Three weeks ago Paul’s comments about food sacrificed to idols taught us some things about what we call The Lord’s Supper, or Communion. We learned that to take the bread and wine in faith is to enter into community with Jesus, to fellowship with him in a special way. It is also a special kind of communion or fellowship with other believers who take the bread and wine with us.
1 Corinthians 11:17-33 is also about the Lord’s Supper. As we get into this today, you might be tempted to think “Pastor Tom has some kind of bee in his bonnet about Communion. He’s really pushing this right now.” But that’s not accurate. If were up to me, I would not preach about Communion again so soon. However, this is one of the reasons I think it is important to preach through books of the Bible, passage by passage. When we go through the bible this way, I am not the one setting the agenda. I’m not thinking of some topic we ought to cover. In the same way, I am not following some theological group’s preaching plan for the “church year.” Instead, the Holy Spirit sets the agenda through the text of the Bible each week. And so, once more on the menu this week is some teaching about Communion. In obedience to the Holy Spirit, we’ll look at it, and see what He has to say about it this time.
In order to fully understand this passage, I want to remind you of the historical context. All Christians for the first 300 years after Jesus met in small groups in homes. Sometimes they had the use of a public meeting place also, like a rented room, or a synagogue. In the case of the Corinthians, the Christians had been violently expelled from the synagogue, and it is virtually certain that they met in the homes of church members. In those days, houses were not usually very large, and few, if any of the Corinthians were noble and wealthy (see 1:26). People would come to the houses to eat, celebrate communion, and then talk about the bible and pray. Communion was celebrated as part of the meal, as it was in the last Passover that Jesus held with his disciples.
In Corinth, the few wealthiest people would be there first, because they would have the most flexibility in their time. The poorer laborers almost certainly had to work until dark, and so came later. It was even harder for the slaves, who obviously would have had difficulty gaining the liberty to go to a church meeting. Those who were financially better off were likely the ones who provided the bulk of the food. They had an opportunity to show wonderful Christian love by providing a meal that their poorer fellow-Christians couldn’t normally afford. But what actually happened was that they started eating right away, and by the time the poorer folks and the slaves arrived, there was precious little left. Paul notes that some of the early-comers were even drunk by the time the latest arrived!
We already learned from 1 Corinthians 10:14-31 that communion is special connection with Jesus and with each other. It is one way in which God touches us with his grace. This way of conducting their meal did not reflect the communion that they had with each other, nor the full depth of the connection they had with Jesus through the Lord’s Supper. In a sense, they had begun to treat communion as if it were some little ceremony tacked on to the end of the meal, almost like a fortune cookie.
In verses 23-26, Paul reminds them of the words of Jesus. These are the words I say every time we celebrate communion. If you have celebrated the Christian Passover with us, you understand the context and meaning of these words better than 90% of Christians living today. It is conjecture, but it is a very good guess that it was a special piece of bread, the afikomen – the “bread of life” which Jesus broke and over which he spoke these words. After all, in John 6:35 Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” Through communion, Jesus is inviting us to feast our spirits on his life and presence.
Now, I need to make something clear at this point. Communion does not help anyone, does not actually accomplish anything unless it is received with faith in Jesus. It doesn’t just automatically work; it isn’t magic. Faith in Jesus, and in the bible’s words about what communion is, are essential. In fact, Paul says that even the Corinthians, who do trust Jesus, are doing more harm than good in celebrating communion, because they are so flippant and careless about it.
I want to dwell for a moment on Jesus’ words: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” A covenant is a solemn and binding agreement. In the ancient middle east, those types of agreements were sealed with blood. The idea was that a covenant was so important and binding that it was worth the very life of those who agreed to it. So they would sacrifice animals – shed blood – as a way of saying, “I pledge my own life, my own blood, to fulfilling this relationship we agree to today.” The animal sacrifice was a substitution – it was meant to represent the blood of the people who were pledging to the covenant.
In Genesis 15, God made a covenant with Abram. This was a special kind of covenant, made between a leader, and servant who pledged loyalty to that leader. The servant sacrificed several animals, and split them in half, making a little walkway between the pieces. Then the servant walked between them, as a symbolic way of saying, “may it be done to me as has been done to these animals, if this covenant between us fails.” But in the case of Abram, before he could walk between the pieces, God made him fall into a deep sleep, and he had a vision of a burning torch and smoking pot passing between the pieces. In Exodus, God represented his presence by a pillar of smoke and a pillar of fire. God was the one saying, “I will shed my own blood if this covenant between you, your descendants and me fails.”
That covenant did fail. Abraham’s descendants turned away from God and broke the covenant. When Jesus came to earth, and shed his blood, we was literally fulfilling the covenant between God and Abraham, and Abraham’s descendants. That is why the New Testament says that everyone who puts their trust in Jesus is a true spiritual descendant of Abraham. Jesus completed the covenant in his own blood. And in fulfilling the old covenant, he also ushered in the new one. With his own blood, he sealed a solemn and binding agreement to give eternal life and eternal relationship to those who trust in him. Communion is a reiteration of that covenant. It is a repetition and renewal of the pledge between God and us, sealed with the blood of God the Son.
And the Corinthians treated it like an after-thought at the end of some drunken carousing.
Paul says something else that is very significant. He says that in taking communion, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he returns. Communion is a proclamation of that covenant in Jesus’ blood. It is a sermon. This is a message preached not by one preacher, but by all of us when we take communion. You are participating in a sermon. You are proclaiming that we are all sinners; that we need forgiveness. You are proclaiming that this forgiveness is found in Jesus Christ, through faith in his death and resurrection. You are proclaiming the fulfillment of the old covenant, and the establishment of the new one.
Understanding all this, it makes sense why Paul was so upset. His instructions to treat this seriously, and to prepare for it are now very understandable. I don’t preach without preparing extensively. Sometimes, I know it looks like I’m just standing up there speaking off the cuff casually. But the reason I can do that is because I spend so much time and energy in preparing thoroughly. I take a great deal of effort to fully process what the text is for the week, so when it comes to preaching, I can just stand up and talk, because I know the material – I am prepared.
At New Joy Fellowship, all of you also preach every week, through Communion. You too, need to prepare for this sermon. Paul writes:
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.
Even with the Passover meal, which was the context in which Jesus spoke the words of Communion, there is the idea of preparation. Before they take the afikomen, the “bread of life” the Passover participants say: “I am ready and prepared to eat the afikomen.”
At New Joy, we celebrate communion every week. Because of this, we might get casual about it. The Corinthians got very casual, and Paul says their spiritual failure actually had physical consequences, making some of them sick; some even died (v.30).
Leon Morris, and Anglican theologian, writes:
There is a very real gift of the Savior in the sacrament, none the less real for being essentially spiritual” Morris
Thomas Charles Edwards, a Presbyterian, puts it this way:
The sacrament is a medium of communion with the body and blood of Christ, and a real means whereby faith appropriates the blessing which flow from the glorified Christ in virtue of his death”
I’m not saying we ought to be afraid to take communion. But we ought to take it seriously, in the sense that in communion, momentous things are proclaimed, and the very presence of God is offered to us in some special sense. There is nothing wrong with taking it every week. But let’s not forget, because we do it so often, that wonderful, real and hugely significant spiritual things are afoot in communion.