Commentary on 1 Cor 11:17-26, 33
We have today a very important Eucharistic text and one which is just as relevant now as it was in Paul’s Corinth.
From reports that Paul has heard, the gatherings of the Christian community are doing more harm than good. And Paul has two main complaints to make.
First, when they supposedly gather together as a community there are factions among them. He has already spoken of this earlier in his letter where he mentioned that some were siding with himself and others with Apollos or other evangelisers. This made no sense because the only source of their faith was Jesus Christ, and others, like Paul and Apollos, were merely his spokespersons for the one Jesus and with the same message.
However, Paul indicates here that there may be one advantage in such divisions: they help distinguish those who are genuine from those who do not have the true spirit of the Gospel. In that sense, such divisions are always likely to arise and are probably inevitable.
His second accusation is more serious but not unrelated. The purpose of these gatherings was to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, but, because of the shameful way they carried on, it could not really be called a Eucharist.
The liturgical celebration was preceded by a communal meal, soon to be known as an agape (‘agape, pronounced ‘ah-gah-pay‘) meal. The word ‘agape’ means ‘love’ and is a word used constantly by Jesus to describe God’s unconditional and universal love for us and the love we ought to show for every single person, including enemies.
These meals were something like what we would call “pot luck” today. Everyone was expected to bring some food to be shared by all. Those who were better off would bring more and better quality food while those less well-off would obviously bring less or even nothing at all.
However, what was happening was that those who were bringing the best food (and drink) would arrive earlier and have it all consumed by the time the poorer members arrived. So that, as Paul observes, “one person goes hungry while another is getting drunk”. If they want to carry on like that, says Paul, they should do so in their own homes. By acting like this, they are showing no respect for the community and causing embarrassment to the poorer members.
To go on and celebrate the Lord’s Supper after such behaviour is little short of sacrilege and blasphemy. The Eucharist is the sacrament and sign of a loving community. A gathering, which is so obviously defective in love for its members, clearly does not recognise the real Body of Christ, which is the community. How then can it eat the sacramental Body of the Lord for whose real Body it shows no compassion or respect? In a later sentence, not included in our reading, Paul says: “Anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the Body, eats and drinks judgement on himself.” The ‘Body’ here is the Body of the Risen Christ, the gathered community. To eat the Eucharistic Bread while depriving brothers and sisters of bread is to commit a sacrilege against Christ’s Body.
Paul then reminds the Corinthians of the tradition about the Lord’s Supper which he himself received from the Lord through those who handed the faith on to him. Although this letter was written well before the four gospels, there is a marked similarity between Paul’s version and that in the gospels, especially Luke (who, we remember, was a companion of Paul in his missionary journeys). It indicates the tradition was well established and in a definitive form from very early on in the Church’s existence. The description is very familiar to us from the Eucharist we celebrate today.
On the night of his being “handed over”, Jesus took a loaf of bread and gave thanks (the word ‘Eucharist’ comes from eucharistia (‘eucaristia, the Greek word for ‘giving thanks’). Giving thanks was also the practice at Jewish meals. Jesus then broke the bread to distribute it among his disciples and said: “This is my Body, which is for you; do this as a memorial of me.” The broken bread symbolises both the broken Body of Jesus, who died in love for us and the union of those who share from the one loaf.
All the important elements of the Eucharist are here: the single loaf, broken, to be shared by all; the giving thanks because of what God, in the human body of his Son, had done for us. And we are to continue doing what Jesus did at the Last Supper as a memorial of what he did. But, as Paul emphasises, this doing must be intimately linked with the life we live as a loving and caring community.
Jesus, at the end of the Passover supper, took the cup of wine. The red wine is the symbol of his blood, poured out on the cross; sacramentally, it is his blood. That blood is the seal on the “new covenant”, the new contract, as it were, between God and his people, who now embrace not just the Jews but peoples all over the world whatever their origins. “I will be your God and you will be my people.”
The drinking and sharing of the cup is also to be repeated as memorial of what God did for us in Jesus. So that every time “you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming his death”.
But it is not only proclaiming that death but the inner meaning of that death as a sign of God’s love, a love which we are to take into our own very being so that it flows out from us to all those around us. It is lives lived in mutual love that are the real sign that we remember what God did for us in Jesus.
The sacramental celebration is both an affirmation of what we wish to be and do and the source that makes it possible for us to make it happen.
Paul concludes by once again reminding the Corinthian Christians to wait for each other when they gather to share their agape-meal and celebrate their Eucharist. If the agape meal does not satisfy their hunger, then let them eat at home before or afterwards. To do otherwise is to make the meal a nonsense, and worse, a serious lapse in mutual love and care.
All of this we ourselves can take very much to heart.
Our Sunday Masses are not normally now connected to an agape meal, although many parishes do have ‘coffee mornings’ so that parishioners can get an opportunity to mingle and get to know each other after Mass.
But the main point Paul makes is that there is an indivisible link between what we do at the Eucharist and what goes on in our lives between our celebrations. This is something we can never forget.