I once heard someone say that coming to church is a bit like taking a car to the petrol station. Church is where you re-fill your spiritual tank to keep you going for the Lord. Now there's some truth in that. But let me give you a moment to think: what's wrong with that picture of church?
What's wrong with that picture of church is that it's all about me. It's about me coming in for my re-fill - whether it's a Sunday or mid-week meeting – and then heading off again. And the rest of you don't get a look in. Because just like I don't feel at all bound to get involved with other people at the petrol station, so I won't feel bound to get involved with you if I think of church like that. What's wrong with that picture is that it's individualistic. It sees church meetings as things we come to for our individual benefit, with no sense that we should relate to others, let alone care for others.
That's how they were thinking in this church in Corinth. That's one of the reasons why Paul wrote this letter. And in chapters 11 through 14 he's dealing with what was going wrong when they met together as a church. And we pick it up from last week at v17:
17In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good.
Now we've all been to Sunday services and Home Groups and other church meetings that could have been better. But this is saying something much stronger than that. It's saying that it's possible, if we behave like the Corinthians, for our meetings to do more harm than good. And I take it that we wouldn't want God to have to say that about our church. So let's hear what he has to say to us through the apostle Paul. I've got three headings:
I. Treating the church wrongly
II. Thinking rightly about the church
III. Behaving rightly towards the church
Firstly, TREATING THE CHURCH WRONGLY (vv17-22)
What was going wrong in Corinth? Verse 17 again:
17In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval. 20When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, 21for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. 22Don't you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not! (vv17-22)
Whenever we're reading the Bible, we need to remember that it wasn't written directly to us. So, 1 Corinthians was written in the first place to this particular church in Corinth, to sort out its particular problems. But when God inspired Paul to write it, he had us in mind as well. God knew that this letter would become part of the Bible for the sake of all the other churches there would ever be – including our church. So this was written to them, back then; but also for us, today. So we have to read it in two stages. We need to ask, 'What was going on and what was God saying to them, back then?' And then we need to ask, 'How is/could our situation be parallel to theirs, and what is God saying to us today – what is true for all time?'
So, let's think our way back into the church in Corinth. Verse 18: Paul is talking about, 'When you come together as a church' – ie, their main church meeting. Only in those days, they had no church building like this. We know from elsewhere in the New Testament (eg, Romans 16.5, 23) that they would have met in the home of one of the richer members of the church. And we know from archaeology that some houses in Corinth were pretty big – some could seat up to 80 or 90 for a meal. And a church meal is what Paul's talking about in vv20 onwards:
When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, 21for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. 22Don't you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? (vv20-22)
Now the Lord's Supper is what we call 'Holy Communion'. Now, when we read, 'Lord's Supper', we immediately think of a service in a church building, where you eat a small piece of bread and take a small sip of wine. But v20 is describing a real meal. It's like the occasional 'Communion Suppers' we have here - where we get together for a real meal and have a communion service as part of it. That's what the Corinthians did regularly in one of the richer members' homes.
But it wasn't a 'bring and share' occasion. It was more like 'bring and scoff your own'. So, end of v21: 'One remains hungry, another gets drunk.' So you can imagine: some poor Christian slave staggers in after a 14-hour day and goes hungry, because he's got nothing to bring. And it doesn't occur to the richer members to share a meal with a slave. That just wasn't 'the done thing' in Corinthian society. So there are the 'have nots' sitting around the edges of the room, salivating quietly. And there are the 'haves' tucking into roast whatever-it-is-with-all-the-trimmings while the butler keeps the glasses nicely topped up. Welcome to Corinth Parish Church.
And once you see that that's what was going on, you begin to understand why Paul was so strong with them. Why he says in v18:
I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you.
And he meant social divisions. Class divisions. Rich / poor divisions. Some people stuffing their faces over here in the 'haves' clique, and others starving quietly over there as the 'have nots'. In the church. In the main church meeting. And it's easy to leap in and say, 'How could they behave like that?' But the answer's very simple. That's how Corinthian society worked. Those were the divisions, that was the behaviour they took for granted. If you were one of the richer, you'd look at a slave and say, 'He's not my type' – I'm not bound to relate to him. And you'd look at a slave and say, 'He's not my problem' – I'm not bound to care for him. That's how the world worked. And the Corinthians brought that whole way of thinking from their pre-Christian life right into their church.
Which is why Paul weighs in with v22. Targeting the rich he says:
22Don't you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?
The point is: this isn't the world we're talking about. This is 'the church of God.' And some, at least, of the Corinthians had completely failed to recognise that. They just brought into the church the divisions and behaviour that they'd learned from the world. And the scary thing is: they weren't even aware of it. But that's always the way, isn't it? When you're the one being alienated, excluded, even humiliated (v22), you're aware of it all right. But when we're the ones doing the alienating, the excluding, the embarrassing (our polite word for 'humiliating') we often don't even realise it.
So that's what was going wrong back then in Corinth. And what's true for all time – and therefore for us today – is this: it's still possible for you and I to alienate, exclude, even to humiliate our fellow-believers - without even realising it – by behaving in a way that brings out our social divisions inside the church fellowship.
For example: almost the first question the world asks you (say at a party), after your name, is, 'What do you do?' You are what you do. We're placed on a professional pecking order, from high status jobs to low status ones. And that is alienating for many – most of all for the unemployed: the person who, in the world's eyes, doesn't even make it into the pecking order. And it's all too easy for us to draw attention to those divisions – by the way we ask questions of people and by the way we wear on our sleeves what we do, or what we've done, when people don't always need to know. I think one test of a healthy church is whether a person can be unemployed but feel entirely comfortable within the fellowship.
Another example: insensitivity about money. We may plan a Home Group meal out at a restaurant, or a Home Group weekend away. We encourage parents to send children on Scripture Union and CYFA camps, etc. And some people forget that others can't afford those things. And we easily raise financial divisions. We easily embarrass and alienate our fellow-believers.
And, of course, we can all form cliques that leave out other people. And we absolve ourselves by thinking, 'But he/she's not my type', or 'He/she's not my concern.' All of which is treating the church wrongly.
Second, THINKING RIGHTLY ABOUT THE CHURCH (vv23-32)
The Corinthians were thinking that the church is no different from the world. Whereas, middle of v22, Paul had to get it into their heads that this mixed and motley and completely unlikely bunch of people was actually the church of God. (Just look around you, now. This group of people is quite supernatural. Apart form the intervention of God in our lives, this group of people would never have come together.) Paul had to get into their heads that underneath superficial differences - like bank balances and jobs and qualifications and accents and backgrounds and skin colour – they were united by one thing that made the differences look like peanuts. And that reality is what the Lord's Supper that they were getting so horribly wrong should have reminded them. So, v23:
23For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." 25In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me."
In vv23-25, Paul quotes what the Lord Jesus said and did on the Thursday evening before he died on the cross that first Good Friday. He was having a last meal with his disciples. And he used a loaf of bread and a cup of wine to explain what his death the following day would achieve. So, end of v23, he took the bread and broke it and said, 'This is my body.' By which he meant, 'This stands for my body. This represents my body.' It's a bit like when you're drawing a map to help someone find their way to your house and you draw a little square and say, 'This is our house.' You don't literally mean, 'This square centimetre of paper is where we live.' You mean, 'This square represents our house.' It's just a symbol. And that's what the bread and wine at communion are. They don't change. Nothing 'happens' to them. They're just symbols to remind us of the Lord Jesus' death.
So, Jesus took the bread, v24, broke it and gave it to his disciples saying, 'This is [ie, this represents] my body, which is for you [ie, which I am going to give for you to pay for you the penalty that your sins deserve]. Do this in remembrance of me.'
And then, v25, he took a cup of wine, or something like it (Luke 22.18), and said, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood.' A 'covenant' is a solemnly committed relationship. Eg, a marriage is a 'covenant', where two people say a solemn 'I will' to one another. So Jesus was saying: this cup is [ie, represents] the new relationship you can come into with God through my blood, ie, my dying in your place for your sins. 'Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.'
It's as if God the Father is the officiating minister at a wedding, and first he turned to his Son and said, 'Saviour, will you have these sinners?' And the Lord Jesus, in dying so we might be forgiven, has said a resounding, 'Yes.' And then, through the gospel message, God turns to us individually and says, 'Sinner, will you have this Saviour? For, if you will, I will forgive you, have you back and never give up on you for the rest of your life, until I finally bring you to be with me in heaven.'
That's what a 'covenant' relationship with God means. And it all rests on Jesus' death so we could be forgiven. And a communion service is a remembering and a fresh believing in what our relationship with God rests on. And Paul sums up what's going on in the Lord's Supper in v26:
For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.
And if you're just looking into Christianity, can I say: the death of Jesus is the most important thing about it. We didn't come to this communion service this morning to remember Jesus' life – as if he came to give us an example, saying, 'Follow this, and if you're good enough, God will accept you.' We came to remember Jesus' death – that he came to pay for the forgiveness of our sins because we are not good enough, and never will be. (And taking the bread and the wine is a way of saying, 'Just like I am receiving this bit of bread and sip of wine, so by trusting in what Jesus did on the cross, I have received forgiveness.' And if you're not able to say that, you shouldn't take the bread and the wine, yet.)
So, Paul was saying to the Corinthians (and us): don't you realise what the Lord's Supper symbolises? Don't you realise that by taking communion, each of you is saying, 'We all stand on level ground at the cross. We have in common that we're sinners, and that Jesus died for us to bring us back to God… And if through Jesus, I've been brought back into relationship with God, and if through Jesus, these others have been brought back into relationship with God - well then, I'm now in relationship with these others. They're brothers and sisters in Christ. I'm bound to them. And compared to that, any differences between us are peanuts.'
Which is why it was so offensive to God that the Corinthian church was so divided. And even more offensive that those divisions were happening at the very meal that was meant to symbolise what united them. So Paul goes on, v27:
27Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.
Now we've already seen what it meant to 'eat the bread and drink the cup… in an unworthy manner' - back in vv18-22. It meant that at the very meal that symbolised being united with others through Jesus' death, you failed to relate to them, failed to care for them, failed to recognise them as your brothers and sisters. So Paul says, v28:
28A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. 29For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.
And in v29, 'recognising the body of the Lord' means 'recognising the church as the body of Christ, recognising these people with whom you take communion as brothers and sisters to whom you are bound in the deepest possible way. Bound to relate to them. And bound to care for them. Because you're all part of one body. Just like he goes on to say in chapter 12 - eg, 12.13:
For we were all baptised into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free. [the big racial and social divisions of the day] – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
So, v28 is the application verse for this second heading:
28A man ought to examine himself [a woman ought to examine herself] before he [she] eats of the bread and drinks of the cup…
That is, should ask himself/herself, 'Am I relating properly to my fellow-believers right now? Am I actually treating this group of people as brothers and sisters I am bound to relate to and bound to care for?' That's why it's always said at communion services here that the invitation to take the bread and wine is to those who are right with God through Jesus Christ and in a right relationship with one another. And it's that second bit that Paul is on about here.
How should we 'examine ourselves?' We could ask ourselves, 'Is there anyone that, if I'm honest, I'm simply refusing to relate to? Anyone I'm avoiding? Anyone I'm excluding from my circle?' ('They're not my type')
And we could ask ourselves, 'Is there anyone that if I'm honest, I'm simply refusing to care for? Are there needs I'm aware of, which I'm in a position to meet, but I simply haven't bothered to?' Eg, in preparing this, I reckoned the direct parallel situation today would be being aware of material, financial needs of brothers and sisters in the congregation, but doing nothing to help - and yet still happily taking communion with them, as if we weren't family, as if I didn't owe them help. I wrote down the names of five people I know in that situation as I prepared this.
One last question to ask ourselves. This goes beyond Paul's concern here (which is social divisions). But it's a valid application. It's also good to ask ourselves, 'Is there anyone I need to be reconciled with? Anyone I need to forgive?' Verse 28:
28A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup…
Because it's humbug to take part in something that symbolises restored relationship with God and with one another and at the same time to be saying by the way we live, 'They're not my type; they're not my problem; or I can't forgive them.' And it's offensive to God. And in Corinth, it was so bad that God judged the spiritual ill-health of the church by allowing a good deal of physical ill-health as a sign of his displeasure. So Paul says (presumably because God made it clear to him) that in this particular case, sickness was a specific judgement on specific sin. But it's not a general statement about all sickness. Verse 29:
29For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord [ie, without recognizing the church as the body of Christ, the church of God] eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31But if we judged [= examined, v28] ourselves, we would not come under judgment. 32When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world. (vv29-32)
That's thinking rightly about the church. Then,
Third, BEHAVING RIGHTLY TOWARDS THE CHURCH (v33-34)
Paul has tried to straighten out their thinking about the church. Now he wraps up this bit of the letter with concrete application to their behaviour. Verse 33:
33So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. 34If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgement. And when I come I will give further directions.
And there's a 'do' and a 'don't' in those verses.
The 'do' is in v33: 'when you come together to eat, wait for each other.' The word translated 'wait' can also mean 'share', and I take it that's what Paul is getting at. He's not just saying, 'Wait for each other to arrive before you then scoff your faces and leave some to starve, as before.' He must be saying, 'Share! Don't have some tucking in and others missing out!' He's saying: church is an 'each other' activity.
And that 'do' – at least, the principle behind it – is true for all time, and, therefore, for us today. The 'do' is: do make church an 'each other' activity. Do come on Sunday, do come to Home Group (or whatever else) prepared to look out for each other. Do look out for new faces. Do introduce yourself and welcome them. Do be prepared to talk and not just rush off; to listen; to help; to invite home for lunch; and so on.
The 'don't' is in v34: 'If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.' Ie, don't bring and eat a large quantity at the church meal. Paul hadn't scrapped the church meal (see v33, 'when you come together to eat'). So I take it that in v34 he means that the person who wants to eat a lot (who 'is hungry') should do so at home, in case his eating a lot at the church meal raises this problem all over again.
And that 'don't' – at least, the principle behind it – is true for all time, and, therefore, for us today. The 'don't' is: don't do anything when you meet that will alienate or exclude or embarrass others. Do those things elsewhere, not when you meet. So, eg, don't be individualistic. We can do that at home! We can not-talk-to-people at home. Let's not do the 'petrol-station' thing here on Sundays or in Home Groups or anywhere else in our church. Let's not just dash in and dash out for our own 're-fill' and forget our responsibility to 're-fill' our fellow-believers - with encouragement and conversation and support and listening and so on. Don't be individualistic. And don't be cliquey. We can do that at home, too! We can catch up with close friends at home. But if that's what we reckon church (or Home Group, or whatever) is for, it leaves a lot of people left out. And a newcomer, especially, will look at JPC and think it's just a multiple clique that is hard, if not impossible, to break into.
So, let's not treat the church wrongly. Let's think about it rightly so that we behave towards each other rightly.
Let me end with this. I remember a student whom we interviewed up at the front of church about how he'd come to faith in Jesus. Like a lot of people he said what had drawn him to Jesus was the lives of Christians. But in his case, it wasn't just the life of an individual Christian. It was being drawn in to the Newcastle Christian Union. And I still remember him saying, 'What struck me was that it was the only society in the university that seemed to me to unite people who were completely different from one another. And I wanted to know what it was that held them together.'
Wouldn't it be great if people could say the same about our church? And that's the positive thing that Paul is driving at here. It's a dreadful thing if people see divisions among us. It's a great thing when they see real unity and are left asking, 'What – or maybe Who – holds this lot together?'