When Jesus met with his disciples the night before his crucifixion, he ate a meal with them. In the ancient world, eating together formed a covenant relationship between those who ate. Sometimes it formed a covenant relationship even between their families into the next generation—in one Greek story, two warriors decided not to fight each other because one’s father had once hosted the other’s father for a meal.
But Jesus’s disciples had often eaten with him, and this was a special meal. Jesus had sent his disciples to prepare the Passover for that evening (Mark 14:12-16). The Passover commemorated God’s action of saving Israel; now Jesus was about to be the agent of a new act of salvation. At the Passover, the host interpreted elements like the bread and the wine.
Over the bread he declared, “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate when they came out of the land of Egypt.” Jesus said, “This is my body, which is for you.” No one thought that the bread at Passover was literally the very bread the ancestors had eaten and digested 1300 years earlier; the disciples should likewise have understood that Jesus was not suggesting literal cannibalism in the eating of his flesh. (Of course, no one today understands the Lord’s supper this way. Even the strictest supporters of transubstantiation do not affirm that the bread’s chemical composition changes to skin and muscle with human DNA.)
Just as Jewish people remembered, reenacted and participated in Israel’s redemption by God in the Passover, so Jesus’ followers reenter into the final night with his disciples when we participate in the Lord’s supper. We recognize that Jesus’ death was no accident or mere miscarriage of justice. It was part of God’s plan to save us, just like the Passover lamb spared Israel from the final, devastating plague.
But in Corinth Christians treated the Lord’s supper in a different way. In their culture, well-to-do people often invited other people over for dinner—and seated them according to social rank. The people with better seats (actually, better couches) often got better food and better wine than people in lower positions. Sometimes those who got the lower seats complained about their humiliation.
Even though we are followers of Christ, we sometimes reflect the values of our culture without realizing it, and it takes either someone very insightful or someone from another culture to point our error out to us. Some of the Corinthian Christians were feasting and getting drunk at the Lord’s supper, while others were leaving hungry (1 Cor 11:21). The Christians had absorbed the values of their culture! Corinthians emphasized social status, and the church there was interested in the same thing (1 Cor 1:26-27; 4:8; 6:4).
The Lord’s supper was not just about Christ’s act of redemption; it was about the people whom he has redeemed. If Christ is the way that all of us were saved, then none of us can boast over another. When he gave his body, it was partly to make us one body (1 Cor 10:17; 12:12-13), and if we despise one another, we do not rightly discern Christ’s body (1 Cor 11:29). This behavior invites God’s judgment (11:30-34).
Do we look down on (or up on) people in the church whose status or role in society differs from ours? More generally, are we divided from other members of Christ’s body, in our local church or elsewhere? (Sometimes this division extends even to debates about the Lord’s supper itself, but the principle also applies to divisions more generally.) We cannot always control others’ views toward us, but insofar as it depends on us, do we live at peace with others? The Lord’s supper is a regular reminder that we share a common faith that matters more than our other differences. To partake of the Lord’s supper with integrity consistent with our faith, we must learn to live out that unity that Christ has established.
This article adapts one that Craig wrote in 2006. Craig Keener is author of 17 books, including 1-2 Corinthians (Cambridge University Press, 2005).