I’m sure you’ve all seen those ads in newspapers and magazines advertising some product or procedure to make you look better in some way – to look younger or fitter or thinner. And they typically have two pictures to show you what people look like “before” and what they look like “after” using their product.
Even home improvement companies use these pictures. I found these “before” and “after” pictures in Country Living magazine, and this is an absolutely incredible transformation. My guess you would be thrilled to have this company do some work on your house.
But suppose the pictures were reversed and this is what the “before” and “after” pictures look like. This is what the house looked like before the home improvement company got started and here’s what it looked like after they got finished. I’m pretty certain you wouldn’t want anything to do with that company.
Now I share that with you because I believe that all of us come together for worship with a “before” picture, and we leave with an “after” picture. And whenever we meet to worship God together, it is always my desire and prayer that each of us comes away from our time together a better person – stronger in our faith, more focused on spiritual things, more committed to Jesus Christ.
But what if our “after” picture looks worse than the “before” picture? Because, unfortunately, that’s exactly what was going on in the Corinthian church. Throughout Paul’s letter, he has rebuked these Christians many times and he has said some rather harsh things to them, but our text this morning opens with what may well be the harshest thing Paul ever said to them.
In verse 17, “But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” (I Corinthians 11:17)
Paul says that when you Corinthians come together as the people of God for worship, you walk away worse than you were before you came. The Berean Study Bible says, “your gatherings do more harm than good.” Paul is basically saying, “You’d be better off if you would just stay home and sleep late. Because spending time in worship together is making things worse.”
Which is a horrible thing to have to say, because we need our time together. All week long, we live in a world where we don’t fit in. This world doesn’t understand us. We live with a completely different value system. We’re different in how we spend our money. We’re different in how we spend our time. We’re different in how we live our lives. And this world doesn’t make things easy for us.
And the only place where our faith makes sense is when we gather as the people of God. When we come together, this is a place where we can draw strength from one another. But if, when we come together, things actually get worse instead of better, then where else is there to go?
Verse 18, “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part…” (I Corinthians 11:18-19)
Paul says, “I hear that there are divisions among you.” We saw this all the way back in the first few chapters, how there was an attitude of spiritual arrogance which led to them to fuss and argue with one another and say, “My group is better than your group. We’re the ones who are the most spiritual. We’re the ones who have the most wisdom.”
So, Paul is bringing this back up again. But this time, he’s not talking about all the groups that were following the teachings of different preachers. This time, he says their division was taking place when they gathered for worship, in particular, during the Lord’s Supper.
In verse 19, Paul says, “there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized”, and you can take that a couple of different ways. Many commentators think that Paul is simply saying that there are always going to be divisions in the church, but when those moments come, it is an opportunity for true Christ followers to emerge. When everybody else starts dividing up into their different groups, then the true Christ follower can step up and be different.
But I take this verse in a different way. In case you haven’t noticed, Paul uses a lot of sarcasm throughout this Corinthian letter, and I think that’s what he’s doing here. I think what Paul is saying is this, “Based on your spiritual arrogance, based on the fact that some of you think you are so much better than everyone else, then it only stands to reason that there are going to be divisions in the church so that you can demonstrate that you are the spiritual elite. It only makes sense that you would try to figure out a way to separate yourselves from everyone else to show that you are so much better than everyone else.”
Because I think that fits in with what Paul says next. Verse 20, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.” (I Corinthians 11:20-21)
The first thing we need to understand is that the Christians of the first century observed the Lord’s Supper in a very different way than we do. Every Sunday, a part of their worship was a meal, what they called a love feast or an agape feast. It was a time when everyone in the church would bring some food, they would enjoy it together, they would have a meal. And then, at the end of this love feast, they would take the Lord’s Supper together, the bread and the fruit of the vine. It was more than just a potluck, more than just a meal. It was the Lord’s Supper.
And if that sounds strange, it shouldn’t. Keep in mind that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper as part of a meal with his apostles. And so, when the early Christians referred to communion as “the Lord’s Supper”, it truly was a supper. The Lord’s Supper.
And for some Christians who were slaves or very poor, it may have been the only decent meal they got all week. So, they looked forward with anticipation to the time the church gathered together for this agape feast and then took the Lord’s Supper together.
Hold onto that thought for just a moment and let me talk about what meals in general were like in the first century. In the ancient world, they often had social gatherings, typically in someone’s home. Someone would have a large home and people would gather. And when they sat for the meal, it was very important where you were invited to sit.
Now it’s hard for us to appreciate this in our culture, but they believed that the closer you got to what we might call the head table, to the place of prominence, that identified where you fit in on the social ladder. You may recall that Jesus talked about this. So, you would show up at a party, at a social gathering and you anxiously waited to see where they would seat you because that made a huge statement. And everyone was always working to get a better seat.
It was also true that those who were wealthy felt the need to demonstrate that they supposedly had a compassion for those poor. And what that meant was that poor people would be allowed to come to these events but not to come inside. They didn’t get a seat at the table, but they could gather outside, perhaps in a courtyard. And the host would send out some scraps of food and some leftover wine. But it was something that they could use to justify that they had compassion on the poor. So, there was a very clear distinction between those who got in and those who didn’t.
It was also true in the ancient world that there weren’t a lot of things to spend money on like we have today. Today, those who wealthy have unlimited choices – they can buy mansions, luxury cars, yachts, jets, designer clothing. But in the first century, there just weren’t that many things to buy.
So, one of things that identified those who were wealthy was a life of leisure. If you had enough wealth that you could pretty much sit around all day long while the rest of the world worked, that made a statement that you had arrived. And so, it wasn’t unusual at these parties for those who were wealthy to show up mid-afternoon and they would sit around and eat the finest foods and drink until they were drunk, and they would basically just party all day while the rest of the world worked, and that made a strong social statement.
Now, once you understand all of that, you can see that what was happening in the Corinthian church is that the Corinthians were bringing that worldliness into their worship. And so, when they would gather for worship, the wealthier Christians, the elite, the spiritually superior would gather mid-afternoon and they would have a meal. And they would eat the finest food and they would drink until they had too much. By the time the rest of the church gathered, there was very little food left, and, in the process, they made a very clear statement that we matter and you don’t. We’re valuable and you’re not. We’re the elite and you’re lower class.
And so, this sense of value from their culture was being brought into the church so that when they gathered together, instead of the church being a place where everyone is on an equal level, it was just more of the same. The working class, the poor would show up and they would hear the message again, “You don’t matter, you have no value, you’re insignificant”.
And in verse 22, Paul says, “What!” Or maybe a better translation would be, “What’s wrong with you people?”
“Do you not have houses 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 commend you in this? No, I will not.” (I Corinthians 11:22)
Paul says, “If all you care about is just eating a meal, then go do it somewhere else. If you can’t treat your brothers and sisters with love and respect, then just stay home and eat. What is wrong with you people, shaming those that have less than you do, bringing the value system of the world into the house of God.”
Then Paul tells why this is so offensive to God.
Verse 23, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’
“In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (I Corinthians 11:23-26)
This behavior of shaming the poor led right into their celebration of communion. So, Paul reminds them what communion is all about, which is another way of reminding them what the message of the gospel is about. When we take this bread and we drink this fruit of the vine, we remember the sacrifice of Jesus, the fact that he gave up his body and his blood on our behalf.
And if we truly understand that, then I can’t be thinking about how important I am. This is what Jesus has done for me. His body was broken for me. So, when I come to the Lord’s table, this is a reminder that Jesus did for me what I couldn’t do for myself. He did it. Not me. And it’s his sacrifice that provides my salvation.
When we think about the broken body and the shed blood of Jesus, there’s a tendency to think that these are just two ways of saying the same thing, but I don’t think that’s correct. Rather, I think there’s a progression in the elements.
The idea of the broken body carries with it the idea that Jesus was broken on the cross for us. So, when we identify with Jesus, we identify with his brokenness. We’re broken to the idea that we can do it on our own. We’re broken to the idea that we can be our own Savior. We’re broken to the idea that we can somehow do enough good stuff to merit favor with God. So, we realize that we are broken, helpless, unable to save ourselves.
Then, having reach the end of our ropes, it is the blood of Christ that breathes new life into us. It’s the blood of Jesus that was shed for our sins; it’s the basis by which we are made alive again. It’s the basis by which we will live for all eternity.
So, these elements are in essence are saying that, just as Jesus was broken for us, we came to a point of brokenness, and we were offered new life through the blood of Jesus. I think that’s part of the symbolism of the bread and the fruit of the vine.
And, in verse 26, Paul says that that every time we do this, every time we eat this bread and we drink this cup, we proclaim this message until Jesus returns. But who are we proclaiming this message to? Communion is not an outreach event. We’re not proclaiming it to the unsaved. In fact, most of them don’t even know we’re doing it.
No, we’re proclaiming it to one another. In essence, what we’re saying every time we take communion is that we as the people of God are a broken people. We are a group of people who came to the end of ourselves. We are a broken people and recognize that apart from what Jesus did for us on the cross, there is no hope of salvation. And so, every time we come together to take communion, we are reminding one another, “By the way, if you’re ever tempted to become spiritually arrogant, let’s not forget, we’re a broken people.”
As Paul said back in chapter 4 verse 7, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, then why do you act like you didn’t receive it?” Paul was challenging their arrogance, their thinking that somehow they were better than everyone else, more spiritual than everyone else.
Now in the Corinthian church, Paul was dealing with issues of the wealthy versus the poor but he could have been talking about any division. It could be the rich vs. the poor, it could be on the basis of race, it could be Republican vs. Democrat. It could be on the basis of how people dress. It could be on the basis of tattooed vs. non-tattooed, anything that we get in our head that causes us to somehow think that our spirituality is greater than theirs. That somehow we are more righteous in the eyes of God than that person or that person or that person.
So, when we come together to take the Lord’s Supper, we’re saying, “Wait a minute, none of that’s true. The value system that divides the world outside these doors does not belong in the church of Jesus Christ. When we come together as the people of God, we are a broken people and we are all made righteous the same way, by the blood of Jesus Christ.”
So, you can see how the behavior of the Corinthians when they were eating that meal was in direct contradiction to the whole point of communion.
Verse 27, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” (I Corinthians 11:27-29)
What does Paul mean when he talks about taking the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner? Let me tell you what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that if you’ve totally blown it this past week, if you’ve come here as a struggler and your heart is broken and you’ve grieved God and you come to the communion table feeling like a failure, that doesn’t mean that you’re unworthy.
In fact, you may well be the most worthy person among us because you have a very keen awareness of your brokenness, your sinfulness, your desperate need for a Savior. You probably get it better than most of us. No, it’s those of us who come to the table and think “This week, I am worthy”; it’s at that point that we need to be concerned.
And there is always this danger that we begin to think on the basis of our performance that we’re worthy. Let’s see, let me think about this past week. I didn’t commit adultery, I didn’t kill anybody, I didn’t cheat in my business. Check, check, check, check, so this morning I am worthy. No, no, no.
If we’re not careful, we can lose sight of the fact that it was the broken body and the shed blood of Jesus that makes us worthy. It has nothing to do with our spiritual performance, it has nothing to do with our ability to make ourselves right. The whole point of examining ourselves is to come to grips with the fact that we are a broken people and we come recognizing the only basis by which I have a relationship with God is the broken body and the shed blood of Jesus.
We need to examine our hearts to see if there’s any self-righteousness. If you look at another Christian that may be different from you and say to yourself, I think my Christianity is better than theirs, I think my walk is better than theirs, I think my way is better than theirs, I think my behavior makes me more spiritual than them, then you’ve forgotten that the message of the gospel is ultimately a message of brokenness.
And I think that’s what Paul means when he says we need to “discern the body” when we take the Lord’s Supper. Some people disagree about what he meant by that. Does he mean the physical body of Jesus? Or does he mean we need to discern the spiritual body of Christ, the church,? And I think the answer is yes. It’s both of them.
Back in chapter 10, Paul made the same argument. That it is the broken body of Jesus that we partake of that makes us one body. So, we are a broken body who identify ourselves together with the broken body of Jesus on the cross. And to discern the body means that we say, “I get that. His body was broken for me, which means we aren’t just the body of Christ, we are the broken body of Christ.”
Our Lord teaches us that there is no basis for devaluing anyone in the church. There’s no basis for an attitude of “better than” or “worse than”. And there’s no basis for the value system of our culture being brought into the body of Christ because it just doesn’t belong here. It’s offensive to God because God says, “Wait a minute. You didn’t do this. I did and I don’t ever want you to forget that.”
Verse 30, “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
“So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another — if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home — so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come.” (I Corinthians 11:30-34)
God was so put off by their spiritual arrogance, the fact that they were looking down on their brothers and sisters in Christ, that God said, “I can’t take it anymore. Some of you have been made sick and some of you have actually been put to death. This is something I take very seriously.”
Our text this morning is about communion but it’s not just communion. It’s about when the church of our Lord gathers together, we should come away a better peopleas a result of our time together, not worse. This should be the one place on earth where people have a sense of value, a sense of acceptance, a sense that this is a place where I belong, where I’m valued, where I matter – it’s different from the value system of the world.
You see, we’re all citizens of heaven here on this earth bringing a value system from the future into the present. To give people just a taste of what lies ahead. This place called heaven where everybody is loved, everybody’s affirmed, everybody’s accepted, everybody belongs. No one is more than, no one is less than, we’re all just broken people redeemed by the blood of Jesus.
But we need to bring a glimpse of that here to this earth. And every single time the church comes together, whether it’s in this place, or in a restaurant, or in the parking lot, or in your home; every time the church comes together, we should be able to say that we walk away a better people because we were together.
And if your reaction to this message is to say, “That’s right, all these people need to accept me”, then you’ve got it all backwards. Because what we ought to be saying is, “I need to do everything in my power to accept everyone else. No matter who they are, no matter how different they look, no matter how different they seem.”
Every time the people of God come together, we need to make sure that we walk away a better people because we were together. Because this is the one place where there is a value system that is unlike anything the world can offer.
And so, perhaps you came in this morning and you’ve got it in your head that somehow on the basis of your performance you’re a cut above everybody else. The world out there may tell you that you’re better, on the basis on what you own or how you look, but you need to understand, in here, you’re not above anyone else, because we’re all a broken people.
But it’s also true that if you walked in this morning feeling like somehow you are less than, somehow you are of less value because the world has been sending you that message all week long. And so, you walk through these doors and you feel like you’re less significant and you have less value, that you really don’t fit in and don’t belong anywhere, you need to understand that you need to let that go.
Because the reason you feel that way is because you’re still embracing the value system of the world. And that’s just as offensive to God as those who think they are better than. Part of the gospel message is recognizing that we’re all broken people, we’re all sinners and misfits, broken and redeemed by the blood of Jesus. And here in this church, there is no greater than, there is no lesser than. There’s just broken people who have been radically transformed by the power of Jesus.
May each and every one of us do our best to make sure that every time the people of God gather, people walk away a better people because we spent some time together.