Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Communion - According to Paul - A Spiritual Encounter

Francis Watson in his excellent essay, ““I Received from the Lord. . .”: Paul, Jesus and the Last Supper,” makes the following opening comment which I thought was helpful.

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the lord Jesus, on the night on which he was handed over, took bread. . .” (1 Cor. 11:23). By repeating a tradition the Corinthians already know, Paul seeks to reawaken their sense of awe in the presence of holy mysteries: the bread and the cup of the Lord's Supper, through which they participate in the Lord's own body and blood, imbued with the supernatural power of his risen life.[1] To eat this bread and to drink this wine as if they were ordinary bread and wine, heedlessly and without preparation, is to risk converting their life-giving power into a poison that causes weakness, illness, or death.[2] The abused bread and wine can become the agents of the Lord's judgment – a judgment that intends final salvation rather than condemnation but which one would still wish to avoid.[3] Some at Corinth are already guilty of an abuse of this kind, ungraciously going ahead with the meal without waiting for the whole congregation to be assembled.[4] By the time the latecomers arrive, the food and drink have all been consumed so that they are left hungry and humiliated. Perhaps those responsible will plead that the hour was late and that they too were hungry? In that case, they should have taken something to sustain them before they left home. Only when the whole congregation is gathered together can the Lord's Supper truly be celebrated. This apparently trivial discourtesy to fellow Christians is symptomatic of a more serious error, the failure to reckon with the invisible presence of the Lord himself in the sharing of bread and cup. The Last Supper tradition is fully integrated into the exhortations and warnings of 1 Cor. 11:17-34, since this tradition underlies Paul's point about the lifegiving yet potentially threatening holiness of its re-enactment as the Lord’s Supper.[5]


[1] The Eucharistic bread and wine are “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink” (1 Cor. 10:3-4), in the sense that they enable participation in “the blood of Christ” and “the body of Christ” (10:16; cf. 11:27) – that is, in the heaven existence of the crucified and risen Lord who is “lifegiving Spirit” (15:45).

[2] Cf. 1 Cor. 11:28-30

[3] Cf. 1 Cor. 11:31-32.

[4] “So, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (1 Cor. 11:33). Going ahead with the meal without waiting for latecomers would be a specific instance of the unworthy consumption of the bread and the wine against which the preceding verses warn (vv. 27-32).

[5] Francis Watson, ““I Received from the Lord. . .”: Paul, Jesus and the Last Supper” in Jesus and Paul Reconnected: Fresh Pathways into an Old Debate. ed. Todd D. Still. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 103-105.

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