Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Eucharist and Ethics

The church also witnesses to the story of God in its lifestyle. This story proclaimed by the church in the Eucharist must be understood “in close proximity to a particular Christian community, one whose form of life shows the sense of its language.”[1] As Fergus Kerr says, “Whether I mean the same by saying ‘I believe in God’ as other people do when they say the same thing will come out at various places in our lives: our practices, aspirations, hopes, virtues, and so on. It will show in the rest of what we do whether we have faith in God.”[2] Paul emphasizes a similar point in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 and throughout 1 Corinthians that Christians must live in a way that is consistent with the proclamation of the church. As Hauerwas and Wells say in pointing out the importance of the connection between worship and ethics, “The liturgy offers ethics a series of ordered practices that shape the character and assumptions of Christians, and suggests habits and models that inform every aspect of corporate life.”[3]

One of the primary reasons that Paul writes 1 Corinthians is to confront divisions in the church. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:10, “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (NRSV). Paul then proceeds to critique those who are forming parties around certain figures—like Paul, Apollos, or Cephas. In 3:1–4, Paul indicates that the divisions stem from jealousy and quarreling.

Paul continues to discuss the divisions within the Corinthian church in chapter 11. Paul says in 11:18–19 that “divisions” (σχίσματα) and “factions” (αἱρέσεις) have developed among them when “you come together as a church.” John Zizioulas notes, “A careful study of 1 Cor. 11 reveals that the term ἐκκλησίᾳ is used in a dynamic sense: ‘when you come together into, i.e. when you become, ἐκκλησίᾳ’ (v. 18).”[4] The divisions within chapter 11, however, appear to be different from those in 1:10–17 and 3:1–4.[5] Paul describes the factions during the Corinthian church gatherings by saying in verses 20–22, “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!”

It appears within this passage, that the Lord’s Supper either occurred during the common agape meal[6] or that the Lord’s Supper and the agape meal were defined synonymously by Paul.[7] Either way, Paul is addressing abuses within the context of a common meal. Richard B. Hays notes of the conflict, “The problem that Paul is addressing in Corinth is not (overtly) a problem of sacramental theology; rather, it is a problem of social relations within the community.”[8] In particular, when the community comes together to eat, the “haves” bring greater amounts of food and wine, while the “have-nots” go hungry. Paul believed, “For the rich to ‘humiliate those who have nothing’ was to ‘despise the church of God’ (v. 22).”[9]

The rich treated the meal “like a private dinner party, perhaps a banquet followed by a drinking party (convivium).”[10] Paul shows concern about the disorderliness and inequality of the meals. Neither of these characteristics was atypical in Greco-Roman banquets. Larger dining rooms could only hold nine to twenty people. Normal practice was to allow those with higher social standing to eat within the dining room, or triclinium, and for those with lower social standing to eat elsewhere; possibly in the atrium. The closer one sat to the host, the higher one’s social standing. After the banquet ended, the wives and children would leave and the men would have a convivia. Convivia often gave hosts and those of high social standing an opportunity to demonstrate their wealth and included debauchery and entertainment such as dancing girls and possibly prostitutes.[11] So in light of the Greco-Roman context, while the practice of the Corinthians seems problematic to modern readers, “the Corinthians probably understood their actions as entirely normal.”[12]

While banquets and drinking parties in the Greco-Roman world generally favored the rich, during the feast of Saturnalia the rich would treat the poor and slaves well. Lucian gives a protocol of the feast of Saturnalia by saying, “Tell them to invite the poor to dinner, take in four or five at a time, not as they do nowadays, though, but in a more democratic fashion, all having an equal share, no one stuffing himself with dainties with the servant standing waiting for him to eat himself to exhaustion.”[13] Paul wanted the agape to function more like the feast of Saturnalia—a democratic and egalitarian meal. For as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10:17, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”

That people were treated as equals during worship was important to Paul since some people viewed Christian gatherings as the meeting of a collegium or association. One responsibility of an association was to provide for the poor within their ranks. Despite the practice of caring for the poor, association banquets often functioned as an opportunity to demonstrate one’s social status.[14] So, while Paul wants the church to follow associations in providing for the poor, he wants the common meal to reflect the church’s convictions by not making the meal a time for debauchery or a time to boast about one’s social status. For in the ancient world, “what went on at meals most revealed the character of the diners, and was supposed to most mirror the values that this particular group upheld.”[15] So, since the church community transcended socio-economic barriers, the Lord’s Supper should “symbolize the unity of the community through equitable sharing of food at the meal.”[16]

As Bonnie Thurston points out, Christians must understand the common meal that Paul discusses in light of the ministry of Jesus. For just as Paul calls on the Corinthian church to break down social barriers during the Lord’s Supper, Christ willingly ate with people from different social backgrounds, such as tax collectors, prostitutes, and Samaritans. By his willingness to share table fellowship with people from different backgrounds, “Jesus was showing in dramatic form that all people are acceptable to God” and demonstrated “his love.”[17] Thurston follows saying, “In a setting in which symbolic action meant far more than it does in our world, acceptance of outcasts at table fellowship was of great significance.”[18]

Since the Corinthian Christians did not act in accordance with the character of Christ, Paul distinguishes between the Lord’s Supper (κυριακὸν δεῖπνον) and their meal (ἴδιον δεῖπνον). Abraham Mahlerbe says, “The error, as Paul sees it, is that they continue to regard it as their own. Therefore he repeats the words of institution (11:23ff.) to confirm that it should be regarded as the Lord’s meal, to be partaken of by all.”[19]

Reflecting on the practices of the early church, Robert Song says, “Communion is fundamentally participation in the death and resurrection of Christ, before it is the fellowship of the Church: it is through Christ’s death that we are reconciled to God, and thence we find reconciliation with one another (cf. Ephesians 2:13–14).”[20] Without recognizing Christ’s death and resurrection and his place as host of the Eucharist, Christians foolishly believe that they themselves show hospitality around the table. The church instead responds to Christ’s hospitality at the table and allows Christ’s hospitality and care to “flow from the joint and mutual acknowledgment that all are dependant upon grace—rich as well as poor, poor as well as rich.”[21]

Since the Eucharist serves as a time when the church proclaims the message of Christ to the world, Paul maintains the importance of the Lord’s Supper as a meal that breaks down social barriers and gives glory to God. For this reason, Paul proceeds to explain what it means to eat the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner by saying in verses 27–29, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” So, for Paul, to discern the body does not only means to discern the loaf on the table or Christ’s crucified body. For Paul, to eat the meal in an unworthy manner is to eat in such a way that brings about division in the body. When Paul calls on the Corinthians to “examine yourselves” and to “discern the body,” he is asking them to discern how their actions at the table effect the “body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:12–31). Because some have not discerned the body before eating, “the eucharist has become the vehicle of dominical judgment.”[22] Paul even says, “many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (11:30). As McCabe says, “A church which celebrates the Eucharist while ignoring what we should nowadays call ‘the fundamental option for the poor’ is ‘eating and drinking judgment upon herself’, as Aquinas thought; it is using the language of God to tell a lie.”[23] To prevent further issues at the table, Paul gives the Corinthians final advice concerning the Lord’s Supper: “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation” (11:33–34a).[24]

[1] Kallenberg, 117.

[2] Kerr, 153.

[3] Hauerwas and Wells, “Christian Ethics as Informed Prayer,” 7.

[4] John Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press), 148.

[5] Hays, 193.

[6] E. Glenn Hinson, The Evangelization of the Roman Empire: Identity and Adaptability (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1981), 99; Tom Lawson, “The Eucharist in the Second Century,” The Lord’s Supper: Historical Writings on Its Meaning to the Body of Christ, eds., Charles R. Gresham and Tom Lawson (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1993), 169; Ben Witherington, Making a Meal of It: Rethinking the Theology of the Lord’s Supper (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007), 48; and Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak: Faith and Life in the First Three Centuries, 3rd ed. (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1999), 127.

[7] Hays, 193 and John Mark Hicks, Come to the Table: Revisioning the Lord’s Supper (Abilene, TX: Leafwood, 2002), 132.

[8] Hays, 193–194.

[9] Geoffrey Wainwright, Eucharist and Eschatology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 81.

[10] Ben Witherington, Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 241.

[11] Ibid., 241–242; Witherington, Making a Meal of It, 34–37; and Hays, 196.

[12] Hays, 196.

[13] As cited in Witherington, Conflict in Corinth, 242.

[14] Ibid., 242–244.

[15] Witherinton, Making a Meal of It, 35.

[16] Hays, 197.

[17] Bonnie Thurston, Spiritual Life in the Early Church: The Witness of Acts and Ephesians (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 49.

[18] Ibid., 49.

[19] Abraham Mahlerbe, Social Aspects of Early Christianity, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 82.

[20] Robert Song, “Sharing Communion: Hunger, Food, and Genetically Modified Foods,” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, eds. Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), 391–392.

[21] Ibid., 392.

[22] Wainwright, 82.

[23] McCabe, 140.

[24] See Hays, 200–201; Hicks, 123;

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