< April 18, 2019 >

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

 

Writing to the Corinthians in the sixth decade of the first century, Paul provides the first written account we have of Jesus' last evening with his disciples.

His description, like the similar Synoptic accounts (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:15-20), shows how deeply this memory shaped the early church. Paul sketches the details with economy of language, conveying the essence of the meal in spare words. His language is already shorn of extra details, marked in parallel clauses, almost poetic in its rhythm and cadence.

These words come to Paul from the tradition the church has handed down. Now he hands them on faithfully to others (1 Corinthians 11:23). He does so in the service of his larger argument, trying to bring unity to a young congregation whose divisions fracture even their common worship.

The Corinthians’ shared meal has become a time for gathering but not a time for true fellowship or partnership. During the meal, richer members feast while poorer members go without. The wealthy, who have more leisure, do not wait on others to arrive from work (1 Corinthians 11:33). They eat their private meals in a shared space and reinforce the class system of their wider society. This arrangement humiliates the poor whose scant portions reveal their poverty (1 Corinthians 11:21-22).

As a result, Paul condemns the congregation’s division and lack of equal concern for all who gather for the meal (1 Corinthians 11:17, 22). He instructs them to eat and drink private meals in their own homes (1 Corinthians 11:22).

Then Paul reminds them of the origin of their shared meal, providing more correction. The supper's purpose is to remember Jesus. It is not a time for lavish display or ostentation. It is not a time to display wealth or position. Instead this meal is a time to reflect on what Jesus has done in giving his life for others. It is a time, Paul later explains, for self-examination (10:28). The Corinthians are to discern the body (10:29) -- both Christ’s corporeal body and the corporate body of believers -- so they can overcome division and re-member the body of Christ to which they belong.

As he begins his account, Paul reports that he “delivers” or “hands on” this tradition about the night on which Jesus was “handed over” or “delivered up.” Our modern English versions often obscure the echo of the word in Paul's introduction. The NRSV, for example, uses “handed on” and “betrayed” (1 Corinthians 11:23), associating Paul’s language with Judas’s betrayal. While “handing over” may recall that event, Paul elsewhere stresses that God, acting for the world’s salvation, hands Jesus over (Romans 4:25; 8:32), echoing the language of Isaiah (53:6, 12b).1

Paul then narrates the actions of Jesus in parallel scenes. First, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and broke it (1 Corinthians 11:24). In the Synoptic tradition, the meal Jesus shares with his disciples is Passover, so the bread would have been unleavened, remembering the haste with which the Israelites left Egypt's oppression (Exodus 12: 39). Secondly, after dinner, Jesus took the cup and shared it with them (1 Corinthians 11:25).

After both the bread and the cup, Jesus instructs his disciples: “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24, 25). In the context of the Passover meal whose participants remember God's deliverance from slavery (Exodus 12:14), Jesus now calls his disciples to see a new act of God’s deliverance, one they experience in Jesus’ death.

The disciples are to observe this memorial repeatedly. They are to keep on breaking the bread and sharing the cup. Each time they do so, they remember Jesus, whose gifts resound with and echo God's gifts of freedom and deliverance in the Exodus. They remember Jesus' giving of his own body and blood for them and in their place. This gift fashions a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34), freeing them and creating a people bound to God and to each other.

This gift calls the Corinthians to look beyond the narrow confines of the present, to look back to the saving acts of God in the exodus and in Christ’s self-offering. Following Christ’s example, they are to look beyond self-interest to offer life for others. But the Corinthians are also to look forward in hope, as they proclaim the Lord's death “until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). Their worship thus contains a future dimension, as it also proclaims Christ’s ultimate victory.2

How might preachers shape a sermon on this text? These reflections suggest at least three possible paths.

  1. A sermon might examine the meal within the framework of Israel’s history of the Exodus and the Passover as the context in which Jesus and his disciples shared their meal. The ancient ritual grounds Christian observance and the new covenant Jesus establishes. Such a sermon would work carefully with both the first reading (Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14) and the second reading for Maundy Thursday.
  2. A sermon might focus on the broader context of the meal within the story of Jesus, stressing the offering of Jesus’ life as the source of salvation and life, God’s gift of radical grace that establishes a covenant that grounds our relationship with God and with each other.
  3. A sermon might reflect on Paul's own use of the tradition as a pastoral word for the divided church in Corinth as a model for addressing our own divided congregations and churches. Such a sermon would focus on the significance of the Supper as a sign of Christian unity, exploring ways that our memory of Christ’s body and blood re-members us for fellowship and mission. Sharing this meal refashions us as a people whose lives are shaped, not by our own desires for prestige and power, but by the self-giving love of Christ who feeds and nurtures us, making us whole again.

Notes:

  1. Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Louisville: John Knox, 1997), 198.
  2. Carl Holladay, The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians (The Living Word Commentary; Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1979), 150.