Paul taught on many occasions that there is only one body of Christ and that Christians make up that body. Here are a few places Paul teaches on that,
“Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” – Romans 12:4-5
“Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. ” – 1 Cor 10:16-17
“12 The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Now the body is not made up of one part but of many.” – 1 Cor 12:12-4
and he goes on to say…
“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” – 1 Cor 12:27
So what is Paul talking about in 1 Corinthians 11:28-29 when he wrote,
“28 A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.”?
Paul gives us a clue about what we will be judged over. He says that if we are hungry we should eat at home so we won’t be judged. What in the world does that mean? In 11:17 Paul tells them that when they take the supper it is doing more harm than good. First he says because there are divisions among them (11:18) which missed the point that they were one unified body. Next he says that really they aren’t even taking the supper because of the way they are doing it. You might expect him to say that is because they aren’t picturing Jesus on the cross (discerning/recognizing the body). That is not what he says. He says people are being greedy and selfish and gluttonous. Some are getting full and drunk while others have nothing. He says the poor are being humiliated (probably as they make them go last and the rich go first). All this during the Lord’s Supper! Ouch.
Next, Paul writes those famous words about how Christ began the supper and the manner in which we are to take it (11:23-26). But if we take it unworthily we are guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord (11:27). Paul just told us that their quarrels and divisions and mistreatment of each other was wrong and even resulted in their Lord’s Supper not even being considered the Supper at all but more like an “un-love feast” of sorts. This unworthy manner is addressed directly to the messed up way they had been taking the supper as described in 11:17-22. Remember, these letters and teachings are occasional. Paul tells us the whole reason he is reminding the Corinthians of what the Lord’s Supper is all about is because they have missed the point due to how they are treating each other.
What does it mean to “recognize the body?”:
I believe his point is that if these Corinthian Christians examined their actions during the supper there is no way they would run over each other in the manner that they had been doing. Paul says judgment comes on those who fail to recognize the body. Did he all of a sudden turn from his condemnation of their “un-love feast” and make a disconnected aside about the Lord’s Supper? If you say not recognizing the body of the Lord is solely about picturing Christ on the cross that is basically what you would have to say Paul did here. I don’t think so. I also think that is why in the very next chapter he devotes a huge amount of space to Christians being the body of Christ and in 12:27 even says, “You are the body of Christ.” Jesus certainly wants us to remember him in the Supper. He told us to do that. But if we are at odds and divided from each other during the Supper Paul clearly teaches that not only do we nullify the whole point of the supper but we bring judgment upon ourselves. What is more we are the body of Christ…not a separate body. When we treat each other with love and respect we are treating Christ that way (Mtt 25:40). So there is still one body and Jesus Christ is the head of that body (Eph 5:23). The body of Christ and the church cannot really be separated. So the Supper has a horizontal component and a vertical component.
How did we individualize the Supper and focus almost entirely on the vertical component? The way we do things often results in meaning being developed over time. Because we often take the Supper in a room full of hundreds of people it is necessary that we pass trays, sit in rows, etc in order to take communion. This does not lend itself to communion as the first century church understood it being a communal meal shared together. That is not a condemnation of how we do things it just recognizes that it has limitations. The result of that has been an individualized act that can miss the point that the Supper is done in communion with each other and with our Lord.
Recognizing both components in a room full of hundreds of people:
One thing I do on Sunday is I pray to God. I give him thanks. I express my joy over God’s grace and appreciation for Jesus’ sacrifice on my behalf. But I don’t leave it at that. Often I will pray for those around me. I will look around the room and find people who I know are going through a tough time and I will ask God to bless them, encourage them, and strengthen them. In doing so I am trying to recognize as fully as possible, “The body of the Lord.” Now on Summer Sunday nights our congregation is taking the supper together around tables to try to incorporate this point.
Have any of you tried to recognize the horizontal nature of the supper? How so?