Physical Meal and Spiritual Communion (1 Corinthians 11:20–22)

If you are hungry, will the Lord’s Supper satisfy you?

For most of us, the answer is no. A bite of bread will not fill our stomachs. A sip of grape juice will not slake our thirsts.

Also, for most of us, the question itself is problematic. Despite the name, the Lord’s Supper as we practice it is not a meal, and its outcome is not physical satisfaction. Instead, we view it as a symbol whose outcome is spiritual communion with Christ and other believers. The question is problematic, then, because it commits a category mistake, confusing the physical and the spiritual.

What if our categories themselves are mistaken, however? What if the Lord’s Supper is both physical and spiritual, both a physical meal and a spiritual communion? I ask these questions because of what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:20–22.

When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!

To interpret these verses correctly, we need to remember that the early church met in private homes when they could not meet in synagogues or other public buildings. When Paul evangelized the city of Corinth, for example, he met in “the synagogue” until Jewish opposition to his message forced him to move to “the house of Titius Justus, a [Gentile] worshiper of God” (Acts 18:7; cf. 1 Corinthians 16:19, Romans 16:3–5, and Philemon 2).

Further, these “house churches” contained people from all strata of society—wealthy and poor, free and slave. The “households” Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 1:11, 16 and 16:15 did not include just parents and children. They included everyone biologically related to or employed by the house’s owner.

What seems to be happening at Corinth is this: The congregation meets at a house large enough to accommodate everyone, which means it is owned by a wealthy, free member. This member’s friends—also wealthy and free—show up early and eat the Lord’s Supper in quantities large enough to get drunk. When the poor and enslaved members show up, there’s no food left for them to eat. One remains hungry, another gets drunk.

In other words, the Haves, who don’t need the food, had it; so the Have Nots, who do need the food, can’t have it. Paul addresses biting rhetorical questions to the Haves: Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? The answer to both rhetorical questions is, unfortunately, “Yes.”

“Yes” is also the answer to this non-rhetorical question: Is the Lord’s Supper a physical meal or a spiritual symbol? Given what Paul has written, isn’t the answer obvious? When wealthy Christians share their physical resources with poor Christians, the shared physical resources demonstrate the spiritual communion both have with God and each other in Christ.

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