needy person among them . . . [was] probably meant . . . as an echo of Deuteronomy 15:4: “There will be . . . no one in need among you . . . In short, the Eucharist is an economic act. To do rightly in the practice of breaking bread together is a matter of economic ethics . . .  The newness of the believing community is the promise of the newness on the way for the world . . . [I]t demands some kind of sharing, advocacy, and partisanship in which the poor are privileged and in which considerations of merit and productivity are subjected to the rule of servanthood . . . [In] 1 Corinthians 11, the Lord’s Supper provides ritual leverage for the condemnation of economic segregation. Its context is good news and the work of Christ, which is being experienced already in its first fruits. The grounds for equalization is . . . the beginning fulfillment of the promises of the messianic age. (18-22)

That the Corinthians had failed to grasp this significance within the Lord’s Supper–that it was an occasion for solidarity in fulfillment of messianic promises, grounded in the work of Christ–was what irked Paul so badly. It was as if the Corinthians represented a church in regress. In contrast to the church described in Acts 2 and 4, there were needy Christians at Corinth. In contrast to the church in Acts 6, where they made sure that social and economic segregation were erased so that the poor could be fed, the church at Corinth perpetuated the segregation and let the poor go hungry. In contrast to the grace they had received from Jesus (and the Jewish Christians) that allowed them a place at the table in the first place, the Corinthians were careless in their table fellowship. They did not extend this grace to their poor members, and in fact behaved in ways that humiliated the poor. So that’s what is happening in 1 Corinthians 11.17-34. Again, what is at stake is the witness of the church–instead of modeling a new way to the world based on God’s promises, they bought into the world’s status quo.

The problem with the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11 is that it failed to challenge the assumptions of an old, decaying world with the promises of new things. Rather than embodying the solidarity of a diverse household sharing around a table set by Jesus, the practice of the Lord’s Supper in Corinth simply reinforced the social and economic assumptions of the age. Christ’s death was thereby broadcast unfaithfully: their failed practice of the Lord’s Supper communicated to the world that Jesus was just alright with business as usual.

Does our sharing of the Lord’s Supper today challenge the politics–the social and economic assumptions–of the world? Or does our observation of the Lord’s Supper suggest, by its quiescent piety,  a stamp of divine approval on the way things are in our world?


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