Are We Taking the Eucharist Unworthily?
A Reflection on the Social Situation at Corinth
By Lawrence Garcia, pastor, Academia Church
It’s that time in the service again. The lights dim, the music almost hesitant, and the preacher’s voice quibbles with reverence saying, “Whoever eats this bread and drinks this cup in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body of our Lord”. Yup, it’s monthly communion. And that phrase usually sets off a chain-reaction of introspection, guilt, and despair dividing the room down the middle between the ones who were out sinning the previous night and the ones that had too many obligations to sin that night. Now is it me or does Jesus appear somewhat bi-polar between freely seeking and accepting sinners and then judging us at his table when we accept the invite? Is this a trap? What happened in between Amazing Grace and the Eucharist that we have now become susceptible to death and judgment?
It is my estimation that what has actually occurred in between Jesus’ recorded inclusivity and the modern Eucharist is too much time and distance from the actual social situation that inspired Paul to pen such seemingly gospel-contradictory words. Thus, without understanding the social values of the ancient Greco-Roman world, not least in Corinth, we impose our modern introspection onto what Paul was trying to convey. It then becomes vital that we place these verses in their appropriate social context in order to clear up the blatant contradiction that exists between our hymns of grace and our subsequent exclusion at the Lord’s Supper. Therefore, in order to clarify the actual situation at Corinth we will examine the verse that follows the statement above as this is where Paul qualifies what “unworthy manner” is:
“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.” (11:28-29, ESV)
This much is assured: that a form of reflection prior to participation is required of the Corinthians before participating at the Table. But what exactly are they to reflect upon? The following verse gives us the answer: as to whether or not they are “discerning the Lord’s body”. First, this should remove much of the personal element that has become common place at the Eucharist because the reflection called for by the Apostle is not about us qua sinners as much as it’s about us discerning "the Lord’s body." Second, that the key to the puzzle remains in how Paul defines “the body” throughout the Corinthian letter itself:
“The BREAD that we break, is it not a participation in the BODY of Christ? Because there is one BREAD, we who are many are ONE BODY, for we all partake of the ONE BREAD.” (10:16-17)
“For just as the BODY is one and has many members, and all the members of the BODY, though many, are ONE BODY, so it is with CHRIST.” (12:12)
Throughout the letter Paul has been identifying the participants of the bread/meal as constituting the very body of Jesus itself. The same line of thought is witnessed in Acts when the risen Jesus charges the Pharisee Saul who has been persecuting the nascent Christian-sect with “persecuting ME (i.e. Jesus himself)”. Thus, Paul is criticizing the more honorable in the community at Corinth for not being concerned for the welfare of their brothers and sisters of lesser social status who by sharing in the bread of the Eucharist are mysteriously the very body of Jesus. This is why Paul charges them with being “guilty of the body… of our Lord”; it is as if the honorable in Corinth were the very Roman guards who mercilessly scourged and shamed Jesus’ body at his trial. This makes sense of the context which states:
“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.”
This is not to be whittled down to bad table manners, but is actually the Corinthians adopting the wider-cultural practices as witnessed in the Hellenistic Meal where seating arrangements, food and drink served, and quality of portions were determined according to one’s social status. Latin poet Martial, contemporary of Paul states:
“Since I am asked to dinner… why is not the same dinner served to me as to you? You take oysters fattened in the Lucrine lake, I suck a mussel through a hole in the shell; you get mushrooms, I take hog funguses; you tackle turbot, but I brill. Golden with fat, a turtle-dove gorges you with its bloated rump; there is set before me magpie that has died in its cage. Why do I recline with you, although Ponticus I am dinning with you”
Small wonder Paul states “this is not the Lord’s supper”; a brief scan through the Gospels illustrates that Jesus allowed all and sundry to eat at his table as EQUAL MEMBERS in the kingdom—poor, diseased, female, and prostitute alike! The Corinthians in their blatant disregard for the less honorable among them in order to cater to the more well-to-do had partaken in “an unworthy manner”, guilty of mistreating the body of Jesus. They were now on trial for the maltreatment of the Son of God along with Pilate, Caiaphas, and Herod. What Paul saw spiritually was as an arrogant-merriment which left a thirsty Jesus on the cross as witnessed in their thirsty brethren.
Thus on one hand, we should cast-off the chains of guilt, unworthiness, and despair which so often cloud the joyous feast we call the Eucharist and begin dinning with the Lord who delights to sit next to sinners. On the other, as we approach the open Table our concerns should be that our needy, helpless, and marginalized brothers and sisters are provided for and honored as the greatest among us. It is when this is accomplished that Jesus will say to us, “For I was hungry and you gave ME food, I was thirsty and you gave ME something to drink, I was a stranger and you took ME in, I was naked and you gave ME clothing, I was sick and you took care of ME, I was in prison and you visited ME.”
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