1 Corinthians 11:23-26
October 28, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 16:10 in the audio file.
Or, When Supper Is a Sermon
I am overwhelmed by how much good is in this paragraph, even by some of the things I’ve put together in my thinking for the first time this past week. I suppose I’ve prepared an average of 45 communion meditations a year for almost eight years now, so perhaps around 360 meditations, almost an entire year’s worth of daily thoughts. And there is still more wine in the cup, so to speak. While I know that I can’t say everything in one sermon that could be said about the Lord’s Supper, these are the verses in the chapter that we know the most, and yet this field will yield fresh fruit of encouragement as we walk through it again.
What would you say is the most important thing about communion? It is a command of the Lord, so we must obey Him and do it in remembrance of Him, but is our obedience the end, or does the Lord have a goal in mind after, or at least as part of, our obedience? Here’s another question, why is this paragraph even in the letter? This is the only place that Paul writes so distinctly about a tradition he received from the Lord; this is more a dominical statement than an apostolic one. There is more quoting of Jesus here than Paul does about any other issue. Why? And again, why here? The Corinthians were having problems when they came together, including their practice of the Lord’s Supper (11:20), but would we miss anything in the admonition if we skipped verses 23-26?
Paul himself viewed this almost formulaic reminder–and we know it was a reminder based on his report that he already “delivered it” to them–as an explanation for his inability to commend them. These verses aren’t merely content, they are for comparison. The Lord’s Supper is a memorial, but it is also a mirror. Maybe the key word in the paragraph is the first word, “for.” Paul had no reason to praise them and that was based on the meaning of the Supper itself.
The two questions, what is the most important thing about the Lord’s Supper, and why is this paragraph even in the letter, have the same answer. We eat and drink in remembrance of Him, and this remembrance is true or false by how we behave not just what we say we believe. To state it differently, the problem wasn’t with the Corinthians’ faulty confession of the nature or importance of the Supper, the problem was with the Corinthians’ faulty living in light of Christ’s death. You don’t cry at a party, dance at a funeral, or indulge yourself at a meal which remembers One who gave Himself for others.
This is exactly what made it worse when the Corinthians came together. At least some of the church members were feasting themselves into drunkenness while other members were put off and left hungry. This is anti-gospel, anti-cross, un-Christian behavior, so much so that Paul says, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat” (verse 20). Presumably they thought they were observing communion, they probably used the right words, but how they treated one another betrayed them.
So in this paragraph Paul reminds them of when the Lord instituted the sacrament (a sacred or holy thing) of communion so that they will remember the Lord and remember their identity in the Lord.
This is explanation not just about the Lord’s Supper, which it is, but it is explanation about why Paul can’t commend them. What they’re doing doesn’t match with what the Lord did and what He said to do.
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, which doesn’t tell us if the Lord revealed it to Paul directly when he was in the wilderness (see Galatians 1:11-12) or if the ultimate source was the Lord though mediated through other men to Paul. Matthew (26:26-28), Mark (14:22-24), and Luke (22:19-20) record mostly the same thing, and John 13 provides another side of the story. It is likely, though, that 1 Corinthians was written before any of the Gospels, so this is the first written account of the Supper.
The emphasis is on the Lord and His authority. The meal is no man made religious ritual. We receive and deliver in the same line just as Paul did for the Corinthians.
The Lord instituted the Lord’s Supper at the Last Supper, and the timing demonstrates that it is a historical event but also has significance for the symbolism. Paul had delivered, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed. This is the night John said that Jesus loved His own to the end (John 13:1). This is the night Jesus, the Lord, knowing He was headed to death, took up a towel and washed His disciples’ dirty feet, including Judas (John 13:2-5). This is the night, only hours away from the Judas kiss and the mock trials and crucifixion in the morning. That was the context in which Jesus gave Himself, not just when He gave bread and wine.
On that night he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Jesus and His disciples were observing the Passover meal, and Jesus was fulfilling the head of household’s position; He was at the head of the table, He was explaining the meaning of each part. The Passover meal framed the communion meal, and Jesus gave it new significance.
Jesus took, broke, and said, “while giving thanks.” The participle in Greek is εὐχαριστήσας, which means expressing gratitude. This does not consecrate the bread or turn it into something special. Jesus thanks God, He blesses God, not the bread. I believe that the “likewise” about the cup includes a second giving of thanks, which is corroborated by Matthew’s account (26:27).
Jesus broke the bread in order to distribute some to everyone, which challenges what the Corinthians were doing. They were grabbing, not giving.
A whole lot has been said about what Jesus meant when He said, This is my body. But what did the disciples think when He said it? Did they really think that He meant that the hand that was breaking and passing out the bread was also becoming the bread? Did they think this was some “sacramental alchemy”? (Garland) Or did they think that the bread represented His body, which would go along with His teaching found in John 6 about Him being the “bread of life”? This is not the bread taking on the substance of Jesus’ flesh while retaining the accidents of bread.
The bread symbolized His body which is for you; “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). In Greek it is clear due to the gender of the words, that the which is His body, not the bread. Yes, the bread is for them, too, but Jesus says His body is for them. He was about to make the greatest sacrifice of love for all time. He was giving Himself for others. This is what we believe, this is what we’re also supposed to embody.
When Jesus said to His disciples, Do this in remembrance of me, He was establishing a pattern for them to continue in. They didn’t need to “remember” Him at the Last Supper; He was right there. They would need to remember Him later, after His resurrection and ascension.
The significance of In the same way also has no better explanation than that Jesus gave thanks again. He took bread, and He took the cup, but He broke the bread to distribute it, and He didn’t break the cup. Jesus established the manner of the meal as one of serious gratitude and self-giving, not serious guilt or self-serving.
Jesus took the cup after supper, which is probably the third of four cups in the Passover meal, and He fills it with new significance: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”
The new covenant is not merely contrasted with the “old” covenant, the new covenant is a specific set of promises that the Lord made in the Old Testament, mentioned in Jeremiah 31 and in Ezekiel 36.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt…. (Jeremiah 31:31–32)
It is a covenant or “testament” in which God declares His intention to forgive and to give new hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). It is God’s Word, fixed as by the order of sun and moon, that He will bring about the belief and obedience that previous covenants required but did not actually produce. The new covenant is His promise to fulfill both sides, His own and His people’s.
I urge you to read the new covenant promises in their context (see Jeremiah 31:31-40; Ezekiel 36:16-38), because they are spectacular. They are also not yet completed, though Jesus is saying that His blood purchases all that is necessary for them to be completed. There is no additional atonement to be made; atonement is accomplished, though it still is being applied. For us who drink the cup, we are reminded of all that Christ guaranteed by giving His blood.
The cup belongs with the bread. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. Throughout the history of the church there have been times when priests allowed the people to have bread but not the wine. This is a different kind of division than the Corinthians had, but it is no better. The Corinthians divided between the rich and the poor, the Catholics divided between the clergy and the laity. It’s wrong to keep believers from the cup; Jesus commands remembrance of His body and His blood.
The whole paragraph is an explanation, and here is an explanation of the explanation. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Eating bread and drinking wine can be done by anyone and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Jesus. There are words that belong with the observance of the sacrament, not just words of meditation or explanation, but words of thanksgiving to God for Jesus and in remembrance of Him. But when Paul says that you proclaim the Lord’s death, he is saying that proclamation happens as they eat and drink (five mentions of “eating” and “drinking” in verses 26-29, Garland). The proclamation he’s referring to in verse 26 is not in addition to the meal, it is the meal. The supper is a kind of sermon.
It is to be a sermon about the Lord’s death. But how can we preach about Christ’s loving sacrifice of Himself for others while we focus on ourselves? We can’t, and the Corinthians’ weren’t, therefore this paragraph. We are always preaching; what is the point of the sermon? We are all in the pulpit, so to speak, when we come to the Table. The Corinthians were preaching a sermon about self-indulgence, but not about how to repent from it.
I’ve always wondered why Paul says that we proclaim Christ’s death but doesn’t include Christ’s resurrection. Lot’s of people, and so-called “gods” have died. What makes Christ different is that He rose again on the third day. Here’s a couple thoughts. First, Paul actually does refer to the resurrection in verse 26 when he says, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. It’s right there! Dead men don’t return. Corpses don’t come anywhere. We don’t just have to remember “on our own” that Jesus is alive; the meal of waiting is for the living Lord’s second advent. Second, and again it is the reason for Paul’s explanation, is because the Corinthians, and all Christians, need to die.
Communion is not a me and Jesus ceremony. This isn’t to say that a person in the hospital couldn’t receive communion. But when the church comes together we’re supposed to be thinking about one another, and giving ourselves for one another, just as Jesus gave Himself for us. Communion strengthens us, it feeds our souls by faith, and then we say no to ourselves. To eat the bread is to share in the body of Christ. To drink the cup is to have koinonia with Christ and His body.
There are a lot of things to remember, a lot of truths and instructions and commands. I have lists of quotes and verses and goads to get my thinking on the right road. What Jesus Himself ordains for our regular remembrance is a meal of identity as the delivered.
Remember Egypt, don’t park in Egypt. Remember your captivity to, and guilt in, sin, but don’t park there. Remember Christ, His identity and His sacrifice, and then let that shape your identity in Him and your love like Him. Remember by being thankful. Remember by reckoning as true that you were in Him when He died (Romans 6:5-11). Remember where you stood with God, what cost Christ paid for you, and that by His grace you now stand justified. Remember that He is coming for you, the ones for whom He died.
Paul handed over the Lord’s Supper even as Christ was handed over for our sins. Christ gave Himself up for us. Christ put away His will to do His Father’s will to serve His people, even while they were still sinners. This is truth to believe, truth to eat and drink, and truth to embody.
There is a lot of significant eating in the Bible. The Passover becomes the Last Supper becomes the Lord’s Supper in anticipation of the Supper of the Lamb. You have eaten this morning, partaking of Christ’s body and blood, proclaiming that He is coming again. Now you are charged and blessed by Him to practice what’s been set before you. Say no to yourself, and do it in remembrance of Him.
[M]ay the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (1 Thessalonians 3:12–13, ESV)