The observance of the Lord’s Supper was among the many difficulties experienced by the church in Corinth. According to Paul they came together to partake of the Lord’s Supper for the worse, not the better; to manifest their divisions, not to overcome them (1 Corinthians 11:17-19). By the time everyone had come together, some had already eaten and were drunk, and others were left with nothing (1 Corinthians 11:21): in this way the class divisions among the Corinthian Christians were being reinforced during the Lord’s Supper, and not set aside according to the Lord’s purposes in His body (cf. Ephesians 2:11-22). Paul reminded the Corinthian Christians of the Lord’s establishment of the Supper, distributing bread and fruit of the vine to all, declaring it the proclamation of the Lord’s death until He returns (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). Yet in their observance the Corinthian Christians despised the church of God: they did not discern the church as the body of Christ as they partook of the elements, and in the process they brought the body and blood of the Lord against themselves (1 Corinthians 11:22, 27-29). If they properly discerned the body of Christ among them, they would not be judged, and they would not have many sick and dying among them (1 Corinthians 11:30-32). They thus were better off eating and drinking to satiety at home so they could soberly and collectively share in the Lord’s Supper in their assemblies (1 Corinthians 11:22, 33-34).
Beyond this Paul spoke of the Lord’s Supper as a joint participation in the body and blood of Christ in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17. The Evangelists record Jesus’ inauguration of the Lord’s Supper in Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, and Luke 22:15-20; in Acts 2:42 and Acts 20:7 we most likely have examples of Christians assembling and partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Such is the testimony we have received regarding the Lord’s Supper. And yet many argue the Lord’s Supper is done individually, since individuals purpose to come together, must judge themselves as individuals, and if they were to partake in an unworthy manner, would bring condemnation upon themselves and not others.
Christians certainly make the decision, as individuals, to come together to partake of the Lord’s Supper, just as the Corinthian Christians did before them (1 Corinthians 11:18, 20). Individual Christians must assuredly discern the body as they partake of the elements or they will bring condemnation upon themselves (1 Corinthians 11:27-32). Nevertheless, to suggest the Lord’s Supper is an almost purely individual activity is preposterous in light of the witness of Scripture, the vast majority of which was written precisely to emphasize the shared aspects of the observance. Such a view makes a mockery of the existence of the primary text in question, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34: on what basis would Paul have any criticism of the Corinthian Christians if the Supper is primarily an individual action? Some have brought more and enjoyed it; others had less; what of it? Each came as individuals with their individual serving and partook as individuals. The only way Paul can denounce the Corinthian Christians for their behavior is on the basis of a communal and jointly participatory aspect to the Lord’s Supper: that Christians ought to come together to partake of it, wait for one another to share in it, and that the Lord’s death can only be properly proclaimed when all who have confessed it display the communion they share in Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). A close reading of Paul’s argument demonstrates that the specific sin which the Corinthian Christians prove guilty of in their observance of the Lord’s Supper is precisely a lack of consideration of one another in partaking of the elements, thus not discerning the body (that is, the church; 1 Corinthians 11:29). Furthermore, what of 1 Corinthians 10:16-17? How can a purely atomistic individual activity display joint participation and sharing in Christ?
Two major challenges present themselves in such a disputation. One is an overreliance on categories and a binary between two options which does not flow from Scripture but is imposed upon it. The Lord’s Supper is neither a purely individual nor a purely communal observance: individual Christians come together to jointly participate in the body and blood of the Lord to as concretely as possible embody Him. The other is the modern conception of each individual in a disenchanted, impermeable, and invulnerable framework: the buffered self.
Charles Taylor set forth the thesis of modern man as the buffered self in A Secular Age as one of the ways to understand the major transformation in thought and perspective in the Western world over the past five hundred years. He did so in contrast to the conception of people beforehand who lived in a world saturated with powers and spirits which would have maintained profound influence in their lives. For our purposes the contrasts between enchantment and disenchantment, permeability and impermeability, the world of the mind and the real world, and the power of enacted ritual merit consideration.
The Lord’s Supper should not be construed as a mystical transformation of elements, yet it ought to be recognized as an enchanted moment. Many individuals come together to share in Christ. They remain each members of Christ, but here also manifest connection with one another (Romans 12:5, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17). Should we consider such connection in purely theoretical or mental terms? Such would be according to the “buffered self” that creates such distance between the mind and lived experience. And what if there is an enchanted moment of union in the observance of the Supper, a liminal space in which heaven and earth meet, and Jesus and His people for a moment more concretely embody perichoretic relational unity, the kind which marks the Godhead and is to be maintained between God and believers and believers with one another (John 17:20-23, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17)? What if positive spiritual power exists, conveyed according to the working of God through proclamation of His Word and observance of ritual actions of significance like baptism and the Lord’s Supper? How many among us would dismiss such talk as the “hocus pocus” of superstition, perhaps even a collapse into Roman Catholicism, and yet how strange would it have seemed in the first century, since a possible consequence of improper observance is weakness, illness, and even death (1 Corinthians 11:30)?
The suggestion that the Lord’s Supper is primarily an individual action is sustained by examining the matter through the prism of the modern buffered self; it did not come to ancient Christians, nor is it to be found long before the modern day. To miss the emphasis on the joint participation of Christians in the Lord in the Supper is a result of disenchantment, disconnection between the physical and spiritual realms, the barrier erected between the world of the mind and the world that exists, and the intentional distancing inherent in envisioning oneself as impermeable or invulnerable toward one another. For generations Christians have learned the lesson which Paul intended for the Corinthians to understand: the Lord’s Supper is to display the joint participation and communion of all God’s people in Christ, a display of unity despite all the divisions which might exist in the world. Why now, therefore, would we turn back and prove guilty of the body and blood of the Lord because we have not discerned His body by making the Supper all about each of us as individuals and our present standing before the Lord? We must remember the Lord’s death in His Supper; we must examine ourselves not in some kind of mental exercise as a buffered self, deliberating on whether or not we are worthy to partake based on our conduct throughout the week, but whether we are jointly participating with one another in our communion and thus prove to properly discern His body. May we never neglect the power of the local church manifesting the embodiment of Jesus in the observance of the Lord’s Supper, and thus proclaim His death until He comes!
Ethan R. Longhenry
For Further Reading
Taylor, Charles. Buffered and porous selves (accessed 2020/05/06).