Just imagine the shock as 1 Corinthians chapter 11 was read out loud on Sunday morning in ancient Corinth. Verse 17: “In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good.” “More harm than good”. In other words, the world would be a better place if you weren’t meeting together. Ouch.
What were they doing? They were holding services of Holy Communion, the biblical name for which is the Lord’s Supper.
How could Communion do more harm than good? Read on. Verse 20: “So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat.”
On the face of it, it is the Lord’s Supper they eat. Any observer would report that a service of Communion had taken place. It featured bread, wine and the words of Jesus.
But something in the way they did it meant that wasn’t actually what they were doing. Communion wasn’t taking place at all.
I doubt it occurs to many modern day Christians that you could have a service that, on paper, is a service of Communion. And yet in God’s eyes no such thing has taken place.
So we need to understand what could turn an externally correct Communion service into something that would be better if it hadn’t happened.
Sharing the bread and wine of Communion baffles many people who are not Christians. Quite a few Christians have never really paused to understand what we’re doing either. So here’s a chance to understand what Communion is really all about. To make sure we really are doing what we think we’re doing.
Communion is all about the body of Christ. That’s the “body of Christ” in two senses – it all turns on a pun.
So let me tell you two things about Christ’s body that are central to Communion.
Christ’s body died on the cross
First, Christ’s body died on the cross. Christ’s body died on the cross.
In verse 23, Paul recalls the words and actions of Jesus.
He’s referring to the last supper, the meal Jesus and his disciples shared the night before he died. That was a Passover meal.
1500 years earlier, God had rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. The night before he did so, they ate a special meal of roasted lamb. God’s people must never forget God’s rescue. So God told them to repeat that meal each year. They remembered his rescue with a communal meal, and that meal re-enacts part of God’s rescue.
When Jesus shared that memorial meal with his disciples, he redefined some of the symbols.
First, the bread no longer commemorates their rescue from Egypt Instead he said this, verse 24: “This is my body, which is for you”.
The little word translated “for” means “on behalf of”. The bread represents Jesus’ body. It was broken for them. On their behalf. Jesus died on the cross so that we don’t have to.
You meet some friends at a restaurant for dinner. It’s a buffet – pay £6.99 then help yourself. They arrive first. You arrive and go to the till to pay for your helping. An arm on your shoulder, and one of your friends says: “It’s OK. We’ve already paid for you”.
None of us lives as God wants. We’re not perfect. By rights, God should punish us. As we look ahead to the day of judgement, we expect to pay the price for all the wrong things we’ve done. Only, if we’re Christians, we won’t have to. Jesus has paid for us, by surrendering his own body on the cross.
And as we come to Communion, we repeat those words from the last supper. “This is my body, which is for you.” We remember what Jesus did 2000 years ago. And as we hear those words and eat the bread, Jesus puts his arm on our shoulder. “It’s OK. I’ve already paid for you.”
That’s the bread. Then the wine at the end of the meal. Verse 25: “In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”
The wine represents Jesus’ blood. Jesus says it seals the new covenant.
A covenant is a binding agreement. We might say “contract”, which is close. In Old Testament times, covenants were sealed in blood, animal blood.
The people of Israel became God’s people. God made a covenant with them. He would be their God who would look after them. They would give him their love and loyalty. He did this at the foot of Mount Sinai, having given them his law.
The trouble is, they broke God’s laws. They broke the covenant. So God promised a new covenant that would never be broken.
Please turn to Jeremiah chapter 31. It’s page 794. I’m going to read verses 31-34.
The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, declares the Lord. This is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.
It's a wonderful promise. God will change our hearts so that we love him from the core of our beings. Everyone, whatever their rank, will know God. And it’s all built on the forgiveness of our sins.
That new covenant would also need a sacrifice to bring it into effect. Blood would have to be shed.
The stunning and wonderful thing Jesus announced at the last supper was that he was about to do just that. “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”
When Jesus died on the cross, he did something wonderful. He died instead of us. So we could be forgiven. So God can make a new covenant, have us as his special people. What he did never needs to be repeated. His death is sufficient to forgive his people’s sins all down the ages. His death is sufficient to form the new covenant people of God all down the ages.
We need to remember him.
The Jews remembered God’s rescue from Egypt by sharing a meal that re-enacts elements of that rescue. And so do we. We hear these same words read out. We break bread and share it. We pour our wine, and drink it. We do this in memory of Jesus.
Communion is all about Christ’s body.
Christ’s body died on the cross.
Christ’s body eats together
But there’s more going on with the body of Christ at the Lord’s Supper than just that.
Number 2: Christ’s body eats together. Christ’s body eats together.
It’s time to ask what they were doing wrong. Paul tells us in verse 18: “In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it.”
What did those divisions look like in practice? Verse 21: “For when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk.”
They were sharing the Lord’s Supper in the context of a meal. Here’s how they were divided: Some were having their own private suppers. Verse 22 tells us that this is to despise those who have nothing. So the rich members of the church were feasting, while the poor were going away starving.
It’s not clear quite how this happened. Maybe the rich brought their own food, and ate it in front of those who had nothing to bring. Perhaps they got there first and were being given the best portions. Either way, they stuffed their faces while others went hungry. Paul says that this despises the church. Verse 22: “Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing?”
If they wanted a sumptuous meal, they could have had one at home. Instead, they rub the noses of the poorer members of the church in their misfortune. They hijack a church family meal with a display of their own wealth.
A moment ago, we said that Jesus’ death does two things – it brings forgiveness and it establishes the new covenant so that we are God’s people. The Corinthians have missed the second of those. They’ve missed the fact that the death of Jesus has turned them into the family of God.
Verse 29 says that they ear eating and drinking “without discerning the body of Christ”. You might think he’s still talking about Jesus’ physical body, the one that died on the cross. He isn’t. Everywhere else in this passage, he mentions “body and blood”. They come as a pair. Here, it’s just the “body” that they are missing.
He’s anticipating the language we’ll get in chapter 12, when Paul talks about the church. So here’s chapter 12, verses 12 and 13: “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body.”
The Christian church is a body. It’s Christ’s body. We belong together. We’re family. This is what they’re missing.
Imagine I brought this chocolate bar to church, and ate it from the front. Like this. … And imagine I didn’t have ones to share with everybody else. That would be outrageous. If I did it during an all-age service, there’d be an uproar.
We’re having our annual BBQ next month. Imagine that we said that everyone who comes can have burgers, sausages and chicken legs. But families who give over £1000 a year to the church can also have steaks, salmon and duck. And they go to the front of the queue and eat first. That would be awful. Now imagine that only those generous families got any food provided – others had to bring their own.
The Corinthians are missing the fact that the group of people at this meal is not any old group. It’s the body of Christ.
That’s the second way that Christ’s body is central to what we do at Communion. Christ’s body died on the cross. Christ’s body eats together.
Communion is about Christ’s body in both senses
Let’s begin to think through what this means for us today as we have Communion services.
The important thing is that Communion is about Christ’s body in both senses.
Going back to the picture of an unkind BBQ. The Corinthian church was doing that – at a meal which was also the occasion for the Lord’s Supper.
By treating members of the church in that way, they were actually undermining the very thing the Supper stands for. The Lord’s Supper is a way of expressing the fact that Jesus died to make a people for himself. You cannot celebrate that in a way that despises those very people.
And God treats this extremely seriously Here’s verse 30: “That is why many among you are weak and ill, and a number of you have fallen asleep.” There’s been an epidemic of sickness. Some of the Corinthian Christians have died. The Corinthian church is under God’s judgement. And God is not pleased.
Some people think that it always does you good to come to Communion, to eat the bread, to drink the wine. Actually, it’s not automatically good for you. It’s never neutral, mind. But in this case, it did them more harm than good. The way they did things spoke volumes about what they thought of Jesus. You could see what they thought of Jesus by the way they treated his body, the church. And it was clear that they despised Jesus. Because they despised his church.
So God was not pleased. Communion is not magical. It’s about relating. It’s about relating to Jesus. The bread stands for his body. The wine stands for his blood. The people around you are his body. They are his flesh and blood. As you come to Communion you are making your response to Jesus.
The question is whether that encounter with Jesus will do you good or harm. It will be good or bad depending on how you treat him. How you relate to him.
Here was the Corinthians’ problem. They were eating something that represented Christ’s body, but without recognising their fellow Christians as Christ’s body.
If you eat Christ’s body, but don’t recognise that you’re doing it with Christ’s body, then that’s a bad thing. As Paul says, you eat and drink judgement on yourself. Judgement, rather than blessing.
Communion is about Christ’s body, in both senses.
Challenges us in several ways
Whether you’re here as someone still looking into the Christian faith, or whether you’re a Christian who receives Communion regularly, hopefully that helps us all understand a little more clearly what we’re doing.
As we see the Corinthians get this wrong, there are a number of lessons for us today. I’d like to draw out 4 of them.
Firstly, Communion’s not just about “me and God”. The Corinthians made this clear by having Communion in the context of a wider meal. But even without that, it’s celebrating both the body of Jesus that died on the cross and the body of Jesus seated around you.
Yet for many of us, it’s a moment when we close our eyes, and try to conjure up a certain set of feelings. Other people only come into it if they somehow intrude in our thoughts, interrupt our little moment with God.
But that’s not right. The other people around you are as much the point as the bread and wine. They are as much Christ’s body, his flesh and blood, as the bread and wine. This is an opportunity to catch someone’s eye, to share encouragements – it’s something we do together. As a family. As a body.
Second, how I relate to other members of the church matters. It really matters.
If things are out of sorts, I need to fix that before I come to Communion.
Now, please note: Paul does not say that you should absent yourself from Communion. Not at all. If your relationship with other Christians here is not healthy, you don’t solve that by not receiving Communion. You solve that by fixing the relationship, and then coming to Communion.
This is why many churches have a time before Communion to share the peace. People often treat this as a chance to greet your friends. It’s not about that at all. Jesus death has made us one body. It’s a chance to celebrate that, and to patch up any relationships that need patching so that we can receive the bread and the wine – together.
Third, in particular, how we treat members of the church who are poorer really matters. Or members who might seem less deserving in any other way.
We don’t look down on each other. We don’t highlight our differences. We look out for each other.
And fourth, Communion is God’s gift to sinners.
Sometimes verse 27 is misunderstood. Here’s verse 27: “So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.”
Many people have heard that to say that they should have Communion if they’ve done things that are wrong. If they’re not “worthy”.
But now we’ve understood the context of that verse, we can see that’s not what it’s saying. To eat or drink in an unworthy manner is to fail to recognise our fellow Christians. It’s all the things we’ve been talking about.
It’s nothing to do with being sinful. If you’re aware of your sin, you need to repent of that. You need to turn away from the things you’re aware of that God says is wrong. But then you need to come and eat. This is a meal that Jesus left to reassure us of his love and forgiveness. It’s a way to reassure us that Jesus’ really did die on the cross. And that Jesus really has put us in this family.
It’s a meal for sinners.
Jesus left us a simple meal of bread and wine.
This is not something for us to ignore.
Neither is it something for us to do mindlessly.
Neither is it something superstitious or romantic that automatically does us good.
This meal is here for a reason. That reason is to strengthen the body of Christ.
It invites us to remember what Jesus did for us when he died on the cross for us. By being that, it strengthens our ties to Jesus, who is now in heaven.
It also draws us together as a church family. And by doing that, it strengthens our ties with one another, to the body of Christ, his church on earth.
So when we come to that part of our service, come! Eat and drink. Together.