So we're back studying Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth. We've tackled chapters 1-10 over the last two years and this year we're going all the way to the end. Our series title throughout has been "1 Corinthians: Fixing a Broken Church", which reflects the fact that this letter is full of tough love from Paul to the Christians in this prosperous and idolatrous Roman colony, the city of Corinth in southern Greece.
Through chapters 1-6 Paul mostly reprimanded them on errors in their thinking and behaviour, and since chapter 7 he's been addressing different topics that they previously wrote to ask him about.
In last week's section Paul reinforced previous teaching about the source and importance of the differences between men and women, and applied that teaching to their attitudes and behaviour. And from the introduction to that section in 11.2 it seems they weren't going too far wrong in that area. But look how that contrasts with today's introduction in v17:
17In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good.
You know that feeling of dread when you know you're about to receive some stern correction? Picture the scene as some poor soul from the reading and praying rota is reading out this chapter to the gathered church and gets to v17, where Paul says, 'Look, the way you're behaving… it would be better if you didn't even meet at all.' Dear me!
In the rest of chapter 11 Paul's going to show that if I remember Jesus' death for me and if I consider that his death was for you, and if I realise that that means we are exactly the same as total sinners saved 100% by the grace of God in Jesus, with nothing whatsoever to do with our own merit or status because we had neither to offer, then I'll treat you with love and humility, and if you get your thinking straight too, then you'll treat me properly as well.
Now that sentence is the big idea for the rest of this passage, but it's also far too long to be our official Big Idea for this morning, so we'll have to settle for this:
BIG IDEA: Remembering Jesus' death is crucial for treating each other correctly
I've got three headings to help us to that conclusion:
1) The problem: your church gatherings are harmfully divisive
2) The solution: humbly remember what the church is
3) The response: behave accordingly towards the church
1) The problem: your church gatherings are harmfully divisive (17-22)
Let's work through v17-22 to draw out this problem. V17:
17In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good.
There's nothing positive I can say about your church gatherings. In all seriousness, you'd be better off not meeting. V18:
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.
What painful, shameful irony: when you come together, you end up more divided.
19No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval.
I think Paul is being sarcastic here, shining a light on their constant one-upmanship. It wouldn't be the first time in the letter. V20:
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.
Paul's referring to the main get-together of the church. But when we read about the young churches of the New Testament we find that they didn't have some generous supporters from over the river building them a comfortable £1.2million new-build. They met in homes, probably the homes of some of the more well-off members of the church family – they had more space. And this Corinthian church gathering is a bring-and-share meal. Archaeologists reckon some of the bigger houses inCorinthcould take about 80 for a meal, so this is bigger than your home group social. Think Reload, or a church BBQ. There are plenty of people here at this gathering meal.
Now it might have been bring-and-share by name, but it wasn't bring-and-share by nature. V21 has some of them going ahead and eating without waiting for others. Picture the scene as the well-off tuck into the food and the wine that they've brought so that by the time a poor Christian brother who is a slave or a poor Christian sister who is a servant arrives, perhaps exhausted and starving from a long shift, there's nothing much left over, and lots of the others are lying around bloated or even staggering around drunk.
A division has opened up as a direct result of the coming-together of the church. We know from earlier in the letter that many of the Corinthian Christians were very proud. They thought of themselves as wise, influential people. And they thought that Christians already have all they want and have become rich in this life – that's chapter 4 – and they're not living with the hope and expectation of true blessing that only comes at the resurrection in chapter 15, which we'll get to in June. These people look at those poor Christians, arriving with very little food and drink, and they say to one another, 'Dear, dear, look at them. What a mess they are. Tut. God's clearly not blessing them. We all know who are the ones with God's approval.' Paul breaks in to that little conversation with v22:
22Don't you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise thechurch ofGod and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!
You might have seen The Great British class calculator on the BBC website recently. Some sociologists decided we needed some new definitions of class, replacing the old Upper, Lower and Middle. The calculator is spread over three pages. Page one: money. What do you earn? Do you have any property? And, how much do you have in savings? Page two: social. Are you friends with someone who is… a cleaner / a chief executive / a lorry driver / a solicitor etc? Page three: what are your hobbies? Do you go to the football or the ballet? Do you go to gigs or galleries? It was a very popular item on the website a week or two ago – pretty interesting and a bit of fun.
But aren't we judging people in those ways all the time? What do we want to know when we meet someone new… Where are you from? What do you do? And, what are you interested in? We do it all the time. So is it possible that here at HTG as we get together we cause divisions? Do we have a preoccupation with occupation? Do you categorise people by what they do, or do you make sure others know what you do? Are we insensitive about money? Do you think about people's ability to pay when you're organising socials or trips or events? Do we form little cliques? Do you knowingly exclude people because they aren't like you? Paul lays the Corinthian division at the feet of those who are better off or think they're better people. If you're someone with a low income or you're unemployed or you didn't get much out of education or you live in a 'rough' part ofGateshead, I'd be interested to get your take on how inclusive HTG is and how at home you feel when we meet together. Chat with me or with Rod afterwards or comment on a yellow slip.
The problem in Corinth: your church gatherings are harmfully divisive.
2) The solution: humbly remember what the church is (23-32)
Now there's nothing whatsoever intrinsically wrong with bring-and-share meals, but as it happens, there is a meal they are supposed to share together. It's the Lord's Supper, or as we call it, Holy Communion. Look at what Paul writes about it in v23-26:
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." [And back to Paul:] 26For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.
Paul quotes Jesus, speaking on the night we call Maundy Thursday, the night before Good Friday, the night of Jesus' arrest and trial. Jesus is having his last meal with the disciples before his death and resurrection. It's Passover time, when the Jews remember God's deliverance from death inEgyptbecause of the sign of blood over the Israelite households. And Jesus initiates a new remembrance meal, to help them remember God's deliverance of all of his people from death because of the blood of Jesus.
It's a new covenant, he says. For covenant, think marriage. Eternal God, will you take these people to be yours, will you put their sin on Jesus, will you dwell in them by your Spirit, will you bring them into your presence forever? I will. And you. And me. Will we… will you… take God to be your God, will you submit to him, worship him, serve him and love him? The way we say, 'I will' is to cast ourselves on Jesus, trusting his sacrifice to deal with our sin, trusting that that is what he achieved, painting his blood on our doorposts, so to speak. His death is the basis of this new covenant, this marriage proposal. When we take Communion, we're declaring that we're saying yes to that. We're saying I will. I do. That's why we encourage you if you're not a believer, not to take Communion, not to say symbolically something you don't mean, something serious like marriage vows.
It's worth saying that Jesus gave the disciples bread, not a chunk of his own flesh, and he gave them wine, not his actual blood. When he says, 'This is my body,' he doesn't mean literally. It's like when you show someone a photograph and say, 'Look, this is me.' Literally, it's a piece of paper, or some pixels on a screen, but it shows you, it represents you, it images you. The bread and wine are just bread and wine. But they represent Jesus. They image him.
But why has Paul brought all this up? Why is he talking about Communion? He wants them to realise that the meal they have should be this one, and they should be sharing it properly. Because this meal is a meal of remembrance of the death of Jesus, the one starting point of every church, the source of all grace to every believer. Some Corinthians were chief executives and others were cleaners. Some were solicitors, some lorry drivers. Some haves, some have-nots, but they all stood condemned rebels before a perfect God. They all needed the same forgiveness by the blood of Jesus. They were equally lost without it, equally saved by it and equals now in the sight of God as a result of it. There's simply no reason for pride at the foot of the cross. This meal was designed to help them express both their reliance on Jesus, and their unity in him, the togetherness of diverse people who have received the same grace of God. So, verse 27:
27Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner [referring to what the Corinthians were doing] will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. 29For anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.
Coming to this meal where Christians are to unite to remember the sacrifice of Jesus but then taking part without recognising the body of the Lord, meaning the church, his people, taking part in this meal of remembrance and unity but forgetting God's grace, failing to love and care for each other and instead causing division… that's no good at all. It is sin. It is offensive to God. In fact God is judging the Corinthians in a specific way, and has revealed that to the Apostle Paul:
30That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.
In this case many of the Christians are sick and some have even died as part of God's specific judgment against their specific sin. We see that link between suffering and sin in various places in the bible, as well as plenty of examples of suffering that is not related to sin, like Job. We can't make any assumptions, but presumably God's made it clear to Paul in this case. Paul goes on, v31:
31But if we judged ourselves [in the sense of assessing: But if we assessed 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.
This judgment is not removal of their salvation. Rather it's discipline, designed to change their behaviour. That's what's going on here. They need to assess themselves and their meetings to see if the cross is at the centre. The Corinthians need to humbly remember what the church is. It all started for each of them with the death of Jesus, paying for their own sin, totally undeserved grace. And that grace came to each in equal need, with equal effect, resulting now in equal status before God. That grace united them in Jesus. That's what they should be remembering in these church gatherings. And now they need to turn right thinking into right behaviour.
3) The response: behave accordingly towards the church (33-34)
Paul finishes with two instructions to help them turn right thinking into right behaviour. The first is in v33:
33So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other.
Wait for each other, a phrase with a sense of not only waiting but of welcoming one another. The well-off Corinthians are not to stuff their faces and leave nothing for the poor or the late-comers and then sneer at those people. They are to put others first, sharing, relating, caring, loving one another. And that's to be our attitude as well. Right thinking about each other should lead to sharing, relating, caring, loving one another. Will we happily share Communion with others in the HTG church family, knowing their needs and yet refusing to get involved? Are we broadcasting our own qualities at people or excluding them by forming little cliques? We're to put others first, sharing, relating, caring, loving one another.
The second instruction is in v34:
34If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.
And when I come I will give further directions.
You can imagine the well-off Corinthians, having been told to wait for the others, answering with the lame counter, 'But what if we get hungry?' Paul says, 'Come off it. You can eat at home. The unity of the church is more important than your belly.'
What does it mean for us to 'eat at home'? It means do all that divisive stuff somewhere else. If you want to talk about your investment options with someone else in church, do it somewhere else, away from those with serious money worries. If you want to huddle together to complain how busy you were at work again this week, do it somewhere else, away from those who struggle to find employment. Don't make Sundays or Home Groups nights the main time you catch up with close friends. Do that another time so that you can welcome others. Don't rush home without talking to your brothers and sisters at church. You've got all the time you need at home to avoid talking to people.
We need to examine ourselves carefully to see if we're happily expressing our unity at this meal whilst neglecting one another or even causing division. It would be wrong to share Communion without that self-assessment and repentance, not to mention that we would miss out on the huge blessing that Communion is designed to be for us, because in it we remember the death of our Lord Jesus for us and express our unity in him.