Thanksgiving Day meals in America bring families together for a delicious ham or turkey dinner. But they are notorious for family spectacle as well—the picky great-aunt who remembers when she could cook better, the politically active uncle who can’t hold his opinions back, the growing son helping himself to a fourth serving of potatoes. Sometimes manners don’t match the occasion.
Turns out, family drama is nothing new.
In the first century church, believers gathered together often for prayer and teaching and often over a meal. These regular gatherings were meant to encourage the participants and teach the words of Jesus. The communal meal resembled a potluck: everyone brought something to the table for all to share. At some point they would pause to remember the Lord Jesus, pass around unleavened bread and wine, and partake together in a respectful and worshipful manner.
The Corinthian church was made up of a wide swath of society. Rich, poor, slaves, women, landowners, politicians, beggars—all were welcome in Jesus’s family. In Christ, they were equal—a phenomenon quite different from society at large. At the meal, equality was manifested in real time. The businessman would sit down with a beggar, a wealthy woman next to a slave. But the Corinthian Christians were having a hard time leaving their old habits at the door.
Corinthians were partiers. They lived loud and enthusiastically, and their feasts were deteriorating into a spectacle at which some gorged and others went hungry. Folks got drunk instead of ceremonially partaking as a sign of respect. Disorderliness and debauchery were more common than not.
Paul was not happy. In this passage he rebukes the church for their lack of love and respect. An event designed to foster the unity Christ commanded had devolved into an exercise in selfishness and class differentiation. The poorer members were sometimes going hungry due to the gluttony of the rich. Paul minced no words: “Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (11:22)
Paul pressed for mutual respect among the members and respect for the meal itself. A master wordsmith, he uses “the body and blood of the Lord” (v. 27) as a double entendre: the bread and wine representing Jesus himself, and the church, which is called the Body of Christ. He urges the Corinthians to act in ways that show respect and honor for Jesus and his Body.
We don’t typically serve communion at potlucks anymore, but Paul’s admonition for believers to behave differently from the world still stands. What habits from your old life need to be discarded? How does your behavior—whether in the church, at work, at home, on the street, in a store—reflect your commitment to Jesus? Let the people around you see him through the way you show respect for others.
And that’s the memo.
By Jennie Allen