Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Holy Meal in Context

I Corinthians 11:23-26, the second reading appointed for Maundy Thursday, is very familiar to anyone who has spent much time in places of sacramental theology.  What is far less known is the context into which these words were spoken.  The first hearers of these words undoubtedly would not have heard a sacramental theology spoken here, but rather a reminder of the communion into which we are all called.  We impoverish our life together when we forget this.

(The following questions have been developed as a way of getting at a fundamental concern of Law and Gospel preachers, i.e. how the Word functions.  For more on this unique genre of preaching, see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  There is little doubt that this is a Gospel text: we proclaim the Lord's death whenever we eat and drink.  What we proclaim is important: we proclaim that the Lord Jesus was "handed over" to death for our sins.  It is important to note that in verse 23 the original text uses the word paradidomi when speaking of what happened to Jesus. This is most often translated "betrayed" but the Gospel function is much clearer when we understand that Jesus was "handed over" to death for our sake rather than simply betrayed into the hands of his enemies.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There seems to be little hint of Law here except when we understand the context.  In the verses surrounding this passage it is clear that Paul is very upset with the Corinthian church for showing "contempt for the church of God." (vs. 22)  When the commands, in vss. 24-25, to "do this in remembrance of me" are read in this context they can sound like Law, where the hearers are reminded that the way they have been gathering and eating has not been done in a way that remembers the life of Christ.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those addressed by this text, the ones to whom the apostle hands over what  he received from the Lord.  We are also the ones who Paul says proclaim the Lord's death whenever we eat and drink.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text? As mentioned above, the context suggests that throughout this text we are being called to live as a community and not as the world does, with distinctions regarding wealth and class. This is certainly a call to obedience.  Another possibility comes to us because of the ambiguity regarding verse 26.  In Greek, the indicative and the imperative forms of verbs are often identical, and this is the way it is in verse 26.  Given that, we might well translate the final verse as a command:  "As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Again, the context provides some possibilities for understanding this text:  schisms and distinctions/one community in Christ; in bondage to worldly status/freed to be one in Christ.

6.  Exegetical work:  I am indebted to Richard Hays for his insightful analysis of the contextual nature of this text.  (First Corinthians, Interpretation series, p. 192-200)  He points out how "the meal that should be the symbol and seal of their oneness has in fact become an occasion for some of them to shame others." (Ibid., p. 193)  It is ironic how easily we could say this about the divisions around the Last Supper in our modern day, as some churches continue to deny table entrance to those who do not understand the Supper as they do.  Hays explains how the typical Roman villa, where these suppers probably took place, had a dining room that could accommodate perhaps nine people.  That meant that the other 30 or so people in attendance were left in the atrium, where they not could  not share fully in the supper, but also likely were given poorer fare.  Paul's point is that if it is truly the Lord's  supper that you gather to eat, you must eat it in the manner that Christ offered it - all receive equally, all are honored at the table of the Lord.  To be partakers of a new covenant means, according to Hays, that "the character of this new covenant should be sown forth in the sharing of the meal." (Ibid., p. 199)

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Henry Mitchell was always quick to point out that the preacher must be the first one to celebrate the good news, and always in the sermon, draw others into that celebration.  What better time to celebrate than in this text where we proclaim again how Christ was handed over to death for us.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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