Somewhat infamously, the early Christian Corinth congregation had communion issues. Perhaps the most famous phrase in Paul’s letters about their meal practices is this one:
For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves (1 Corinthians 11:29)
Now, when I was in elementary school it was drummed into me that “discerning the body” meant “believing in the real presence of Jesus in, with, and under the bread and the wine.”
Except it doesn’t appear that Paul means anything of the sort here. And wow do I wish the church would unlearn that corruption of the letter!
In this 11th chapter of his first letter, his concern is about “divisions in the body.”
Paul’s point just a bit earlier is worth quoting in full:
So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? (1 Cor. 11:20-22)
From what we know of the class-divided practices of the culture in Corinth, many biblical scholars surmise the rich gathered early for private suppers (perhaps with richer drinks and foods) and then the poorer members of the community came later, receiving the leftovers of the meal of Christ, if any remained.
Paul, given his commitment to all being one in Christ Jesus, simply can’t abide such divisions. He condemns the Corinthians harshly, and concludes with: when you gather to eat, you should all eat together (1 Cor. 11:33).
Okay, so what in the world does this have to do with communion practices post-pandemic?
Well, some of our churches have not gathered so that “all eat together” since March of 2020. We’ve been eating in our own homes. It’s not that we have gone without the sacraments altogether, but for the sake of the sick, the vulnerable, the “poor,” we have not all gathered together for a supper for the whole assembly for whom Christ would be body and blood.
Some of us have received the vaccine, and could return safely. Others have yet to receive the vaccine, and so cannot. Setting aside for a moment federal health guidelines from the CDC or other local agencies, we might ask… when can the church gather together again for a meal?
I think we know the answer. For a return to the full assembly, we need to heed Paul’s warnings. We should not eat and drink condemnation against ourselves by privileging some for a special meal, a meal for the “rich,” while others go without.
We have lots of various houses we can eat in. Meals at the home table. Picnics outdoors. But for most Christians (certainly not all) there’s something important, even essential, about gathering for the one meal, at the one table, with one’s own community.
For that, we really can wait until we can all eat together.
When? Well, I think there’s room for discernment on this point (that’s part of discerning the body, right?) So the body can gather and make that decision. For us, it means waiting at least four weeks after we know for sure everyone has a chance to get the vaccine who desires to do so. Of course, we hope everyone in our congregation will do so, because if we are all vaccinated, we are all safer.
If all adults have the vaccine available to them starting May 1st, that means one big gathering of the all for the meal of Jesus some time in June.
I know, I know. Some have gotten the vaccine and they’re getting anxious. But access to it is a kind of wealth. So you can wait. You really can.
Consider that other line from Paul’s Corinthian correspondence: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
Paul repeatedly encouraged the Corinthians to imitate him, because he was imitating Christ (1 Cor. 4:16, 11:1).
Let this pandemic, and the roll-out of the vaccine, be a reminder of that imitation. Become poor so that by Christ’s poverty you might become rich.