< April 05, 2012 >

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

 

Note:  Part I explores the biblical text and Part II discusses homiletical strategies for the text.

Part I

As with other major liturgical services, the gospel text is often used for proclamation.

Paul's discussion of the tradition of the Lord's Supper, however, is definitely worthy of Maundy Thursday service use.  In these brief verses Paul reflects on the following in relationship to this tradition: the source of the meal; the community background of it; Jesus' words about the bread and wine, and the future intention involved in the supper.  This text then offers a superlative example of how preaching and teaching can be combined for the listeners and participants in the Maundy Thursday service.

Paul's discussion of the Lord's meal is ensconced in a chapter which takes the Corinthians community to task for their behavior in worship.  Congregational conflict was rampant!  These verses are set in a context which is bookended by words about abuses of the Lord's Supper and by participating in it in ways that are unworthy.  These verses are meant as a liturgical corrective for the celebration of the meal.

Paul begins by noting that he is not simply telling them from his own perspective how he thinks they should join the meal.  Instead he is sharing with them directives he has "received from the Lord" (verse 23a).  The latter half of verse 23 is brief but bears enormous interpretive weight. 

Paul notes that the context of the meal Jesus instituted occurred "on the night he was betrayed."   This meal did not originate among human beings who were of one mind or heart regarding Jesus and his gospel.  To the contrary, Jesus fed his disciples knowing that he was doing so in the company of a betrayer, one who would cause his death.  This fact places a permanent stamp on all earthly celebrations of the Lord's meal: it comes as a gift from God to sinful human beings --  always. 

The word "betrayed" rings poignantly and perpetually in every celebration of the meal; it is the verbal acknowledgment of the dark side of those who receive it.  Norma Wirzba in his new book on eating describes, among other meals, the Eucharist.  He wisely notes that the first transgression was one that involved food.1   Paul's observation concerning the fact of the betrayal as a backdrop to the meal reflects precisely the thematic to which Wirzba is referring.  It hints at the motives and intentions of any collection of human beings who gather for the Lord's Supper.

The text uses quotes in verses 24 and 25 to set off Paul's repetition of Jesus' words; he is not using his own wording here but that of the tradition.  These verses conceal a significant cache of traditions related to the Passover meal and developing forms of celebration of the Lords' meal in the early Christian community.  Paul's directions are based on the early combination of two types of meals within the same event: the secular meal and the sacred celebration. 

If this text is used for proclamation, the preacher does well to consult sources which describe this sequence of eating and drinking in this historical context as there are differences between the two.  An example of this is in verse 24 in which Jesus gives the bread at the beginning of the meal and in verse 25 when he gives the wine "after supper."  Today, however, the words are used for the Eucharist solely and a secular meal is almost never involved or paired with it.

Jesus' words in this section describe the two-fold connection he makes with himself.  Since his commentary on the bread and wine was made before his death, it was obviously heard by the disciples in a state of surprise and confusion.  Only in the days following his Resurrection would meaning-making emerge in a new way around bread, wine, Jesus' death and sharing in that death through eating together.

Verse 25 refers to "the new covenant in my blood."  Blood language here is again historically laden with multiple meanings in relationship to the old covenental system of animal sacrifice and the efficacy of blood in reconciling the repentant sinner to God.  This phrase sets up a contrast between the old and new covenants, which bases the meal Jesus offers directly in the fulfillment of God's on-going promises to humanity, forged through God's covenants over time.

Paul offers a rationale for participating in the Lord's meal.  Every time human beings do this, two things occur.  First, participation in the meal is a public proclamation to oneself and others of the Gospel and secondly the meal marks the time until the final coming of Jesus.  The text uses the word "remembrance" twice and Paul joins that to hope in the final verse.

Part II 

The preaching possibilities of this text cover emphases on the historical, liturgical, ecclesial and the personal.  Many listeners to this text may be unacquainted with the history and origins of the meal. Paul's words are useful to review in that respect.  Liturgical origins of this text, if referenced in the sermon, could include some discussion of how Jesus' meal is both related to and different from the Jewish seder meal.  In congregations which re-enact seder meals, holding up both similarities and differences are crucial for a clearer understanding of the uniqueness of what Jesus offered to his disciples.

Finally, this meal is one offered to all of humanity and connects bread and wine with the life and death of Jesus.  It comes to individuals and it comes to communities alike in all times and places.  As the word "betrayed" signals so clearly, the meal is offered to sinful creatures who are invited to both memory and hope for the human condition because of this supper invitation.


1For a truly excellent work on eating: personally, globally, politically, environmentally and theologically, see Norman Wirzba, Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating (Cambridge University Press, 2011). For a review of this work see www.hedahl.us