Summary: In Corinth the Lord’s Supper had become a place where privilege and class diversity was causing division. Through Paul’s rebuke we are called to examine whether our participation in the Lord’s Supper is unworthy.
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The church in Corinth is well known as a church with issues.
Let’s turn to 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 and read about an issue they were having with the Lord’s Supper.
The news of Lord Supper chaos has come to Paul from Corinth through “some from Chloe’s household” (1 Cor 1:11)
As we read through Paul’s response to the situation it becomes very obvious that the way the Corinthians come together for the Lord’s Supper is somewhat different to how many Christian communities act today.
How much wine is available, at church mind you, that it is possible to get drunk?
And if only one person in our congregation ate all the bread which is here today – well there are some of us who could do that and still go home and have lunch.
We look to the believers in Corinth and realise they are cultural strangers.
So, our first task is to get a clearer understanding of what is actually happening.
Let’s start with the location.
Right across the Roman Empire there were many public buildings and places to gather in groups.
Temples were prolific … but all worshipped false gods.
There were large buildings like gymnasiums and schools … but they also were dedicated to the gods.
There were plenty of outdoor meeting places … but it is hard to have a meal there.
When the Gospel first came to the city synagogues were used – but welcome never lasted very long.
In the first century it was actually quite difficult for Christians to find an indoor venue to use for church.
So the solution was to meet in homes. Using homes wasn’t just a Corinthian solution – it was a common first century church solution.
Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house (1 Corinthians 16:19). Aquila and Priscilla live in Ephesus.
Give my greetings … to Nympha and the church in her house (Colossians 4:15). Nympha lives in Laodicea … which is 15 km from Colossae.
To Philemon … and to the church that meets in your home (Philemon 1:1-2) Philemon most likely lived in Colossae.
As the church spread across the Roman Empire often the physical location of the worshipping community would be a house. Invariably it was in the home of one of the wealthiest people in the congregation, since they were the ones with the biggest homes.
These homes were built with two main rooms – a dining room which would hold about 10 people and a courtyard which could seat up to forty. So structurally there is the potential for division.
A space for 10 here … where the meals of the house were served.
A space for 40 over there … a bit off to the side.
We are one in Christ. “In Christ … there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26-28).”
In Christ social conventions shouldn’t matter. But, even in the church, social conventions are hard to break.
Perhaps you remember these words from Galatians 2.
11 When Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I (Paul) opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.12 For before certain men came from James (the leader of the church in Jerusalem), he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
Peter and Paul – apostles – having a very public confrontation related to … in this case Jewish … social conventions. Paul rebuked the social convention.
A different sort of social convention is causing issues in the Corinthian church.
Listen to this very telling description from an author called Martial who lived in the first century AD.
Seeing that I am invited to dinner … why is not the same dinner given to me, as to you?. Before you are placed splendid mushrooms; I help myself to such as are fit only for pigs. The golden turtle-dove fills your stomach with its over-fattened body; a magpie which died in its cage is set before me. Why do I dine without you, Ponticus, when I dine with you? Let us eat of the same dishes.
Martial Epigrams 3.60
Overt class distinction which comes out at meal gatherings. That is what Martial was calling out. It was a social convention that had infected the church at Corinth.
The church in Corinth was a mixed group. There were some Jews, but most were Gentiles. Some come from socially humble backgrounds, including being slaves. But there is also a group that were wise, powerful, and even of noble birth – people used to privilege.