The Corinthian Correspondence, Part 21: 1 Corinthians 11:17-34; "Approaching God in Unity: The Lord's Supper"
The Corinthian Correspondence, Part 21; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 Approaching God in Unity: The Lord's Supper One of the main reasons the church of Jesus Christ comes together on Sunday mornings is to observe The Lord's Supper. This one event, more than any other, showcases evangelism and unity. There is a vertical component to the Lord's Supper: Jesus said, "Eat this bread. Drink from this cup. Do this to remember me." Over the years, we have institutionalized the ritual. Many groups of people have some strange understandings of the Lord's Supper. Some for example believe that the elements actually turn into the body and blood of Jesus. After all, Jesus said, "this is my body. This is my blood." We at Grace United see what Jesus said as a figure of speech. When he said, "this is my body. This is my blood," we don't think the elements actually turn into Jesus. Christ is exalted to the right hand of the Father, making intercession for us. What we do when we observe the Lord's Supper is to do what Jesus said, "remember me." That's the vertical part. But there is a significant part of the Lord's Supper that we tend to gloss over-what I call the horizontal component of this observance. It is wrapped up in another word we use when talking about the Lord's Supper: "Communion." It literally means the condition of union. Today, we are going to dive into this horizontal aspect of the Lord's Supper. Why is that? Because it is primarily what Paul had in mind in our passage for today. The word of God is amazingly contemporary, did you know that? I continue to be amazed at how the timeless pastoral advice, perspective and authority that 1 Corinthians contains has informed us how to live in 2020. For several weeks, we talked about Paul's counsel regarding food sacrificed to idols. We applied this truth to all things Covid. And we discovered that God's truth for us is that what we individually believe about covid is irrelevant. What God cares most about is how we as brothers and sisters in Christ treat one another in the midst of this issue, especially when we differ in our opinions. Like so many times in this letter, Paul hits disunity among the Corinthians from many directions. Let's never forget what Jesus prayed for the night before he was crucified. Though he never experienced all the horror and hellishness that he knew awaited him the next day, what was uppermost on his mind in his prayer to his Father was not his suffering, though there was obviously some of that. What was uppermost in the mind and heart of our Lord was the unity of his people, the church, down through the ages. Hear again, for the first time Jesus' prayer for his disciples in John 17. In v.11 Jesus prays for his 11 disciples with this request: Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me that they may be one, even as we are one. And in vv.20-23, we hear him praying for the disciples from the first day until now: "I do not ask for these only-the 11, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. As we know, there's more going on in the world than Covid. There is also this issue of racism, which has raised its ugly head--again. Only this time, it has taken on a much more violent tone. That is probably the understatement of the year. And like Covid, the racism issue has a lot of info swirling around it. We will weigh in on this issue as we seek to apply our passage for today toward the end of the message. I am convinced there are few passages in Scripture that can be applied more directly to this issue of racism than the passage that is before us today, 1 Corinthians 11:17-24. Remember though, what is going on here. Two weeks ago we began our mini-series of how to approach God corporately, all together, in a way that would please him. As we saw in Isaiah there were times he actually rejected the offerings of worship of his own people. He said in Isaiah 1, things like "I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly." "Your appointed feasts my soul hates." "I will not listen to your prayers even if you make many of them." I do find it fascinating, though how God tells his people that he will accept their worship when they repent of their sins of injustice and oppression. Listen to Isaiah 1:17, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause. Two weeks ago, God through Paul told the Corinthians, and us by extension that women and men are different. Though we are all made in the image of God, he commands men and women to worship in different ways: women are to pray or prophesy with their head covered in corporate worship, and men are to pray or prophesy with their heads uncovered. Remember how we introduced a lot of the cultural aspects in this passage and when we took the culture into account, it made a lot more sense than if we didn't understand what the Corinthians took for granted in their culture. Remember how Paul commended them for remembering the traditions he introduced them to. Paul was finally happy! They did OK in this one area, worshiping the Lord, observing and celebrating the God given distinctions he gave us as men and women. Last week for Fathers' day, brother Greg preached a powerful word from the Lord, and I want to give thanks to him for delivering the message the Lord laid on his heart. Today we continue to deal with worshiping the Lord in a way that he will accept. As I mentioned, we are going to talk about the Lord's Supper. I'm sure you cannot miss some dirty dishes on the table here. This is by design. And hopefully it will make sense when we dive into the culture behind this passage. And so this morning, I want us to do something super easy--forget much about what we have learned about the Lord's Supper. I'm afraid that we, myself included, attached a lot of baggage to this most incredible event, and most of the baggage is on the vertical, spiritual level. As I mentioned there is another level, that is just as important--the horizontal or social level. What we want to do today is to simply read through these verses with a few comments along the way. Then I want to give the back story and seek to tie it together. Finally, as mentioned, I will seek to apply the truth of this passage to our current iteration of racism. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34: But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also he took the cup, 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. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another-if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home-so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come. Very familiar passage of Scripture. We repeat some of these words every time we observe the Lord's Supper. Even today. We examine our lives while waiting for the elements to arrive. Some of us confess our sins. Some of us harboring sin in our lives let the elements pass. We wait for one another. We eat the bread-or gluten free crackers. We drink the cup-and now fiddle with the wrapping lest we spill the juice. And another experience of the Lord's Table is complete. But there is a cultural backstory we need to appreciate. Let me attempt to give it. First, Paul does not commend them for the way they observe the Lord's Table. He brings up the issue of "necessary factions" among them. Here Paul points out their insistence that the Corinthian believers still hold onto the cultural memes of the day, that the presence of divisions-distinctions of social class--somehow proves who are genuine. But remember how often Paul chided them of disunity. "Leaders will rise to the top" is the idea here. So, in this showcase event of their time together--the Lord's Supper-Paul once again chides them. Now picture the cultural background with me. The vast majority of the churches were held in homes, usually large ones. Their Sunday worship was pretty informal and always included a meal. Sometime during the meal the Lord's table was observed--eating the bread and drinking the cup. Sometimes they observed the Lord's Table before their meal, sometimes in the middle of it and sometimes after. Picture also that the Corinthians in that city considered Sunday truly as just another day. Many worked jobs but some were of the upper crust who had a lot of time on their hands. The ones with a lot of time on their hands were often the owners of the houses the churches met in. Every house was pretty standard, and included a dining room with pillows and small table, enough to hold about 10. There were other rooms and even an outdoor courtyard where everybody else got together. During their meal, the owner of the house ate in the dining room of course, along with several of his close friends in the church-who usually who had a lot of time on their hands as well. They showed up at the beginning of the festivities. But other members of the congregation, about 40-50, or even more, came when they could. And when the meal was served, the meal was served, whether everybody was there or not. Remember what I said about when the Lord's Supper was observed? It was various times during the meal. So, those who were there when the meal was served, and the Lord's Supper was observed got to eat and observe the Lord's Supper. Those who arrived late, for whatever reason were able to eat what was left-if anything was left. And that included the elements of the Lord's Table. Such was the life of close fellowship of the Corinthian believers. Upon hearing this report of how the meals and the Lord's Supper are handled, Paul corrects them sharply. In the midst of class distinctions, of the haves and have nots, Paul reminds them of exactly what the Lord said and did when they observed the Lord's Supper. Jesus said, "I give you this bread. Remember me when I am crucified for you tomorrow. I give you this cup. Remember me when I shed my blood for your sins tomorrow." Paul told them in no uncertain terms, "brothers and sisters! You have bought into the meme of the day that says class distinctions are the norm. Stop it! You claim to worship the Lord who gave himself for your sins. Some of you see yourselves as better than others in the church. But Jesus died for all of you. Even Peter, the one who would deny him. But you guys don't consider yourselves as equals, unified around Jesus. Watch out Corinthians! When you observe the Lord's Table, examine yourselves-make sure that you consider yourselves on level ground around the cross of Jesus, along with the rest of your brothers and sisters. See, Corinthians, when you devour your own dinner, you fail to treat every person in the congregation as your equal, and you dishonor the one who does not have anything to eat. You declare him or her as less than you. And Jesus is not pleased. He gave his life as symbolized by the bread and cup. He wants you to share your food with everybody equally. Because you don't do this, some of you have experienced the Lord's judgment. He has actually allowed death to come to some of you! So, my brothers and sisters, wait till everybody gets there before you eat. Make sure everybody can participate in the Lord's Table. If you can't keep from showing off your upper classness, eat at home before you come to worship the Lord. And by the way, I will take care of the other matters when I get there." Sound like the typical Sunday morning service to you? Me neither! But that was reality in the 1st century. Remember, church buildings did not exist until a couple hundred years after Jesus went back to heaven. But what if Paul were to somehow observe Grace United and the way we experience our 5th Sunday fellowship? We observe the Lord's Supper before our meal. We wait for one another, giving everybody an opportunity to remember what the Lord has done for all of us. All of us are on equal footing around the cross of Jesus, whether one is well off, or in poverty. Regardless of what job we have, or not, if we are laid off or retired. Whether we are healthy or hobble to get here. All of us are equal. All of us are valued and loved by our Lord. And we demonstrate our value to one another regarding the Lord's Supper by waiting for one another. All of us partaking of the elements - together. What about the 5th Sunday Fellowship meal? What would Paul say about it? I think he would commend us there as well. As we know, if you leave one of our 5th Sunday fellowship dinners hungry, it is your own fault! And the vast majority of the time, people take food home! By the way, if you have in the past thought that you can't stay for the meal because you don't have something to share, please come anyway! As I just said, there is enough for you! In short, I think Paul would say "good job" about us in relation to the showcase event of why Grace United meets together, as I'm sure he would with many churches. And I want to say how much I look forward to our 5th Sundays and dinners together. There's nothing like conversation over a plate of good food where we begin to open up to one another, resulting in a deeper fellowship, which pleases the Lord. So, what can we make of today's message? Let me offer several application points, especially when it comes to the current iteration of racism in our country. As I mentioned, the current conversation of racism in our country is a lot more militant and at times, violent. In this passage we looked through a small window in the 1st century that showed discrimination was rampant in their day, just like in our day. The only difference is in the manifestation. In the 1st century, it was strictly economic. In their day, so much more honor was given to those in the upper class. You might be thinking "What's the difference between then and now? The rich and powerful are definitely upper class and honored more than we who are part of the unwashed masses." But the main difference is the honor / shame culture that meant everything to them. People would rather die than be dishonored. So, let's turn the corner and apply some of what we learned here to the racism struggle that is going on right now. The first application point is: As Christians, don't listen to what the cultural meme says. Don't bring the world's culture into the church. Today's cultural meme says that the church is guilty of the sin of racism, because it did not speak up when slavery was in full swing. The church, so the saying goes, used the Bible to justify slavery. And many of us in the church today, both white and black have bought the cultural meme and point the finger at white Christians. As a result many white Christians are trying to make amends for the sins of their ancestors. There is deep division among black and white human brothers and sisters, and even among some black and white Christians. And Satan, the real enemy, the one who seeks to steal, kill and destroy, laughs at us. But racism, or any sin, is not to be laid at the doorstep of the church. The church of Jesus Christ is not the issue. However, there are those who call themselves Christians who have influence and twist Scripture to their own ends. The truth is that so-called Christians are the problem, not the church of Jesus Christ. Remember how Paul dealt with a church member in an incestual relationship earlier in this letter: 1 Corinthians 5:12-13: For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. "Purge the evil person from among you." Are there some who claim to be Christians who have twisted Scripture to justify slavery in the past? Yes. But what does God call them? False converts and teachers. Down through the ages, until fairly recently, the understanding of the church and the cultural impact Christians can have on the world is that a Christian can believe the right things. But if he or she lives a wicked life, this person is considered a false convert or teacher. Hear me well. I'm not saying a Christian must live a perfect life. I'm saying that if a Christian's way of life contradicts what he or she believes, then that Christian is a false convert. So, the church and the world are different. The culture of the world is wicked and the church is supposed to make an impact on it. This is not always done well. But the church is not the cause of the world's ills, especially the sin of racism. Sin in the human heart is. And the human heart is capable of any kind of sin, to include justifying one's own behavior by perverting God's word. If anything, this present iteration of racism only highlights the truth of God's word in Jeremiah 17:9: The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? Speaking of Scripture, why did God give it to us? For God's people to understand and apply God's ways. It is not for the world to use to fix their problems. We know that the issue of justice is a biblical one. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a Christian tried to apply Scripture to civil rights and led the movement which has seen great strides toward healing the breach between blacks and whites in our country. But what happens when people dead in sins -- the vast majority of Americans -- try to apply divine wisdom to fix the social ills in their world? Very little success. Don't misunderstand. Should behavior be regulated? Absolutely. Police who murder those they are trying to protect should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Prosecution ought to be applied to those who break the other 9 of the Ten Commandments as well. But how many of them are broken every day and the law breakers go unpunished? Selective outrage, anybody? Strangely though, there are church leaders who seem to think that even the wicked, living in rebellion against God have tender hearts when it comes to things like justice and mercy, as I read in the testimony of a well-known pastor in preparing for this message. He said: "I am reminded in Micah 6:8 that this instinct for justice, this longing for justice and longing for mercy is built into our hearts by God." However, Micah 6:8 indicates that justice and mercy are foreign to our hearts. Here's how the verse reads: He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? If justice and mercy were naturally built in to our hearts, why would God need to tell us about justice and mercy? The Lord has given these things as gifts to us because we are his people. As I mentioned, our hearts, naturally, are wicked. We don't have a longing for justice and mercy when bad things happen to us. How often do we desire some kind of payback or revenge? So, the first application point is that the world and the church are different. The world is evil. The church and we who are in it, are holy. The second application point is we are not called to be the world's moral police. God has not called us to fix the world; we are called to be a witness to the world, to paint for them in living color what living under God's rule is all about. I have referred to the book called, "Endangered Gospel" over the last couple of years. The subtitle is "how fixing the world is killing the church." I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The author, John Nugent, emphasizes throughout that we spend so much time on trying to make the world a better place that we have neglected or outright denied the core reason why the Lord left us here instead of taking us to heaven after we become Christians. As we have said so often, the Lord has called us to do 3 things only: evangelize the lost, disciple the saved, live together in love and unity. Getting involved in important things, like trying to tear down the abortion industry, or running for office as a godly person are good. But they are not, as Nugent says, Kingdom work. These good things may help make the world a bit better, but again, the Lord has not called his bride to make the world better. He has called us as his bride to give testimony to the bridegroom who will return to rescue us one day and eradicate evil, like racism. The culture is evil and the church is holy. We are not called to fix the world but be a faithful witness to the world about Jesus Christ. The third application point is that the church of Jesus Christ must deal with discrimination within the church, not in the wider society. The primary reason for this is because there is no cure for racism to be found in the culture, just like there is no cure for any sin found in the culture. In the 1st century church, discrimination was present. James, who wrote the first letter to the church, talks about economic discrimination in his 2nd chapter. To sum up his point: "Suppose 2 men walk in to the assembly, 1 well dressed and one, not so well dressed. When you give special treatment to the one well dressed, you are sinning." Now, in their honor and shame culture, to be publically shamed because one wasn't well-dressed in a group of people who claimed to follow Jesus was a profoundly heart rending thing. Any kind of discrimination in the church, James says, is sin. In truth, discrimination has always been with us in some way shape or form since the earliest days of the church. Their 1st century economic discrimination is our 21st century racism. What I'm about to say may offend some. But it is truth that must be told. If our current iteration of racism is about black people being killed, then what about black on black crime? We can talk all day about the reasons this happens. But there is a lot of black on black crime. There is also police brutality in the culture. Are we to condone what a few wicked image bearers of God working in the police force have done to other image bearers of God? Not at all. On the other hand, are we to condemn all police because of a few? No. My point here is that regardless of one's shade of melanin, killing is killing. Period. The desire to have someone else die at their own hands comes from a wicked heart. Is there a cure for racism in our culture? No. Just like there is no cure for abortion, or corruption in government in our culture. The human heart--specifically an unregenerated heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick. Who can know it? No amount of reparations will make up for the pain for chattle slavery one group of people put upon another. And let's not forget it was not only Caucasians who owned people. Blacks also owned their fellow blacks. I am convinced that so many are guilty of selective outrage. If it was strictly a matter of people enslaving others, where is the outrage about those of all skin tones who are enslaved all around the world? And what about the entire industry called Planned Parenthood, established by Margret Sanger, who made it her goal to get rid those who were of a darker shade of melanin? Where are the PP clinics typically placed? In the inner cities. The only cure for racism in the church is to be found in forgiveness, when a person sins against a brother or sister in Christ. Only in Christ can we find forgiveness from God and the power to forgive others who have wronged us. The truth is, how many of us have not been wronged by others, and often times horribly abused at their hands? Can there be any full repayment for the damage done in your life for what has been done to you? Can you fully repay someone for the damage you have inflicted upon a fellow image bearer of God? I'm reminded of a radio preacher I heard the other day. He talked about Joseph, in the Old Testament and his ability to forgive his brothers. In the course of his message he said something to the effect, "Joseph forgave his brothers, that is true. But you and I will never be as evil to people as we are to God. And God offers us forgiveness of sins in Christ." There is not a cure for racism in our culture. But there is a cure for sin. It is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Only in Christ can we be changed from that of people with selfish dispositions, murderous attitudes to that of giving ourselves to others. Instead of killing others, Christians have the power and privilege to die to ourselves. My brothers and sisters, salvation in Christ is the only place where the cure for racism is to be found. Now that I have laid the ground for action, what do we do as Christians in regard to this present iteration of racism? Four things. First, believe what God says about who we are. All of us, regardless of our skin color are made in God's image and likeness. All of us are equal in God's eyes. And therefore we are all to see every person on the planet as equals. As the saying goes, "everyone puts their pants on the same way--one leg at a time." There is not one person who is better than another. This must be the conviction every Christian has toward every other human being, regardless of skin tone, nationality or lifestyle. All are equal. All are worthy of respect and dignity. Second, as Christians we stand before God as individuals and as part of the body of Christ. There are no "haves and have nots" when it comes to ourselves as members. Paul tells us that in Colossians 3:11, that in Christ's church--people he has called out from the world, there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Third, the gospel is the only avenue racial reconciliation can be done in any culture. So, the challenge of the church is not how we can join in with human institutions and society at large to defeat this sin. What we must do is to show the culture what living out the gospel in the church looks like. We are to show the world that there is a group of image bearers of God who can appreciate our differences, and recognize that we are equals--at the foot of the cross. Lastly, have the courage to call out people who try to twist Scripture and misapply it in ways it was never intended. Why and to whom was the Scripture written? It was written to God's people so that God's people could glorify him and edify one another. It was never given as a blueprint to fix the world. So, as we partake of the Lord's Supper, may we keep in mind both the vertical part-Christ giving himself for us-and the horizontal part-unity among us.