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“The Real Presence of Christ”

1 Corinthians 11:17-34
Bob DeGray
August 6, 2017

Key Sentence

Christ is really present when we gather for pulpit and table.


I. When you come together (1st Corinthians 11:17-22)
II. This is my Body (1st Corinthians 11:23-26)
III. Taking it seriously (1st Corinthians 11:27-34)


Last year I read a book called Retro-Christianity by Mike Svigel. Some of you may remember Mike. He was a good friend of Mike Bauer at Dallas Seminary and has visited Trinity. He is now the chairman of the theology department and a champion of a return to the historical roots of the Christian church. In the middle of the book he uses a vivid illustration to show how the local church has functioned over the centuries. He says “If you were to step into a Swiss parish church in the year 1200, chances are you’d first pass a small baptismal font near the entrance as a reminder that people are to enter the church through baptism. At the front, the congregation focused their attention on the altar, where the priest prepared the Eucharist, the bread and the cup.” In that church the pulpit and the lectern would be on one side or the other of the altar, flanking that church’s true center of worship, the altar. There the people would receive what they believed to be the real body and blood of Christ.

Fast forward to the year 1600: same Swiss village, same church building. But now the furniture has been rearranged. The Reformation has swept through and this once Roman Catholic Church has adopted the reforms of Geneva under John Calvin. At the front of the church the altar is no longer the main focus of worship. Instead, the pulpit stands at the center of the platform with a large open Bible. The center of worship is the proclamation of the Word. In fact Communion is only observed monthly, breaking from the ancient Christian practice of weekly observance. And the people no longer believe that the bread and the wine literally become the Body of Christ.

Leap forward to the year 2000. The abandoned church has been purchased by an evangelical mission group. The baptismal font is gone, replaced by a rack of Christian tracts. There is no altar. Every few months during an evening service a small group observes the Lord’s Supper, a symbolic remembrance. Sunday services focus on singing praise and worship songs with a guitar, keyboard, and drums. The pulpit is gone. A minister in jeans delivers a practical message from a stool with a small Bible in one hand and a remote control in the other.

Despite the fact that I preach without a pulpit and with PowerPoint, I think most of us at Trinity would identify more with the middle church than with the last one. We don’t identify with the first one, the exclusively altar centered church whose worship minimized the Word and emphasized the eucharist. But maybe we’ve swung too far the other way. Svigel takes us back even further and asks us to learn about church from the writings of the church fathers.

Justin Martyr, for example, in 150 AD says “On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president, [the presiding elder] verbally instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray. There is then brought to the president bread and a cup of wine mixed with water. He gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. Then those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced.

I find it pretty awesome that this full model of church worship was recorded for us at such an early date. Svigel calls it pulpit and altar centered worship. Today we want to explore the altar, the part we call the Lord’s Supper, Communion, or Eucharist. The Greek word eucharistia means “thanksgiving.” You heard it translated that way several times in the Justin Martyr quote. It doesn’t refer primarily to the broken bread or the poured wine, but to the observance itself, the celebration. In the New Testament that celebration is recorded four times, in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and maybe the earliest record, in 1st Corinthians. We use that version almost every month when we celebrate communion and we’re going to look at those verses, expanded to include the context, this morning. We’ll see that Christ is really present when we gather for pulpit and table.

We’ll start with 1 Corinthians 11:17-22 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. 18For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, 19for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 20When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. 21For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 22What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.

In this section of 1st Corinthians Paul has been moving from subject to subject, giving brief words of encouragement and long sections of correction to the struggling Corinthians church. But as he changes the subject again, he finds nothing to commend. Verse 17: 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.

Paul can’t find anything good to say because he sees that in their church meetings they are doing harm to each other and their witness. The word ‘come together’ is a key phrase in this section, and indicates that Paul has a strong concern that their fellowship, their koinonia, their ‘communion’ be pure and Christ-like. Verse 18: “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you.” The church comes together for worship, and for communion. But Paul has heard that the fellowship they’re sharing stinks. There are major divisions or schisms in the body of Christ at Corinth.

This doesn’t surprise Paul. He says, verse 19: “for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” Strong words: Paul is saying that by these divisions God is separating the wheat from the chaff in Corinth, separating those walking in righteousness from those who are not. Because as a result of these divisions, verse 20, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat.” Notice that Paul uses the phrase “Lord’s supper” here, whereas he used the word communion earlier. He also calls it the Lord’s table in chapter. Each of these is an equally valid.

But if there are factions in the body of believers who come together, it’s as if they are not celebrating at all. They’ve missed an essential element that makes the celebration meaningful - it’s shared nature. Verse 21: “For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.” The communion celebration in the early years came as part of a fellowship meal. But in Corinth the fellowship meal was chaos. Some people are eating first, some people are eating a lot, some people aren’t getting anything at all, some people are drinking so much they’re ending up drunk. And part of this was due to economic divisions among them. Verse 22: “What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” The richer members of the congregation provided most of the food, and this could have been a great expression of Christian love and unity. But they weren’t waiting for the poor or the slaves to arrive. They ate and got drunk. There was no real common meal. Paul sees this lack of concern for one another as an offense against the church and each other.

“What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.” Paul has dealt in this letter with divorce, sexual immorality, divisions and lawsuits, but he is more upset that the fellowship of the church, their love and care for one another is being harmed. So even though the details of what we do around communion differ, the principle of taking it seriously, not trivializing it, and taking our fellowship as a body seriously is crucial. The real presence of Christ in communion has more to do with being his body than it does with the bread and the wine. If we don’t take it seriously how can we expect his presence?

Paul explains that this observance is crucial because of who it comes from and what it means. Familiar verses, 23 to 26 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

I want to lay out the implications of these familiar verses to help us recognize the truth we’re called to celebrate. First, this is given to us by the Lord Jesus himself. Paul says he received it from the Lord, and it agrees perfectly with the eye-witness accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke. So this is not Paul or Peter or James projecting back a meaning onto a Passover meal. This is Jesus himself telling us what it means. Which leads to the second point, that this is a remembrance of an historical event. Jesus gave us this command at a specific time and place, the night he was betrayed. Third, he used concrete tangible symbols to make this memorable. “He took bread,” and, verse 25 “in the same way also he took the cup.” The bread and wine make the celebration tangible, taste-able, touchable, not mystical. Last Sunday Gail, Bobby, Tina, and I looked for a church in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. One that we considered was the Friends Community Church. We didn’t go there but we read something fascinating on the website “The Society of Friends (Quakers) has traditionally believed baptism and communion to be practiced as an exclusively inward spiritual experience. Although we agree that the essential baptism of the believer is with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and that communion with God is through worship and the Word, we recognize and practice the outward act of both in order to honor our Lord and the reality behind those traditions mentioned in Scripture.” Even a church steeped in a mystical understanding of communion can come to recognize the importance of the tangible act.

Fourth, the bread and the cup represent his body broken and his blood shed. I use the term represent, though Jesus says, “this is my body.” The Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and some others have the view that you must take Jesus literally, so that in some way, and they don’t agree exactly on how, the bread becomes the literal body of Christ and the wine become the literal blood that ratifies the new covenant between God and man. But many in the early church and almost all Protestants leaned toward a symbolic or more precisely a metaphorical view. If Jesus had said, ‘this is like my body,’ that would be a clear simile. But even when he says ‘this is my body,’ normal language does not take that as an identity, ‘my body and this thing in my hand are one and the same thing,’ but as a metaphor, this represents or symbolizes my body.

For example, if I handed you a thumb drive with all my photographs on it I might say “Be careful, this is my life.” You would know that I was using a metaphor to dramatize the importance of that drive. You would not think that if you destroyed the device I would die. When the Bible says “God is a consuming fire,” we know that to be a metaphor for his holiness and judgment, not a literal description of his being. So when Jesus says “this is my body,” we can be pretty sure the broken bread is a metaphor for his body broken and given to us as a sacrifice. The wine in the cup is a metaphor for his blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Further, if Jesus says this to you while he is sitting there in his body, the last thing you would think is that he’s making an identity. He is telling you that his literal body is going to be broken like this bread and his blood poured out like this cup for forgiveness of sins.

Fifth, he says clearly that this is to be done ‘in remembrance of me.’ It’s legitimate to hear him saying ‘in remembrance of my sacrifice, my body broken, my blood shed.” But there is no way to hear him saying, as the Catholics do, that “in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is offered again in an unbloody manner.” The sacrifice is once and for all on the cross. In communion we remember the sacrifice, even re-experience our salvation. Christ is literally present when we celebrate, not in the bread, but as the one who hands us the bread and the cup as he did to his disciples, and calls us not only to remember but to benefit again from the sacrifice, the cleansing, the assurance of forgiveness, the renewal of life. Communion is the place God has ordained for his church to gather and be renewed in these things.

This is not just me talking. Svigel says “when we say ‘Christ is present in the Eucharist,’ . . . we don’t mean that Christ has somehow physically or mysteriously merged with the bread and wine. What we do mean by Christ’s presence in our right observance of the Lord’s Supper is that he has made good his promise that “where two or three are gathered” in his name, he is there in their midst. If this is true for prayer and worship, it must also be true when the church comes together in obedience and submission to Christ to partake of the sacred meal he himself ordained!

Sixth, most briefly but maybe most important, there is a simple command embedded in the text: Verse 24, “do this.” Verse 25, again, “Do this.” This renewing celebration in the presence of the living Christ is not optional. It’s commanded. That’s why many Protestant churches call communion and baptism ‘ordinances,’ something that is ordained by Christ. You’re doing what he established and commanded. So take it seriously, don’t neglect it.

The last verses of our text show how serious it is. I Corinthians 11:27-34 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. 28Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. 33So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— 34if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come.

When you read these words you suddenly say ‘wow - Paul’s serious about this.” I mean he’s talking about discourtesy at a meal. Admittedly an important meal, remembering the most significant sacrifice ever, resulting in a fellowship or brotherhood with one another that is entirely new and vital. But is that a reason for Paul to say “whoever 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?” Yes: this needs to be said. The key is the word ‘unworthy’. Paul is saying that the person who causes division or harms fellowship in the body of Christ, as these Corinthians were doing, shares the guilt of those who crucified Christ in the first place. So, Paul says, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” We must, at least, examine ourselves to see whether we are taking care of others in the church, or causing divisions from others. Are you taking care of the needs of your brothers and sisters, or are you sinfully selfish, focusing on yourself? Are you committed to the body, or are you helping to divide into fragments. That’s the center of Paul’s concern.

So, are you being sinfully selfish with your money? There are needs in our body that consume every dollar given to benevolence; and there are needs unmet. Are you being sinfully selfish with your time? There are so many needs for service among us, especially in these six areas that we have identified as God’s mission focus for Trinity. Awana is starting soon? Are you willing to part of your precious Sunday afternoon for that old-fashioned but effective ministry? Many are. Are you selfish of your energy, especially emotional energy? Every time you seriously ask someone ‘how is it going?’ you’re volunteering to bear emotional burdens of encouragement and concern, and that’s hard. But we are called to these things. Furthermore, when selfishness, ours or someone else’s causes conflict between us, we are called to peacemaking. It’s a serious call.

Paul says, “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” What does it mean to discern “the body of the Lord?” On one hand it means the bread represents the sacrificed and broken body of Christ. If you don’t get that you’re not really celebrating communion. But we’ve also seen Paul’s concern that the church celebrate in true and caring fellowship. So his use of the word ‘body’ here also refers to the church as the body of Christ. If we take communion without one-another-care for our brothers and sisters, the body of Christ, we will face consequences.

Verse 30: “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” Paul recognizes that spiritual ills may have physical results; the maladies and even deaths of some of the Corinthians had spiritual causes. In fact God uses sickness, tragedy and physical circumstances to cause spiritual change. This week has been the 50th anniversary of Joni Eareckson Tada’s paralysis. And she would say that God has used it to sanctify her, draw her to himself and touch the lives of many others in a way nothing else could have. Though Paul does say that “if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged.” So a robust self-awareness can keep us from the kind of discipline that God uses to get our attention. Frank Kittle says that the purpose of discipline in child raising is to help the child develop self-discipline. That’s what Paul is saying.

Verses 33 and 34 summarize Paul’s thoughts “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— 34if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment.” You may have thought that Paul’s attention had drifted from the problem he described earlier. Far from it: all this talk of the sacrifice Christ made and the consequences of disregarding it was intended to motivate them to proper love and care for one another, and conscientious rejection of things that divide.

So what have we seen? The eucharist, or thanksgiving, has been a central part of the church’s worship since the earliest days, in obedience to the Lord’s command. It needs to given it’s proper place. But what is that place here at Trinity? I’ve been fascinated Svigel’s analysis of the Protestant church most like ours, the one with the pulpit in the center and the altar or table of communion pushed aside except for once a month. He wants us to look instead to the early church of Justin Martyr, what he calls a pulpit and table centered church. Svigel says “Let’s return to that poor Swiss church building once more and re-arrange it. The pulpit would stand at the front of the sanctuary with an altar before it. The ordained pastor-elder would preside over the service, in which fellow elders, deacons, and laypeople participate in reading the Word and leading the congregation in singing, special music, and whatever else contributes positively to the edification of the church and to the glory of God.”

“At some point an elder would lead the congregation in corporate prayer. The presiding elder would preach the sermon, exhorting believers by expositing the text with theological, historical, and practical faithfulness. The sermon would be followed by an invitation for the baptized believers to respond to the message by receiving the Lord’s Supper as from the hand of the Lord himself. This act would mark the church’s renewal of its covenant commitment to live the Christian life together in the bond of peace and by the power of the Spirit.” “Ideally,” he says, “we should envision the church’s worship as twofold: proclamation and response, pulpit and altar.” I like this. It is deeply historical and biblical. Our practice is very much like that, but different in one key way: the historic church did this every week. So one of the things the elders are going to be talking about in coming months is the possibility of restructuring our worship service, cutting back on some things so that we could have a brief but meaningful communion every Sunday. We welcome your input.

But even if we don’t do that, we need a conviction, today, that Christ is really present in communion, working in our lives and our church through faithfulness to his command. He isn’t present through a magical or even spiritual transformation of the bread and the cup but he is present, with us always according to his promise. He says to us today “remember and be transformed by my sacrifice, my body broken for you; remember and be transformed by my blood poured out for you for the forgiveness of your sins and the renewal of your lives.” Remember and celebrate in loving unity and fellowship. Let’s do that now.