Monday, May 1, 2017

Discerning the Body

  Discerning the Body

1 Cor. 11:17-34 (ESV)
“For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body
eats and drinks judgment on himself” (v. 29)

In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul addresses how the Lord’s Supper was observed. Also called Communion or the Eucharist, this ceremony memorializes Jesus’ death on the cross.

It is ironic that this, the original Christian feast, is called Communion, because it has become an issue of discommunion. Most of this centers on “discerning the body,” meaning the Body of Christ.

Paul addressed abuses of the Lord’s Supper in Corinth. In verse 17 he writes, “But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” He goes on to say, “When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk” (vv. 20-21). 
The practice of the church in the First and Second Centuries was to come together on the first day of the week to worship together (1 Cor. 16:2). This was followed by the Agape Feast (Love Feast). The Lord’s Supper was observed some time during this church dinner, most likely at the beginning or at the end. 

This church dinner was not conducted like our modern potlucks, with the food set out for serving on a common table. Some of the families in Corinth brought a lot of food, then kept it to themselves. In the same room or courtyard were others who struggled to get enough to eat. 

Frankly, it defies common courtesy to feast in the presence of a hungry person, as the rich man did with Lazarus watching through the gate (Luke 16:19-21). Some of the believers in Corinth were not sharing what they had with those in need, even when they were at the next table. 

Since Communion was part of this dinner, Paul explained to the Corinthians what the Lord’s Supper really meant (vv. 23-26). He told them what Jesus did and said, just as would be written in the Gospels (Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-19) [by the way, this is called the Eucharist (giving thanks), because Jesus “gave thanks” with the bread and the cup]. Jesus said the bread was His body and the cup was His blood. 

It is at this point where the Eucharist has divided the church: What is meant by the elements of Communion being the body and blood of Christ?  Some (such as Roman Catholics) call it Trans-substantiation, which means the bread and the wine become the body and blood of Jesus. Others (such as Lutherans) call it Con-substantiation, which means the body and blood of Christ are present with the bread and wine. Most Protestants believe it is Representation: the elements of Communion represent Jesus’ body and blood. 

This is why Christians from several groups won’t celebrate Communion with members of another group. They believe that “discerning the body” means discerning what the elements of the Eucharist are. 

However, I believe that this is not what Paul meant by “discerning the body.”  From verse 17 to the end of the chapter, he addresses abuses associated with the Lord’s Supper. When he says, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord” (v. 27), the “unworthy manner” refers to how they are treating each other. By their actions the “body” they are not discerning (recognizing) is not the actual bread and wine, but the body of believers. This is what Paul means by “an unworthy manner.” Most of this letter concerns disunity in the local church.

In the next chapter, Paul describes the church as the Body of Christ. Christians are members of the Body of Christ the way hands, feet, eyes and ears are members of a human body. Each has its own abilities and roles. Each is honored in a different way. The least noticed, least appreciated member of the body is still vitally important to the body as a whole. The body hurts together and rejoices together. 

So it is–or should be–in the Body of Christ, the church. Members should care for, respect and honor each other. They should mourn and celebrate together. The 12th chapter is not a separate document, but a continuation of what Paul is saying in Chapter 11, and is part of the letter as a whole. Dishonor, disrespect and abuse of each other are dishonor, disrespect and abuse of the Body of Christ. This is a symptom of not “discerning the body.”

With members dishing up from a common table at church dinners, we don’t see the specific abuse cited by the Apostle Paul in the 11th chapter of 1 Corinthians. But there are other ways of dishonoring the Body of Christ described in the New Testament. James points out partiality based on wealth and employers withholding wages (Jas. 2:1-13). In their letters, both James and John denounce refusing to help those in need (Jas. 1:27; 2:14-17; 1 John 3:17). Peter warns leaders about “domineering over those in your charge” (1 Pet. 5:3). Paul lists things like extortion, fraud, lying, theft, adultery and other violations of relationships. He also adds those who can work expecting handouts (2 Thess. 3:6-12). The implication is that these things are evidence of not discerning the body.

On the positive side, there are many things recognizing each other as members of the Body of Christ will lead us to do, for instance loving, forbearing and forgiving each other (Eph. 4:15-16, 25-32).
This applies not only to a local congregation, not only to a fellowship or a denomination, not only to a doctrinal tradition, but to the church as a whole. When Christians refuse to fellowship each other, they are not “discerning the body.” 

Unity is not possible without recognizing and believing that everyone who is born again is a member of the church, then acting like it with love and respect for our brothers and sisters in Christ:

We reach our hands in fellowship to every blood-washed one,
While love entwines about each heart in which God’s will is done.*
This is discerning the body.

~ Wesley G. Vaughn
 Dover, Ohio
*Charles W. Naylor, “The Church’s Jubilee” (1923), set to music by A. L. Beyers (1923) and published in Hymns and Spiritual Songs (Gospel Trumpet Company: Anderson, IN), #155, and subsequent hymnals.

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