The Lord’s Supper is an Ethical Act (Part 4 of 5)

I have shown over the past two posts that the Lord’s Supper has continuity with the Jewish Passover and it is an enjoyment of fellowship which finds its source in the historical, sacrificial death of Jesus.  Now New Testament scholar Markus Barth addresses the question: What does ethics have to do with the Lord’s Supper?  In my Christian life, I have viewed the Lord’s Supper from such an individualistic focus that I failed to appreciate how it relates to Christian behavior, especially within the community.  I would like to share some summary bullet points from the third chapter of his work on the Lord’s Supper, Rediscovering the Lord’s Supper.  The text in focus is 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.

  • In 1 Corinthians 10 and 11, there are two problems with the observance of the Lord’s Supper: (1) a sacramentalism that allowed people to participate in it while simultaneously indulging in feasts that honor idols, and (2) a cleavage between the rich and the poor.
  • Barth states that there is no true communion with Christ when the church community is torn asunder.
  • Paul strongly condemns the disorder produced by the improper treatment of the poor.
  • Barth argues that, where “body” and “blood” of Christ are mentioned together, there is a reference to Christ crucified; however, where “body” stands alone, the reference is to the church, the “body of Christ”.  Thus, in 11:29 (“For he that eateth and drinketh, eateth and drinketh judgment unto himself, if he discern not the body”), Barth argues for “body” to represent the church.  A more common interpretation is that “body” is a representative term for Christ, as in “body and blood of Christ.”
  • The common theme of chapters 8-14: “among the manifold people who form the congregation and ‘come together’ for worship some are supposedly inferior to the others.  Those who feel superior tend to despise, belittle, override, or ridicule the others.  Paul however protects the people who are treated as inferior.”
  • Common polarizations in the church: rich/poor, strong/weak in faith, Jewish/Gentile Christians, etc.
  • The poor, despised Christians in the community look like the weak, crucified Lord Jesus; they also show the world that Christ has selected those who are weak,  despised, condemned in the eyes of the community.  The poor are reflective of Christ and the church as a whole.
  • In about 20% of the sentences in Luke and Acts, meals play a prominent role.  What is the character of the eating and drinking?
    • Without food, life is in danger and ultimately impossible (feeding of multitudes, petition for daily bread, etc.)
    • Those who suffer are delivered and subsequently enjoy a meal (e.g. Peter’s mother-in-law, Eutyches, younger prodigal son)
    • The presence of the Christ is reason to begin a period of festival.
    • Jesus eats in his post-resurrection appearances; this shows his bodily resurrection, his full fellowship with those who abandoned him, and his gift to them of the capacity to be faithful witnesses
    • Luke’s emphasis is on the fact of the meal, not an effect that the food has upon the participant.
    • The meal displays the effect or outcome of fellowship with Christ
    • Those who participate in eating with the Savior must accept those who dine with them
    • The meals eaten involve natural, normal food; the food does not undergo change, such as transsubstantiation
    • Eating and drinking are connected with joy
  • Barth’s final words: “It is difficult to describe with one term the relationship between the festival act of celebrating the Lord’s Supper and the daily activities and sufferings of Christians.  Is the Supper a school, an exercise, a training ground, an example to be imitated, a demonstration and display, the criterion and test, the summit of a mountain or a pyramid, the source that supplies strength and anticipation of the heavenly joys as final reward?  Each of these descriptions may contain a grain of truth…May it suffice to say that the Lord’s Supper is a gift of God, which points the way and strengthens us on our way to loving God by loving our neighbors.  In the Lord’s Supper, all is ethical; however, only evangelical ethics – not legalistic ethics – fit and express the praise that Christians owe to God and the testimony that they are to give to each other and to those who do not yet believe in God as revealed through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.”

So, when you participate in the Lord’s Supper, do you see it as a platform for your display of Christian ethics?


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