As we read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, it may be good to remind ourselves that this epistle is what may be called “an occasional letter.” That is, Paul wrote this letter, not to set down his beliefs in general, but to address some specific issues and answer some particular questions that arose in a unique historical situation. Because some of the issues Paul addresses have such historical particularity, we may question their relevance for today. These days most of us do not struggle with questions about baptism for the dead, or about appropriate head coverings to be worn in church. And thanks be to God, we have pretty much moved beyond questions about whether women should speak in church or what is the proper length for a man’s hair. These are all questions that Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians, but for the most part, they are not our questions.
So when we read what Paul has to say about eating meat that was offered to an idol in some pagan religious ritual, we may rightly wonder what, if anything, this can have to do with us. You see, in Corinth, as in most of the larger cities of the Roman Empire, much of the meat sold in the market place came from animals that had been slaughtered as a sacrifice to one of the many deities being worshiped at the time. When you pick up your next pot roast at the supermarket, you will not wonder whether the poor cow was sacrificed on an altar to some pagan god.
So if we are to get anything out of this part of the Bible, we need to look behind the question and Paul’s answer to it. We must look behind it for something else, and when we do, we’ll find that behind Paul’s answer to this question there is some very important theology. For want of a better label, I’m going to call it Paul’s theology of “a sharing in Christ.”
Paul had no problem with somebody eating food that had previously been offered to idols or “demons” as he called them. To eat such food outside of the context of faith had no religious significance at all. “Give thanks to God for the food and eat up.” That was his advice. But, to eat in faith, as an act of worship, that was another matter all together. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”
Paul writes, Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. (10:14-21). The thinking goes something like this. When one sits at table, and partakes in a ritual meal, a kind of partnership is created between those who eat, and the one to whom the table is dedicated. This is the whole point of eating as a religious practice. In the consumption of the sacrifice, the worshiper is joined to that which is offered in a very intimate union. The food and drink are no longer external to the worshiper, but very literally become part of her. When someone eats a sacrificial offering in faith he becomes one with the offering, he becomes the offering if you will. Ultimately, it is the self that is offered to the deity. The self is offered – given over – to be joined in a partnership – a union – of service and devotion. When true worshipers leave a meal of ritual sacrifice, they walk away as an agent – no, more than an agent – they walk away as an extension of their god.
To partake of the table of the Lord – as we regularly in our worship – signifies a triple union for us. First, we are united with Jesus Christ in his self-offering to God. His life and death and life again become ours – and we become his. As Paul wrote just a few paragraphs before “Anyone that is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” (1 Cor. 6:17) Or as Jesus so elegantly expressed it, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (John 6:56)
Second, in this meal we are united to the Father through the self-offering of the Son. In union with Jesus, we give ourselves to God and are accepted and welcomed by God – received, as it were, into God’s presence, and God’s presence is given into us. Again, as Jesus expressed it in his magnificent prayer in the 17th chapter of John’s gospel, “I ask . . . that as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us . . . I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)
And third, we are united to each other in a bond that is closer than friendship, closer than family ties – it is the unity of the Spirit that makes us one body – one living entity. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” This bread, though broken remains a single loaf and this cup, though poured out remain one cup. As we share this meal, that which is in me is in you – and what is in you is in me – we have co-union – communion.
As we leave the table on any given Sunday morning morning, we leave only a time and a place. We leave Sunday morning and this sanctuary, but we do not and cannot leave this triple union. Where I am, there are you. We may be apart, but are not separate. And where we are, there is Christ. And where Christ is, there is God. Where God is, there are we all. In this way God continues to be bodily present to and for all people.
This table is a sign of a sharing. It is a sign of a partnership and a union. It is a sharing in the Lord. “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” It is a sharing in Christ. In the Book of Common Worship there is this most extraordinary prayer to be said after the Lord’s Supper.
“Eternal God,you have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, you have made us one with all your people in heaven and on earth. You have fed us with the bread of life, and renewed us for your service. Help us who have shared Christ’s body and received his cup, to be his faithful disciples so that our daily living may be part of the life of your kingdom, and our love be your love reaching out into the life of the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”