Formations 04.21.2024: Discerning the Body

1 Corinthians 11:23-29

Today’s passage provides the earliest known account of Jesus’s institution of the Lord’s Supper. By sharing the bread and the cup, Paul says, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (v. 26). Therefore, we must approach the table with due reverence, lest we participate “in an unworthy manner” (v. 27).

In this unit, we have already explored how sharing the bread and the cup around the Lord’s table can be a joyful celebration of Jesus’s resurrection and a profound expression of one’s relationship with him. Two weeks ago, I used my Coracle article to challenge the idea that our worship around the bread and the cup must necessarily be a “funeral dirge.”

Today’s theme is “Yes, but….”

Yes, we must move beyond the idea that the Lord’s Supper can only be a somber, morose observance. The Bible paints a much richer picture than that! But that doesn’t mean reverence and sobriety have no place at the table.

The Christians in Corinth had numerous problems, many of which boiled down to a failure to appreciate the differences among themselves. Worship, which always involved a communal meal to which everyone contributed, had become an opportunity for the rich to flaunt their wealth while the poor or enslaved got by as best they could.

Those who could afford to arrive early to worship did so—and brought their expensive delicacies and fine wines to share with their wealthy friends. By the time the poorer church members got off work and arrived at the last minute, there was nothing left but the crumbs, and some attendees had even gotten drunk.

So yes, Paul felt the need to explain that even “joyous celebration” has its limits! The more privileged worshipers had lost sight of the true meaning of their gatherings, and Paul told them they needed to tone it down.

Paul therefore recounts the story of when Jesus first took the bread and wine of Passover and imbued it with new meaning rooted in his own saving work. He introduces his narrative by setting it “on the night when [Jesus] was betrayed” (1 Cor 11:23).

Perhaps there is a subtle warning here that we too risk betraying Jesus by our behavior at the table. Less subtle is Paul’s concern that we betray one another by failing to “discern the body” (v. 29). I don’t think he’s talking about the body of Christ in the bread; it’s pretty clear from the context that he’s worried about the body of Christ in the faces and in the lives of the people with whom we gather, with whom we make up the church in its fullness.

If our worship can’t or won’t make room for everyone, does it even count?

When we gather at Christ’s table, we have every reason to sing and be glad. But we also have every reason to approach the table with reverence and circumspection.

Discussion

• Does “reverent” necessarily mean “somber” or “mournful”? Why or why not?
• How have you seen Christians assert privilege over their fellow believers? What does this attitude do for the health of the church?
• What does it mean to eat the Lord’s Supper “in an unworthy manner”?
• What sort of discernment guards against unworthy participation?
• Why is it important for Christians to proclaim Christ’s death? How does the Lord’s table make this proclamation?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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