From the beginning of the church, the custom was for Christians to eat together (Acts 2:42, 46). This was an opportunity for fellowship and for sharing with those who were less privileged. At the end of the meal, they would partake of the Lord’s Supper. They would call this meal, “the agape feast,” which comes from one of the Greek words for “love,” since the purpose was to show love for one another. The “agape feast” was an important part of the worship service in the church at Corinth, but some significant abuses had crept in (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). One of the difficulties was that some of the members there were getting preferential treatment over others in relationship to the Lord’s Supper. The communal meals there were doing more harm than good for the church, because selfishness was at work – the rich people were bringing large amounts of food for themselves, while the poorer members were going hungry. The “agape feast” was the only good meal that some of the poorer members were going to get, so to be mistreated hurts not only their stomachs, but their pride as well. It should have been edifying, instead it was embarrassing. Some of the difficulties also just might have to do with the fact that some of the members were coming to the feast drunk...thus the clouding of judgment. The divisions at dinner were evidence of much deeper problems in the church. They were indeed prideful themselves, thinking that they were "advanced believers"…when they were actually "little children." Paul does not suggest that they abandon the feast, but that they restore its proper meaning. He says, “Let the rich eat at home if they are hungry"...but, everything should be shared when all come together.
How important is it that Christians prepare their hearts before we come to the Lord’s Table? According to Paul, it is a serious matter to come to the table with an unprepared heart. Because the Corinthians had been sinning in their observing of the Lord’s Supper, God disciplines them. “That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep (that is, have died)” (11:30, NIV). The partaking of the Lord’s Supper is to be a valuable experience, but whether it is a good or bad experience depends upon the hearts of those who participate. Paul indicates that we should “look back” when partaking of the supper. The broken bread reminds us of Christ’s body given for us…the cup reminds us of His blood that was shed. This may not be popular for some people…remembering Jesus' “death;” it is not simply a recalling of historical facts, but a participation in spiritual realities. We have fellowship with a living Savior as our hearts reach out to Him in faith. We also “look ahead,” as we observe it “until He comes again.” This is the blessed hope for every believer and for the church as a whole. We are to “look within.” We must partake “in a worthy manner," that is, we need to examine ourselves to see whether or not our hearts are in the right place. We need to come to the Lord blameless…having our sins confessed and forgiven. Finally, we are to “look around,” which has been the primary thrust of this message. We must be critical or condemning of one another in out attitudes or actions…remembering that what we are doing is a partaking together of the Lord’s Supper. This is also why we call it “communion” or our “common union.” The Lord’s Supper provides for us an opportunity for spiritual growth and blessings if we approach it with the right heart.
What we see taking place in Corinth is unique with respect to the culture of the time…but nothing new under the sun with regard to the spiritual heart of man. Understand this…the Lord’s Supper is not about one cup or many...whether we dip the morsel of bread in the cup or not...whether we do it one day a week or many days...whether we do it Sunday morning and Sunday evening or just Sunday morning...whether we eat it with a potluck meal (our “agape feast”) or not...whether we take it in our seats or go forward to do it...or whether women serve it or men (as happens in some cultures). It also is not about whether the servants and the emblems are in the front or the back...whether the grape juice is purple, white or wine...Seneca, Welch’s or Great Value...whether the bread is Matzos or homemade…or whether someone adds a little honey to the homemade bread. It is not even about whether we have a kitchen in our church buildings or not (as some have pulled this text out of context in order to make that argument). It is a spiritual concern…it is about the heart. The Lord’s Supper is about the “spiritual” function, not the form or package that it comes in. It is easy to get so tied up in the “form” or the package, that we truly miss the meaning concerning the “function.” It is as much about freedom as any other spiritual matter that we observe. We do not need to allow ourselves to become hidebound or “rigid” with it or with any other issue for that matter.
As we have been studying the letter to the Galatians on Sunday morning, Paul strongly admonished the Galatians for allowing their freedom to be taken away by self-righteous Judaizers (cultural and religious Jewish Christians). Paul understood the issues of the day...as a Pharisee of Pharisees he had been there, done that, so to speak. As he shares with the Corinthians (chapters 8-10), he is keenly aware of causing a new Christian to stumble. At the same time, he will not allow anyone to rob him of his freedom (1 Corinthians 10:29-30, Galatians 5:1). The last time that I checked, we don’t have meat being offered to idols in our culture...during the potluck, Lord’s Supper or at any other time…this was a cultural concern for the early church. However, it does underlie the principle...we would not want to cause a young Christian who has come from a pagan background to stumble. What would this look like today? We would not purposely serve wine at the Lord’s Supper to a recently converted alcoholic, for example. At the same time, we should not allow our freedom concerning how we do the Lord’s Supper to be robbed by people. Remember, the problem with the Judaizers is that they were so hidebound by tradition that they were really of no spiritual value…and Paul admonishes them for causing others to stumble. This is the real issue.
Many of the problems that take place in our church culture today have to do with current "Judaizers" who steal our freedom. It has little if anything to do with causing “younger Christians” to stumble. In fact, what does cause young Christians to stumble today is the rigid in relationship to traditions church culture that has been cultivated in many churches over the past 100 years...it was unacceptable to Paul, to the Lord…and it should be to us, as well. Something is terribly wrong when people who have been church members for 20…30…40 years or more are the ones “being caused to stumble” and the baby or young Christians are the ones more so with “spiritual common sense.” This ought not be so. Thankfully, this has been gradually changing over the past couple of decades. We must remember “the big picture.” We need to be believers that are learning, growing and prospering spiritually. If the primary focus in coming together is to get upset because “things are not going precisely how I think they should go," whether it is concerning the Lord’s Supper or some other matter…then we are not learning, growing and prospering, spiritually. We need to be blessed by the heart or the true purpose of the Lord’s Supper and not be troubled by what form it should take. I want to close with a quote by a 19th century English minister, J.C. Ryle, “The benefit of the Lord’s Supper depends entirely on the spirit and frame of mind in which we receive it. The bread which we eat, and the wine which we drink, have no power to do good to our souls, as medicine does good to our bodies, without the co-operation of our hearts and wills.” From Day By Day with J.C. Ryle, “Lord’s Supper”, 168.