In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus shares the parable of a man who holds a banquet. When it is time for the meal to begin, the man’s servant is sent out to tell all those invited that the festivities are to begin. Astonishingly, each of the invited guests has an excuse for not attending: one must view a field he has purchased, another is tending to his oxen, and another is newly married. When the servant reports this to his master, then man grows angry and instructs him, “Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame.” When this has been done, there is still room for more guests and so the servant is told, “Go out to the highways and the hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.” (Luke 14:16-24 NRSV)
The parable has much to reveal about the character of God. His house is immeasurably large, and His invitation to sit down and celebrate is universally inclusive. He wishes to see His house filled with the sick, the lame, the blind and the broken, that they might be transformed by His grace and live holy lives. Both God’s invitation and His grace are present when we in the Church participate in the Lord’s Supper. Whether we call it communion, the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper is irrelevant … it is an act in which God’s invitation to come to the table with Him is accepted, and His grace is served to us.
George Hunsinger has proposed that the Lord’s Supper is not just an act in which we as Christians are transformed into a community, but one which has the power to transform culture at large: “Christ’s sacrificial sharing of himself, under the eucharistic forms of his body and blood, had social implications. It required believers not only to conform to Christ in his sacrificial self-giving (cf. Eph. 5:2), but also to rise above cultural antagonisms of religion, ethnicity, status, and gender: “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)”
This implies that through the Lord’s Supper, Christ uses the Church as an agent of transformation of the culture that envelops it. It’s all-important to keep in mind that Christ Himself is the transformer of culture, not the Church itself, which I’ll discuss in this first post. It’s also important to realize that a transformation of culture has to be something that the Church is before it is something the church does. To explore both of these ideas, I’ll turn to the Apostle Paul’s discussion of the Lord’s Supper in his first letter to the church in Corinth.
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.” (I Corinthians 11:17-24)
A brief summary of the history and background of Corinth and the church located there will help to understand how Christ can be seen as the transformer of culture. Corinth was a prosperous commercial city during the Roman era, located on an isthmus approximately 50 miles southwest of Athens, and a seat of government for the Roman in which it was located. Corinth was a very wealthy city, but its notoriety in the Roman world was not due to financial success but rather its reputation as a destination for pleasure-seekers. Corinth offered any form of entertainment or vice conceivable, and was a city filled with shrines and temples to every pagan god and goddess imaginable.
The primary attraction that brought those seeking gratification was associated with the Temple of Aphrodite, perched atop a mountain named the Acrocorinth. Attached to the temple were over 1,000 consecrated prostitutes, both men and women, who serviced the wealthy who resided in or visited Corinth. The city was so infamous for an expensive lifestyle that the geographer Strabo commented, “Not for every man is the voyage to Corinth,” and the phrase Korinthiazomai, “to act like a Corinthian,” was synonymous with being corrupt and decadent.
Into this pagan, immoral city the apostle Paul came during his second missionary journey and with the help of Aquila, Priscilla, Silas and Timothy founded a church there (Acts 18:1-11). The Christians who composed this church were from very markedly different classes of society; some were wealthy merchants or officials, others were the poorest of the poor, and others were slaves or former slaves. Such a group of haves and have-nots would never – in the course of normal Roman life – have sat at table together. In the joining together of such a diversity of social strata, it is possible to see Christ at work as the transformer of culture. Through His sacrifice on the cross, the members of the Corinthian church were called out of sexual immorality and paganism and transformed to live a holy life.
Eduard Schweizer also wrote on the transformation Christ accomplished in those formerly steeped in the immoral culture of Corinth, observing, “According to Paul, in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the church is constituted as the one Body of Christ. Of course the church continues to be the Body of Christ when it is not celebrating the Supper; nevertheless, Paul uses this term in connection with the worship of the community, because only there does the Body of Christ manifest itself concretely.”
Hunsinger echoes this, saying, “Christ has caused a social transformation by his blood that finds its initial expression in the community of faith. The church is essentially a fellowship of reconciliation, which (despite its failings) stands a provisional sign of that which is promised to all.”
The cultural transformation that took place in Corinth didn’t involve merely the fusing together into one community individuals who had been of widely separated social classes and religious backgrounds, but also the integration of those who had previously been segregated by a wide economic gap. Christ’s transformation of the culture as seen through eucharistic celebration points us towards the coming Kingdom of God, which prompted John Howard Yoder to comment: “Its context is good news and the work of Christ, which is being experienced already in its first fruits. The grounds for equalization is not (as in much modern Christian concern for economic justice) the vision of an original wholesome order already present in creation and needing only to be restored. It is rather the beginning fulfillment of the promises of the messianic age.”
Christ’s role as the transformer of culture, then, leads you and I as His followers into the age to come, when His Kingdom shall reign over all the earth.
In part two, I’ll discuss the second idea: that transformation of culture has to be something that the Church is before it can be something the Church does.