Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Corinth's Communion (part 12)

Paul first writes concerning the bread, reporting the words of Jesus that “This is My body, which is for you” (11:24).  He does this after first mentioning that Jesus had taken bread, given thanks, and broke the bread (11:24).  Then he goes on to indicate that “every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (11:26).  Continuing on to what would eventually be designed as the twenty-seventh verse of the chapter (it’s worth pointing out every once in a while that there were no chapter and verse divisions in the original letter, which serves as a reminder that the letter asks to be read as a letter, in a sing sitting), Paul again speaks of bread, with the verse closing out with “the body and blood of the Lord” (11:28b).  This calls attention to and reaffirms the symbolic nature of the bread, as it stands in for the body of Jesus.  In the twenty-ninth verse, Paul writes “the one who eats and drinks,” omitting but clearly implying the bread and the cup, “without careful regard for the body eats and drinks (the bread and the cup again implied though omitted) judgment against himself” (11:29). 

Changing gears a bit, the insistence that follows, in which Paul reasons “that is why many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few are dead” (11:30), along with “if we examined ourselves, we would not be judged” (11:31), “but when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned with the world” (11:32), the address to “my brothers and sisters” (11:33a), and the final addition of “when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (11:33b), seems to indicate a change of focus.  Paul is, it would appear, speaking to the group again. 

Taking that into consideration, a re-reading of the twenty-ninth verse, in which Paul makes two implicit references to the bread and the cup while also mentioning “the body,” should arouse some curiosity.  To which body is Paul referring?  Is he here using “body” in the same way that he used it in the twenty-fourth and twenty-eighth verses?  If so, why the multiple implied references to the bread and the cup in verse twenty-nine, with a sudden shift to the body, if “body” here is to be taken as yet another reference to the bread? 

The Greek word that is in usage has a minor variation, sharing the same root, so it is incumbent upon the hearer to tease out the subtle shift that has taken place in this verse.  It is unlikely that the original audience, immersed in the situation that is being addressed, would have missed out on this shift.  Paul’s use of “body” here has been shifted away from a reference to the bread of the communion table, and has been re-directed and used in reference to the body of believers---the church to which Paul writes.  This causes the usage to fit well with the words that began to be directed to the group, as Paul confers his attention upon the congregational body. 

At first glance, this seems like a strange conclusion, but when the larger context (the whole of the letter) into which the treatment of the subject fits is reconsidered, and when one listens to the letter in a single sitting, with those problems within the church as a whole top of mind, then what seems like a strange conclusion becomes not so strange at all.  When considering the genius in what he is doing, never forget that Paul is a thoroughly trained and gifted rhetorician.  He is highly skilled in argumentation.  He is quite capable of building a case for his teachings through a sustained narrative in which pieces function as essential building blocks.  His letter to the Romans is probably the finest example of these studiously acquired skills.  Just as Israel identified itself according to its own historical narrative, and just as Jesus saw and fit Himself within that narrative of the Creator God’s redemptive plan for the restoration of His good creation, Paul goes to great lengths to provide the recipients of his letters with a narrative structure that will aid in their coming to terms with that which he is attempting to communicate. 

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