Eucharistic Participation and Judgement
We have arrived at the Triduum, the great three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. Today’s second reading from the Daily Office Lectionary consists of two extracts from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians dealing with the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist. These are appropriate readings for Maundy Thursday, which is the day on which Christians remember the night on which Jesus instituted the Eucharist.
1 Cor 10.14–17; 11.27–32
10.14 Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols. 15I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? 17Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
The context of the first passage is that it is part of an extended discussion of whether the Corinthians should eat food that had been sacrificed to pagan gods (called in the text “idols”). Paul basically says that one is free to do as one wants – there is nothing wrong with the food, after all, it is not possessed – but others may have scruples about it, and so one should, out of kindness, defer to their preferences, even if they are wrong. That does not give license to worship idols, of course.
The Lord’s Supper is another thing, because God is real and Jesus is Lord. Thus the weekly gathering around bread and wine was more than a meal, but as Paul calls it, a participation and a sharing. Without necessarily buying into a Middle Platonic metaphysics Paul is asserting that the Eucharist is a means by which followers of Christ are incorporated into the body of Christ. This is not simply an imputed membership, but a real and spiritual action, by which one strengthens that which was given in baptism, the Holy Spirit.
The second passage for today spells out the implications.
11.27 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. 28Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves. 30For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. 32But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
How might one unworthily eat the bread or drink the cup? The context of the passage is that Paul is reminding the Corinthians about how to conduct the Lord’s Supper. He does not go into detail because he already showed them when he was in Corinth. However, he has heard that the supper – which in form was much more like a potluck than the formal eucharist we have today – was disorderly in that some were not sharing, some were eating before others, some were going hungry, and others getting drunk. Paul instructs them in the verses after today’s reading to wait for each other, and implicitly, to share and not get drunk on the wine.
Paul asks that the Corinthians examine themselves. The self examination is, I think, about experiencing the koinonia (usually translated as “fellowship”) of the body of Christ in the gathering. If they do not experience that – it they are greedy, gluttonous, and impatient – they are essentially repudiating the meaning of the Lord’s Supper as an inclusive meal where there is always room for others. Thus they wind up in judgement, even if present and partaking of the bread and wine, the body and the blood. Paul sees this as resulting in physical illness, which is not as much of a stretch as it sounds; greedy, gluttonous, impatient people tend to be unhealthy.
Self-examination that sees where one has fallen short, however, will lead to reform of will and attitude. This leads one to generosity, moderation, and patience, which likewise leads to physical and spiritual health.
There is something quite wonderful about the fact that Jesus made the potluck the central action of his community. We have reduced it to a bare ritual so that many do not even recognise it as a meal, but eating and drinking remain central to the action. Many churches on Maundy Thursday return it to being a potluck with a full meal; I’ve done this in a couple of the parishes where I have ministered. What I think we in the well-fed developed world miss is the connection between food and justice. Hardly anybody starves in Canada, except in the most exceptional situations. In the First Century Roman Empire, especially in Judea and Galilee, it was different. In Paul’s day the gathering on the Lord’s Day might be the only solid meal people got all week. In Galilee the appropriation of food by the authorities triggered shortages and deepened poverty. Sarah Miles in her book Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion describes how she sees a strong connection between the food ministry in her parish in San Francisco and the Holy Eucharist; they are different aspects of the same thing.
Maundy Thursday is a complex, busy day. The Eucharist is instituted. Jesus washes the disciples feet. Jesus gives the “mandatum” or command to, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus prays in Gethsemane, and is betrayed, and he begins the Passion. All of this generally leaves our heads spinning, but underneath it is a continuity of justice achieved through humble service, or reconciliation achieved by love in the face of oppression. May this strong river of justice which flows through these three days fill our spirits that we might be the body of Christ.