[Text: 1 Cor. 11:17-34]
Paul’s Corinthian children were a challenge. On the one hand, they were truly believers, confirmed in their faith by the more voluble gifts of the Spirit and zealous for the wonders of God in their midst. On the other hand, they seemed to have missed the memo about “Love one another.” So Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to straighten out their many misconceptions about being the Body of Christ.
One of the targets of this corrective epistle is the Corinthians’ handling of the Lord’s Supper (see 1 Cor. 11:17-34).* More than just a bread-and-juice remembrance ceremony, this was apparently a full meal shared together as a church—only the “sharing” in this case seemed to be the exclusive prerogative of the wealthy members of the congregation, who gobbled up the feast while their poorer brethren went hungry. Paul gives them a remedial lesson in the origin of the Supper—“This is a celebration of the Lord’s death, not an opportunity to get sated and drunk!”—thus putting into theological perspective any wrongheaded approach to the meal. “If you get this wrong, it is very, very serious,” Paul warns. “In fact, your unworthy approach to this celebration is the reason some of you have become sick, and some of you have even died!”
The wrong that Paul names here is failure to “discern the body,” a phrase that has led to some strange interpretive developments over the centuries of Christian history. Where the focus has been on the elements (bread and wine), theologians and church leaders have usually quarreled over what true believers should “discern” these to be: are they physically transformed into the very body and blood of our Lord? Or do they spiritually deliver the presence of Christ within the participant? Much additional attention has been directed to Paul’s solution to the problem, namely that each one should “examine himself” and make sure he is partaking “in a worthy manner.” Elaborate schemes for determining a person’s spiritual readiness to participate in the Supper have been proposed, including the adoption of a token system indicating that one has appropriately confessed one’s sins before eating.
Suffice it to say that, just like the Corinthians, these discussions also miss the memo about “Love one another.” Paul hasn’t actually veered from his central theme in this section, so neither should we.
In context, the fault of failing to “discern the body,” and the remedy of examining ourselves to make sure we are partaking of the Supper in a worthy manner, have everything to do with believers’ consideration of and care for their fellow celebrants. Harking back to the congregational factionalism that he dealt with earlier in the letter, Paul defines what this behavior actually is, in the eyes of God: he writes that those who proceed to feast without regard for family “despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing.” It is unlove that is the problem here, not an improper evaluation of the elements or a guilty conscience in need of confession.
So Paul proposes that each one should “examine himself . . . and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” Our English verb examine may not be the most helpful translation here, since in our experience it’s possible to accomplish an “examination” merely by looking at the subject. Imagine a repairman examining a broken hinge to see how badly damaged it is, or a cook examining an egg to see if the shell is cracked. Maybe just a cursory glance at the state of our heart is enough?
The Greek verb dokimazō, meaning to test or try, pushes us past this limited idea and back towards an older use of the English verb, which is, after all, the root of our academic word “exam.” This dreaded culmination of all the learning that we have (supposedly) done for a course involves questions that we are responsible now to answer. Our readiness to answer has nothing to do with a sudden change of heart in the moment, and everything to do with how we have lived our lives up to this time of examination.*
So I want to propose a series of questions that should get at the heart of what it means to “discern the body,” in Paul’s use of the phrase. These suggestions should be taken as friendly reminders of our call to love one another, not as a blueprint for a new era of communion-token exams in the church. Consider asking yourself these sorts of things long before the next Communion Sunday:
Do I know the names of many of the brothers and sisters communing with me?*
Do I know something about their story?
Am I interested and involved in the lives of others, especially those outside my immediate circles?
Do I treat everyone here with gentleness and respect?
Do I share what I have with those who have less? Do I perceive needs around me?
Do I ever mock, dismiss, malign or gossip about any individual or any class of people?
Do people in this church generally feel safe with me?
Do people in this church trust me to take them seriously? Am I a good listener?
Am I sensitive to the bigger-picture issues that may affect some of them more than these things affect me? Am I compassionate towards those who grieve things that I cannot immediately identify with?
As Paul indicates in this chapter, if we take the time to evaluate ourselves, we will avoid the embarrassment and discomfort of our Father God bringing our unloving behavior to our (and to others’!) attention. Let’s examine ourselves, then, to make sure we are seeing our family of faith with clarity and compassion.
*Although some verses have been paraphrased, all direct biblical quotations used above come from the ESV.
*Those pastors in earlier times who quizzed their congregants about their beliefs and behavior prior to communion were also examining their people in this way; but they did not ask the kinds of questions about “discerning the body” that I am proposing here. They were looking for evidence of catechesis and personal purity.
*Re. each of these questions, be realistic about how much you can know about the people in your congregation. Not even the pastors can hope to know everybody well, especially after the population of a church reaches a certain number. But do you know a reasonable amount about a reasonable number of people outside your circles of close friends and family?
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