Let us continue to bear in mind that the communion table was approached within a culture with a ready understanding of the social significance of meals and meal practice, and by a church that looked upon the Passover celebration, now transformed by Jesus, by the light of the messianic banquet and all that such implied. In many ways, though we do not wish to paint with too broad of a brush, we can see that the communion table---that simple ceremony that Jesus delivered “after supper”---had effectively become symbolic of the messianic banquet, and therefore symbolic of the establishment of the kingdom of heaven. It did this while carrying a great degree of weight in the areas of theology, and practice. Theology because the communion table, in carrying the heavy weight of so much meaning, tells its participants a great deal about the God that Jesus intended to reveal and to be revealed through His church that was intended to reveal God’s kingdom. Practice because, looking back to the example of Jesus, the participants at the communion table are able to learn a very basic premise of what it would look like when they were living and acting like those who truly believed that Jesus had been enthroned, and that God had begun to rule this world through Him.
Much like the covenant markers of Judaism (primarily circumcision, dietary prescriptions, and the keeping of the Sabbaths) had become the indicators of those that intended to participate in the kingdom of God, so too did participation in the communion, with an ear and an eye towards the inclusive, socially flattening and barrier eliminating model that had been presented by Jesus and which was being shared orally at the point that this letter to the Corinthians was written (as evidenced by the fact that Paul feels compelled to confirm the tradition that had been presented to him), indicate one’s intention to participate in the kingdom of God on earth, doing so through calling Jesus Lord in both word and deed. This would include living out the implications of the model that was to be found in what would have been the well-known practices of table fellowship of the one that was being looked to as King, and acknowledging the ministerial and missional prominence of the readily communicated stories (as evidenced by the fact that they take up a sizable amount of the Gospel accounts) that served to demonstrate the way that Jesus approached and spoke about the meal table, along with His handling of questions and concerns about the same. This would also have to be borne in mind alongside the oft-repeated fact that His positioning Himself as Messiah, whether implicitly or explicitly, meant that the meal tables of Jesus, and therefore the table that the early church looked upon as the one table of singular importance, had undeniable messianic banquet sensibilities, and would have to be considered within that terribly important context.
For these reasons, it seems to be incumbent upon us to move past a pre-occupation with individualistic concerns, and about whether we are able to approach the communion table in a particular condition of heart or soul that becomes determinative of the way that God is going to view us as we take the elements and participate in the Lord’s Supper. Though Paul does write that “A person should examine himself first, and in this way let him eat the bread and drink of the cup” (11:28), the thrust of the letter, when considered within our diligently teased out knowledge about the context of meal practice and what it communicated about the church and the kingdom of heaven, forces us to consider the “person” in the context of the community in our attempt to fully and rightly discern what it is that is taking place and what has the Apostle so exercised at this congregation.
This is hardly a nonsensical deduction, as Paul began this section of the letter with a general address to the whole of the church that he intends to hear his words at the same time and place. He wrote “I do not praise you” (11:17), which is clearly directed to the group. When he writes “you come together not for the better but for the worse” (11:17), and then reinforces this with “when you come together as a church” (11:18), this is clearly group-speak. The addition of “I hear there are divisions among you” (11:18) reveals Paul’s desire for unity as a group, while also serving as a lament that there are divisions. Such a lament would militate against any type of practice that served to elevate the individual aspect when concerning oneself with the meal which identified one as a loyalist to Jesus and as a willing participant in the kingdom program of God for the world that was being enacted through the church. This is not to say that God does not work through individuals, but such a thought does remind us that no man is an island unto himself. So we do not devalue the importance of individual pursuit within the kingdom, but maintaining consideration of our context, which is that of a meal that is communal through and through, individualistic concerns, especially as Paul addresses this church, fall by the wayside. This will allow us to get at the root of the problem.
It has become clear that an approach to that which serves to identify the church of Christ, that being the communion table, that puts a premium on the individual heart or soul condition of the one that comes to the table, is almost counter-intuitive to what Paul believes is necessary and appropriate. Indeed, if the example provided by Jesus is considered again, as the meals of the Jesus tradition have come to devolve upon the communion table, one could, if hung up on individualism and anachronistic determinations of worthiness and examination, say that Jesus Himself was prompting violations that would bring judgments of weakness, sickness, and death, as He was consistently coming to the table with, and welcoming to the table those identified as tax collectors and sinners, who were therefore most certainly individuals of the unworthy variety. This is quite the conundrum, and we are only forced to it if we continue to miss the main concern of the Apostle as he addressed what he learned was happening in this church.