In Part One, I discussed how through the Lord’s Supper we see the transformation of culture. That post explored the first of two ideas, that Christ Himself is the transformer of culture. In this post, I’ll discuss the second idea, that the transformation of culture must be something the Church is before it is something the Church does. This is actually demonstrated in the negative in the passage found in 1 Cor. 11, being in verses 17-24.
Now 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, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you! For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Paul was writing to the church there precisely because having been transformed by Christ, they were failing to transform the culture in which they lived. There was in fact a detrimental outcome when the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in Corinth, and the issue was quite serious. According to Paul, the Corinthians allowed the Lord’s Supper to intensify the prevailing social divisions of the Roman culture surrounding them, rather than demonstrating the unity which should be found in Christ. Paul goes so far as to attribute illness and death among the Corinthian church as being caused by their sin in this area.
In the same way he took the cup also, 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 answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, 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 and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come. (1 Corinthians 11:25-34)
New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III draws a clear picture of what was happening in Corinth.
It appears clear from the outset that the context in which the Lord’s Supper happened was in a home and in the social setting of a meal, perhaps a love feast that was part of an act of worship in the home. The problem was, some of the Christians, perhaps including the host who would set the protocol for the meal, were treating the meal as if it were a private Greco-Roman dinner party followed by a drinking party.
Witherington further states that Paul saw this as “a travesty and sacrilege, a violation of the very meaning of Christian fellowship and the meaning of the Lord’s Supper … there is further division and stratification amongst the have and have-not portions of the Corinthian Church.”
This failure of the Corinthian church to transform the surrounding culture illustrates the point that a transformation of culture must be something the church is before it something the church does. The power of Christ’s sacrifice, which the Corinthians were ostensibly memorializing, had allowed them to see each other as brothers and sisters rather than rich and poor, or master and slave. Sadly, they had taken the very occasion of the commemoration of that sacrifice to return to their former separation, to celebrate in their former pagan fashion, and to ignore that in Christ they had been transformed into holy people. In this they were offending against God and each other. Hunsinger carefully relates the results of the failure of the church in Corinth to transform the culture, and likening that failure to a sickness.
Although it may seem implausible to modern sensibilities to suppose that weakness, sickness, and death could result from this failure of discernment (v. 31), Paul was essentially making a spiritual point. The body of Christ in Corinth was imperiled by a sickness unto death. By entering into contradiction with themselves, the Corinthians had also entered into contradiction with Christ and the eucharist. They could not undo their baptism, their union with one another and with Christ; they could only offend against it.
Does the failure of the Corinthians to have discerned that the Lord’s Supper is a manifestation of unity in Christ have application to the Church today?
I would suggest there is indeed such application for the Church of today should it fail in recognizing the inseparable unity between its members. There is more to be considered, however, than the simple recognition that the Lord’s Supper demonstrates what Witherington labels “the equality that exists in the body of Christ, without regard to social distinctions and social status.”
The Church today must consider the Lord’s Supper as a proclamation of the Gospel in the form of a deed. We declare Christ’s death with its salvational import, and therefore its cultural relevance in His power to transform us. This point would seem to ring especially true for the Church of the Nazarene, a denomination that places such emphasis on personal sanctification. The Church of the Nazarene must first and foremost be true to its roots in the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition. The denomination must be a church of holy people living holy lives if it hopes to impart the message of God’s sanctification and holiness to others, and in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper this will find tangible expression.