The Significance of the Lord’s Supper for the Peoples Movements.

by Bishop Poulose Mar Poulose

Text: I Corinthians 11:17-34

The lesson from I Corinthians sheds much light on the significance of the Lord’s Supper, and in a particular way it reminds us of the responsibility in bringing forth justice and peace in this world. At the same time it is to be noted that no subject has been more controversial in the church than that of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Dispute about the precise meaning, as in the phrase "this is my body" produced the fatal split between Luther, Calvin and Zwingli during the reformation. Arguments about the metaphysical nature of Christ’s body and the universal presence even threatened to divide Lutherans in the Christological controversies of the early 19th century.

My contention is that the celebrities of the reformation have missed the point as far as their interpretation of the subject was concerned (of course, that is an overstatement). We, modern day Christian, have followed the cue; and that is why modern efforts toward formulating an ecumenical theology have made slow progress on the question of the Lord’s Supper.

The Words of Institution, as it is recorded in the 11th chapter of I Corinthians, is not unfamiliar to us. Each time we celebrate Lord’s Supper we listen to it. But conveniently we forget the verses preceding and following the Words of Institution.

What was the dominating concern in Paul’s mind when he wrote this passage? Apparently, Paul was astonished at the report that schisms or divisions existed in the church of Corinth.

Corinth was a sea port. Majority of the people in Corinth were workers at the sea port, and they were poor. As it is said in the first chapter, among the members of the church in Corinth not many were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, and not many were of noble birth. (I Cor. 1:26) There were some rich people, too.

According to the custom of early Christians, they used to gather together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. We don’t know the exact nature of this observance, but it is understood that there was a sharing of meals followed by some kind of ritualistic prayers. It was a time to express their solidarity with each other.

But many of the people would be unable to get to the common meeting place early, because as workers they could not leave their masters. Consequently, the rich members of the church who were able to come early ate without waiting for the poor. Thus, they really shamed the poor by the fact that the poor have to slip in after others have eaten, and were unable to enter into common life of the church. This is shaming those without possessions and unprivileged. Paul criticized the privileged people saying that they have despised Christ’s spirit by not making possible a communal meal of the whole church at the same time, and by not sharing what they have with all those who belong to the church. In that they were not celebrating the Lord’s Supper, but their own supper. Paul’s contention is that, to eat by oneself means to decline to join with the others in this greatest of all expressions of a common social life, and it therefore expresses contempt for the whole assembly of God.

It is clear, then, that the problem against which Paul’s statements are directed is not profanation of the holy rite, but the fragmentation of the holy society. It is not the vicious quality of gluttony and drunkenness that occupies Paul’s attention at this point but the selfish indifference of each person or family to the needs and situation of the deprived poor. There is no indication that he was concerned because they have not introduced the meal by a suitable liturgy. The rich just rushed into the meal and have drunk their own supplies of wine to the point of intoxication. They totally forgot the communal significance of what they were doing. They failed to understand what Christ himself intended to do at his supper. This is the situation which prompts him to cite the traditional origin of the supper practice.

It is not my intention to enter into a theological discussion of the Words of Institution since that is not our primary concern in this context. The traditional Words of Institution are recited as supporting evidence for Paul’s reaction against the Corinthians at their common suppers.

The eating and drinking in an unworthy manner (v. 27) refer to the mistreatment of persons present and not to misinterpretation in liturgical procedure. The indictment concerns injuring the body of Christ by breaking up the unity of partnership (I Corinthians 10:16-17), especially by insulting the poor (I Corinthians 11:21-22).

Accordingly, self-examination is enjoined in order to avert judgment that may be incurred by eating and drinking without concern for the poor. If the body of Christ means the people of the church celebrating the supper together, judgment comes because they do not take seriously the divine nature of this fellowship and are guilty of splitting it apart and mistreating its humbler members.

Paul admonished the Corinthians to express their solidarity with each other by waiting for and sharing with the have-nots. It is in-that way the Lord’s Supper becomes a symbol of the coming kingdom.

The same idea is expressed in the letter of James (2:2-4), where he criticizes the church for honoring the rich and discriminating against the poor.

It thus appears that all of the ink that has been traced on the pages of theological controversy about how the elements become, represent or signify the body and blood of Christ has been wasted in a grotesque misunderstanding of the meaning of Paul’s words. As I said earlier, the fatal consequence of such misunderstanding has been controversy and schism in the church. A correct understanding makes possible the use of the sacrament as an expression of unity, and enjoins conduct that befits love and concern for people rather then elevating the practice into a sacred observance which become an end in itself and slips indiscernably into something like idolatry.

The problem against which Paul’s statement are directed is not profanation of a holy rite, but the fragmentation of the people of God. The society is being fragmented even today, and the challenge before URM is to struggle for the unity of the People of God in such a way that one man’s hope shall not be the despair of another.

By the end of 1980’s we witnessed the end of the so-called Cold War between the two super powers, and important agreements which are directed toward putting an end to the arms race, especially in the area of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. This is indeed an encouraging development.

These changes, however, have not yet been translated into true and universal peace and justice. I would like to bring to your attention an alarming and very timely issue that faces us right now. In October 1990, NASA along with the European Space Agency launched the Ulysses, a plutonium-powered space probe on board the Space Shuttle. In the event of a launch accident (like the Challenger in 1985) enough plutonium could conceivably be released into the atmosphere to cause cancer in every human being on the planet. If, on the other hand, this probe is launched safely, it will mean that the nuclear power industry has successfully served another customer in its newest market: space. This not only paved the way for Star Wars, it also desensitized people for further nuclearization and militarization of space. It may look that the danger of a nuclear war is diminished, but it is by no means over.

Moreover, even if there will be a reduction in the production of non-conventional weapons, it is certain that there will be an increase in the production of conventional weapons (on which the economy of many Western countries depends), which eventually would find market in the third world countries where the ruling class will use it to suppress the freedom and human rights of the ordinary people. In Africa, Asia and Latin America people are not dying because of the ravages and destructive power of nuclear weapons, but because of ordinary guns and tanks such as the ones used at the Tiananmen Square in 1989. The nations of the rich world who speak about peace are also searching for market where they can sell the weapons they manufacture. As a consequence, it is our people and our children who suffer.

Today the society is not fragmented by nuclear war. Technological and economic power often exploits and excludes the poor of the world. Political power often represses dissidents and denies human rights. Human greed also destroys the natural environment on which we all depend.

In the URM circles we talk much about development. It should not be left unnoticed that global economy and global ecology are interconnected. It is in fact that we in Asia, ex- colonies, having won our so-called independence, are still trying to follow the lifestyle of Westerners. Increasingly, we subscribe to Western models of consumerism with regard to lifestyle and choice of energy resources. In many of the Asian countries where our chief assets are unlimited funds of natural resources, we come very near to destroying ourselves and these very resources through irresponsible use and lack of conservation. Huge tracts of forests are cut down to meet consumer needs and no new indigenous and appropriate saplings planted in their place. Rivers and other water sources are killed by toxic chemical wastes until they become unfit for human beings, beasts or fish. Unless something is done, and done fast, this earth, our only home, will surely be annihilated. It is up to us, the ordinary inhabitants of this world, the public, to struggle for a clean, safe and peaceful earth. Here we need a renewed reading of the Bible and the development of new theological perspectives which may assist us in rediscovering our responsibility and role as stewards of the whole creation.

The society is also fragmented by other problems of a different magnitude. Racism has continued poisoning human relations in many countries, and has risen with unusual strength in Europe. In many Asian countries, political crimes, terrorism and violations of human rights are still present while in other countries bloody and armed conflicts have continued.

In the midst of all these happenings which lead to the fragmentation of the society, is there hope for humanity? How can we talk of hope when it seems that justice is being crucified in our own lands? And yet, hope exists between doubt and certainty, life and death, spirituality and idolatry, pain and joy, between the cross and resurrection. We have to live hopefully in the midst of these tensions and contradictions in the light of the coming kingdom. Each time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we commit ourselves for the struggle for a better tomorrow. We find hope when we learn to follow the signs of the time creatively. Today, hope is manifest not only in great events but rather in knowing how to discover the small signs in the midst of contradictions in people’s daily lives. URM is called today to witness to this hope.


[This Bible Study was presented at the URM National Coordinator's Meeting held in Hong Kong from 16-22 March 1991]