1 Corinthians 10, at first glance, struck me as a strange smattering of topics artifiically smashed together by someone with attention deficit disorder. Paul speaks about the children of Israel in the wilderness, and seems to want to instruct the Corinthians with their example; but then the topic of communion pops up out of nowhere in verse 17. After that he launches into the topic of food sacrificed to idols, and then communion again, and then meat sold in the marketplace, and then “doing all things for the glory of God” – what does any one of those have to do with the rest? After spending some time trying to answer that question, I think I discovered what the obstacle was, and (as usual) it was to be found less in the text than it was in me; namely, in my shallow expectations about what Church should be. I default into thinking of the church as a service; but Paul thought of it as a family that extends even beyond those now living (the children of Israel "ate spiritual food" and "drank spiritual drink"). The relevance of Israel's appetite for idolatry and the Corinthian confusion over meat sacrificed to idols are all bound together by verse 17 – when we partake of Christ together, we become family, and we are thus (verse 24) to “seek the good of one another.”
Paul's point seems to be that recieving Christ and fleeing idols is something done by a community, not by piously introspective individuals. By recieivng Christ and fleeing idolatry we mark ourselves out as the one people of God; those who, through Christ, are to suceed where Israel failed. The issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols wasn't so much a crisis of personal morality, but a call for the Corinthians to be a distinct people from their pagan neighbors (something Israel failed to do). Yet, as verse 27 indicates, Paul's desire isn't for selfish community formation. Love is the rule, both among believers and unbelievers, which should manifest itself in a desire to protect their consciences. But in all of these things the driving concern is for the integrity of the community, marked out by communion.
The ancient world held table fellowship as one of the highest forms of friendship, intimacy and unity. This is why the issue of who Jesus chose to eat with was such a big deal to the Pharisees. The Pharisees even saw their tables at home as substitutes for the altar in the Jerusalem Temple. Their outrage at Jesus not “washing his hands” before he ate betrayed their concern for sacramental purity and community identification, not legalism or neurotic hygiene. Those who were allowed to come to the table together were defined according to ethnicity, race, class, wealth and status.
But in Jesus, Paul says, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, barbarian and Scythian all come to the same table. It’s no wonder that the early church was viewed as destructive to society; it broke down all the divisions that people thought of as necessary to keep its proper order! By eating at the Lord's Table together, the disciples were doing something revolutionary – they were reorganizing their family relationships, their friendships, and all those they would associate with not around extended relatives, common interests, shared status or level of income but around Jesus. Communion shattered societal norms of friendship and family.
The early church was just that: a family. They provided for one another; they paid one another’s debts; they ate in one another’s homes; they adopted uncared for children in one another’s families; they opened their homes and finances to one another and even called one another “brother” and “sister”. And that, believe it or not, was every bit as weird and suspicious to the Roman world as it would be for us today. For people to share in one another’s lives like that, to that degree – to not just call each other “brother” but to actually treat one another as immediate family members, was considered “unnatural” in the Roman world. But at the same time it made some people uncomfortable, it drew thousands of other people to the table, and into God’s kingdom.
When we take communion we aren’t just affirming our union with Christ in mystical fellowship; we’re affirming our union with one another as friends, but more than just acquaintances who share a common faith. We’re affirming a union that’s more like limbs to a body or the members of a family in a household. When we take of the same bread and drink of the same cup we receive the same Jesus and recognize that no one among us recieves more or less than another. 1 Co. 11:27 warns us to take this proclamation with utmost seriousness. This verse is usually used as an exhortation to "search your heart" for any moral failing that might make you unworthy of participating in communion. Sometimes a moment of silence is even provided to help you uncover any unconfessed sin that you might need to take care of before taking part. Maybe that's not a bad idea - but it has nothing to do with what Paul's actually concerned about.
Verses 20-22 give us an idea about what "unworthiness" he has in mind: “Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you.” Apparently when the Corinthians came to the Lord’s table the wealthy (those who owned homes) pushed their way to the front of the line in their debauchery and left nothing for the poor brothers among them – those who “have nothing”.
In verse 33 Paul says what he has in mind as behavior "worthy" of communion: “So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” Partaking in a worthy manner isn't an act of pious individualism; it involves honoring and loving all those who have recieved Jesus as members of the same family. The reconciliation of God's Creation, the advent of His shalom has begun in us, upon whom the "ends of the ages have come" (1 Co. 10:11), and communion signals the inbreaking of God's coming era of mutual, self-giving, Christlike love.
Next time you receive the elements, think about what you’re about to do. You are receiving Jesus as the satisfaction of your souls, and fleeing idolatrous cravings as "that which can never satisfy". You are identifying yourself with one people of God and committing yourself to honoring the most "unseemly" of its members. Only if you believe these things can you, as it says at the end of ch. 10, “eat or drink to the glory of God”.