Now when you come together at the same place, you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper. – 1 Corinthians 11:20 (NET)
When one grasps the importance of meals and the meal table in the first century world and for the early church that sprung up into that world, as they were an effective means by which to communicate concepts concerning the kingdom of heaven, any mention of meals can be vested with a significant amount of weight and meaning. This can be done even if there does not appear to be any overt controversy or angst in the situation.
However, one such place in which there does appear to be much controversy concerning the meal table is the church at Corinth. This angst is expressed by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, which is the place where one is able to discover the most detailed treatment of the communion table, outside of the Gospels, in the whole of the New Testament. The words used in Paul’s presentation of the communion in the eleventh chapter has been, for centuries, the basis for the celebration of communion, shedding clear light on the practice of the early church, as Paul helpfully elaborates on the goings-on that we see in the “Last Supper” of Jesus and His disciples.
At the same time, while extraordinarily helpful, those same words have been the source of much controversy, as words like “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself first, and in this way let him eat the bread and drink of the cup. For the one who eats and drinks without careful regard for the body eats and drinks judgment against himself. That is why many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few are dead. But if we examined ourselves, we would not be judged” (11:27-31), have been applied in a number of not always altogether helpful or appropriate ways.
Quite often, there is an encouragement to apply these words in an individual and personal manner, which fits well within a notion of salvation that is predominantly individualistic and focused on an other-worldly escapism. However, this type of application presents us a bit of a problem, as it is unlikely that such notions would have been the thrust of Paul’s understanding, nor that of the early church. It is a near certainty that such would not reflect the worldview in which Jesus Himself was ensconced, which was also the world in which He would re-orient the Passover celebration and its meaning towards Himself.
While there is certainly a sense of individual salvation to be found, as the collective salvation of the covenant people would naturally include the salvation of individuals, Jewish thoughts of salvation, especially as connected with the Passover celebration, as would come to be the case for the church’s communion table, were oriented towards the deliverance of the people of the Creator God from exile and oppression, with the deliverance from out of Egypt as the functional model. So while there is indeed an individualistic component here, that individual benefit cannot be disconnected from the community.
Also, the escapism that is prevalent in so many popular interpretations of the communion passages of chapter eleven would not have been a part of Paul’s worldview. The guilt and judgment reference in the passage previously quoted would not at all be connected with the eternal destination of one’s soul, and would certainly not have been used as a means of limiting participation at the communion table or of generating fear and trepidation at partaking of the elements.