Tag Archives: 1 Corinthians 11

From Simple Ritual to Complex Regulation

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.
1 Corinthians 11:27 (NIV)

On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus and His followers celebrated a ritual meal called the Passover. It is an annual remembrance of the events in the book of Exodus, in which God leads the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. The ritual meal, also called a Seder, is full of metaphors and word pictures that remind participants of key events and spiritual lessons from the Exodus story. At the time of Jesus, the Passover was already an ancient ritual dating back over a thousand years.

On this night, Jesus creates a new ritual and metaphor for His followers. He simply took a loaf of unleavened bread, broke it, and passed it around for His followers to partake. “This is my body, broken for you,” he said. Then he took a cup of wine and passed it, saying, “This is my blood, shed for you.” Jesus then told His followers to share in this very simple ritual when they get together as a ritual remembrance of the sacrifice He was about to make. The fact that it was done after the Passover meal layers the metaphor with even more meaning. Just as God led the people out of slavery in Egypt, Jesus is establishing a “new covenant” in which He is going to lead humanity out of slavery to sin.

Over time, this relatively simple, ritual metaphor came to be known as Communion, the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist. As the organism of the early Jesus Movement became the Institution of the Roman church, the ritual became a much more complex religious act layered with all sorts of rules and regulations. It became the centerpiece of worship surrounded by other rituals for how it was done. Only a priest sanctioned by the church could administer it. Those who don’t belong to your particular group of believers were not welcome to participate. And so on, and so on.

As a young follower of Jesus, I was part of a relatively conservative group of believers. I can remember the verse, pasted above, from today’s chapter being used regularly among my particular tribe of believers as a word of warning to young people. It was a religious variation on the Santa Claus principle: “He’s checking his list to see if you’re naughty. You better be good or Santa won’t bring you any gifts.” When it came to communion, we were warned that we better have our hearts right and our lives free from sin or we were putting ourselves at risk of judgement.

As I’ve progressed in my spiritual journey, I’ve largely abandoned the institutional pomp, circumstance, warnings, and regulatory commands that the institutional church has laid on top of Jesus’ simple act. The warning that Paul gave in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth had a very specific context. Believers met and shared a meal together, and then they ended their evening by repeating Jesus’ ritual word picture. In Corinth, some followers were creating cliques, having private meals, and excluding other believers. Some followers were getting drunk on wine and were intoxicated by the time the ritual of the bread and wine was carried out. In both cases, the metaphor of the bread and wine was profaned; It was emptied of meaning by the actions of those believers who shamelessly behaved in a way that diminished the entire meaning of the ritual.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that Jesus’ institution of the ritual of communion happened with no commands, rules, or regulations other than to repeat the word picture regularly when believers got together. Jesus didn’t make caveats about it only being administered by approved followers, being an exclusive ritual for only certain institutionally approved persons, or that those partaking had to approach with a certain level of holiness. In fact, the word picture itself is about Jesus sacrificing Himself because we can’t attain acceptable holiness on our own, so why would we suggest that purity and holiness are required to partake in the bread and cup? That profanes the meaning of the ritual as well.

Cropped Hair and Holy Kisses

Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him….”
1 Corinthians 11:14 (NIV)

For the past few weeks I’ve been giving messages about traditions here in my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. By traditions I mean those social behaviors or events that a group of people adhere to that are tied metaphorically to a larger meaning. It might be a event or person to memorialize, a teaching or command to follow, or something that brings identity and belonging to a particular group.

For 2000 years those who follow Jesus have had many different rituals and traditions. Those who carry out these traditions can be quite dogmatic about the necessity or right-ness of their particular tradition. Conflicts and division among different groups of Christians have been quite common occurrences over time as one sincere group of Jesus’ followers says “Ours is the right and biblical way to hold this tradition” and another sincere group of Jesus’ followers says, “No! Our way of holding to and observing this tradition is the right and biblical way!”

Typically, groups will point to scripture for heir final authority. The truth is, traditions ebb and flow over time and culture. Take today’s chapter, for example. Paul clearly instructs that women should always have their head covered when they “pray or prophesy.” For the better part of 2000 years women have followed this tradition. A few weeks ago I referenced our local costume shop in a post, where you’ll find hundreds of ladies hats from the early-mid 20th century because women in town always wore hats to church. But, that tradition has changed in the past 60 years in our culture. The tradition no longer carries the meaning that it once did for us.

We pick and choose the traditions we wish to keep. Jesus never said to abandon all of the Jewish traditions and festivals, in fact His example was to observe them. Yet that fell out of fashion as the Church became more and more Roman and the Jewish people fell out of favor late in the first century.

Paul also says in today’s chapter that it’s a disgrace for a man to have long hair. This verse was harped on by the professors of a Bible college I attended one semester. The college had strict, dogmatic rules about how male students should cut their hair based on this particular verse. It was their tradition, and they strictly observed it.

Funny thing. Paul ends his letter to the believers of Corinth by instructing them to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” The school administration seemed to ignore this particular command and tradition. Not once did one of my professors pucker up when I walked into the classroom!

As much as we like to wax self-righteous on being obedient and scriptural, the truth is that followers of Jesus have spent 2000 years following an ever-changing set of traditions and rituals that have ebbed and flowed over time. We can deny this fact and cling to our pride and rightness, or we can humbly embrace that traditions may hold their meaning for a particular time and place only to be released and then, perhaps, rediscovered again. We can let these things divide us, or we can seek to respect and honor the metaphor and meaning others find in traditions and rituals that are foreign to us.  Perhaps God might use them to help me find meaning I’d not before considered.

This morning I find myself praying an ancient prayer (a traditional prayer, mind you) given to us by St. Francis: [I paraphrase], “Help me to be less about being understood and more about being understanding.”

“Welcome to the Journey, Padawan”

But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment.
1 Corinthians 11:31 (NIV)

Discern /dəˈsərn/ verb [from Latin: discernere]
  1. Perceive or recognize (something).
  2. Distinguish (someone or something) with difficulty by sight or with the other senses.
One of the more intriguing themes I’ve enjoyed in the Star Wars epic is the spiritual journey and formation of the Jedi. In the world of Star Wars, those who are strong in the force begin their training as “younglings.” Eventually, developing Jedi become a “padawan learner” who is coupled with a mentor. The process of development never ends, as Obi Wan says to his rebellious padawan (Anakin Skywalker, aka Darth Vader) in their final battle: “If you strike me down I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”
Great stories resonate with us because they echo our own human experiences and our deepest human longings. Much like a Jedi, I have found that my spiritual journey on this earth has been a journey of ever and increasing self-discovery. When I was a young man (youngling, if you will) I did many things out a sense of compulsion or ignorance. I had no idea why I felt compelled in certain ways. I did not understand why I said and did certain things. I acted out of my broken human nature without giving it a second thought.
When I became a follower (a padawan, if you will) of Jesus I experienced an acute desire to be more like Jesus and the person Jesus described in His teachings. This resulted in the awareness that many of my behaviors did not match up to Jesus’ teaching and example. A process of behavior modification began spurred by God’s prompting/power along with my willingness to change and be transformed.
Some behaviors were snap to change. Others required a wee bit of humility, patience, and determination. I was making progress and feeling good, but as time went on I recognized that there were the pesky, ugly things of my character and behavior that were of the Dark Side. They seemed hard wired and immovable. Discouragement, doubt, and frustration set in.
As much as I desired for God’s power to simply, and miraculously remove such things from my character, I came to realize that this was part of my spiritual journey. God’s power and grace (and patience) would be key ingredients, but much would be required of this padawan learner along this marathon journey of spiritual self-discovery:
  • Self study: A willingness to take the time to dig beneath my words and behaviors to excavate my past, my thoughts, my relationships, my emotions, my personality, and the desires of my heart and soul.
  • Meditation: A willingness to think honestly and transparently about the things I learned about myself, to fix the eyes of my heart steadily on Jesus, and to ingest God’s Word in my very soul.
  • Conversation: A willingness to have an on-going dialogue, not only with God, but with a select group of trusted companions who are on the journey with me. An openness to listen to and honestly embrace what they see, hear and perceive in me.
  • Professional Assistance: The assistance of professionals (in person or through their writings) who understand both spiritual truth and human psychology.
  • Perseverance: Accepting that the process of self-discovery and the spiritual transformation of becoming more like Jesus (a process theologians call sanctification) continues uninterrupted through this earthly journey’s end.
In today’s chapter Paul is writing to a young community of Jesus’ followers. They are spiritual younglings and a long way from becoming spiritual Jedi. Their behavior and conflicts, as described in Paul’s correspondence, reflect the blunt, early stages of spiritual transformation. And to this Paul says that they need discernment. They need to perceive the spiritual, emotional, social, relational drivers of their behavior and conflicts.
Welcome to the journey, my young padawan. Lace ’em up tight. It’s a long trek…. and an absolutely worthwhile journey!

Razing the Walls of Social Convention

2012 12 23 VH Family GatheringWhen you meet together, you are not really interested in the Lord’s Supper. For some of you hurry to eat your own meal without sharing with others. As a result, some go hungry while others get drunk. 1 Corinthians 11:20-21 (NLT)

This week has been a veritable plethora of Christmas gatherings and feasts. On Sunday, we enjoyed a huge multi-generational family gathering here at VW Manor. Our cozy little brick house was packed with family of all ages, from two to 85.

It’s always interesting to see what happens socially at large gatherings whether its family or community. Some people hang tight with certain people seem to avoid others. Some people are social butterflies while others are wallflowers. I spent a good part of the afternoon Sunday with the younger generation at the dining room table while most of the adults kept to themselves in the living room. It was fun to hang out with and talk to younger family members I don’t see or often speak with, especially as many of them are making the transition from young people to adults. It was great conversation and I enjoyed my time with them.

In today’s chapter, Paul was addressing similar social situations that were negatively affecting the local church potluck in Corinth. The early gathering of believers had a tradition called “love feasts.” All believers would gather and share a meal together, then end with serving the “Lord’s Supper” a which ceremoniously imitates the eating of bread (metaphor for Jesus’ broken body) and drinking of wine (metaphor for Jesus’ shed blood) which Jesus instituted the night before he was crucified. In the early church there was a huge social disparity at these Love Feasts. There were rich and poor, slaves and free peoples, Greeks and Romans and Jews.

Because of the diversity of peoples in the church, social tensions arose as people gathered in their cliques. The  wealthier believers brought good food and hoarded it for themselves, eating quickly while less fortunate believers waited for what amounted to the leftovers. In many cases, by the time everyone had eaten and the church was ready to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, some had consumed too much wine and were visibly inebriated.

People are people. As much as some things change, human nature doesn’t change all that much over time. I see shadows of the same social struggles at a church potluck or a family gathering today as the situation we read about in Paul’s letter. Today, I’m thinking about the gatherings yet to come this holiday season and social gatherings in which I regularly participate. I don’t want to passively regress into comfortable social conventions, but let love motivate me to tear down walls between peoples, generations, and social groups.