Whose Supper? 1 Corinthians 11:17-22

Photo by Tim Wildsmith on Unsplash

In an obviously divided world, one of the most striking elements of the church is not what we look like, what we sound like, how we dress, or anything else external. One of the most radically, counter-cultural elements of a healthy church is its unity. It is the peace that is shared between people who would otherwise have nothing in common. And it is that peace, and also the absence of it, that we will look at today.

Please turn with me in your bibles to 1 Corinthians chapter 11. 1 Corinthians 11. For those who have been following along, we have been working our way through Paul’s letter to the church of God in Corinth during our evening services.

We’ve made it to a portion of this letter where Paul is handling the Corinthian church’s problematic practices surrounding the Lord’s Supper. And while Shawn is out of town for the next two Sundays, I will take this opportunity to remind us about what Paul teaches about both the nature of the Lord’s Supper, and also about the proper ways to practice this holy sacrament.

Specifically, this week we’ll examine the wrong way that the Corinthian church was using the Lord’s table, and next week we will look at the following verses to explain positively, what exactly the Lord’s supper it.

But first, let’s read our text, 1 Corinthians 11:17-22:

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. 18 For, 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,[e] 19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. 21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 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? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.

Let’s begin by looking at verses 17 & 18 and noting our first point: the problem stated. The problem stated:

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. 18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you.

The problem in Corinth was selfish divisions, it was divisive behavior, and Paul comes out of the gate pretty hard against it. Unlike earlier in verse 2, where Paul commends the Corinthian believers for holding to the traditions that Paul had taught them, now he’s focusing his attention on an area where they were not faithful to the inherited tradition. He says, “I do not commend you.” In fact, he says that their gatherings are so problematic that it would be better if they hadn’t met at all. “When you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” Ouch.

The word for division here is σχισματα. It’s where we get our word for schism, or rift, and it speaks to a literal tearing apart. It’s the same word used in Chapter 1 where Paul urged the Corinthians to have no divisions over who their favorite church leader was. And I think it is significant for us to notice something here about these schisms, something that is quite easy to miss.

Notice how this Corinthian church is sending mixed messages. It is both externally united, but inwardly divided. They were still gathering as a group, but were fostering factions within. Churches can very easily retain the façade of unity, all the while tolerating schismatic elements within. People may still gather weekly, sit together at the Lord’s table, and yet still be factious and schismatic. It was a danger in Corinth, and it remains a danger for us today.

And this dynamic of retaining the illusion of unity, all while tolerating deeper division, this dynamic is possible because the root of all factions and divisions begins in the heart. Divisiveness begins with a problem of the heart.

Selfish divisions don’t just spring up out of nowhere. They begin with un-charitableness in the heart. Somebody does something we don’t like, says something we don’t care for, makes a decision we don’t agree with, and we choose to neither cover the offense in love nor confront the issue in love. We instead choose to uncharitably foster division in our hearts.

We withdraw our affections, and selfishly allow disagreement to fester into discord. This can take different forms depending on our personality. Sometimes uncharitable hearts manifest themselves in coldness toward another person. Sometimes we just ignore others, or simply avoid them entirely. Other times this selfishness shows itself in gossip. Sometimes it is divisively recruiting others to join our side, to become part of our faction.

Whatever the manner of expression, the root is an unloving heart. And we must be on guard against such a posture of heart within us. No amount of doctrinal alignment can ensure perfect charity. No confession of faith can inoculate a church against division. Morningview is in no way immune to such temptation, and so we need to look within, examine our own hearts.

Am I charitable toward others? Do I have a heart that is quick to overlook an offense, or am I quick to make a record of wrongs? Am I quick to forgive, or am I more tempted to stew in bitterness, and harbor ill will towards others, even while outwardly joining them at the Lord’s table in worship?

Selfish divisions were the problem in Corinth, and we need to be on guard against such a disposition in ourselves.

But selfish hearts aren’t the only reason Paul gives for divisions. He also gives us our second point: a surprising reason for divisions in verse 19. A surprising reason for divisions:

And I believe it in part,[e] 19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.

The second reason for division that Paul gives is that God, in his mysterious sovereignty, permits divisions and factions to arise in the church, in order that the genuine believers may be recognized. That’s quite a thought. God would permit divisive people to be among the body, in order that the true believers might be seen. He lets sin and evil arise, so that the godly may be tested and proven genuine.

Some of us might look at divisive people and think, “surely God is not responsible for that.” And yet, in his mysterious providence, he uses it. Puritan Thomas Watson says this about God using even strange circumstances for divine purposes:

“Some say, There are many things done in the world which are very disorderly and irregular; and surely God’s providence is not in these things.

Yes, the things that seem to us irregular, God makes use of to his own glory. Suppose you were in a smith’s shop, and should see there several sorts of tools, some crooked, some bowed, others hooked, would you condemn all these things, because they do not look handsome? The smith makes use of them all for doing his work. Thus it is with the providences of God; they seem to us to be very crooked and strange, yet they all carry on God’s work.”[1]

God is the master smith, using all manner of tools to achieve his perfect designs, and can even use the terrible sin of divisiveness to bring about good for his people. And we all know this from scripture. God makes a habit of bringing about unexpected good out of terrible evil.

Think of Joseph. Joseph’s brothers tried to kill him, they divided their family, lied to their father. Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, and when unsuccessful, she had Joseph thrown in prison.

And yet, if all that evil and sin hadn’t happened to Joseph, he never would have ended up in the position over all of Egypt’s grain, and thereby able to be the savior of his nation in the midst of a famine. God allows terrible sin against an innocent one, in order to bring about the salvation of a nation.

It’s exactly what he does in the gospel too. Wicked men sought to unjustly kill Jesus, and yet God uses the moment of greatest evil, to bring about the most heavenly good. Human plots, divine plans.

This reminds me of Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2: “this Jesus,[c] delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” Lawless men committed evil, all while fulfilling God’s definite plan of atonement through Jesus. We see the same in Acts 4:27, and 13:27. And that’s good news for us.

We’re all guilty of harboring selfishness and resentment in our hearts. We’ve all been bitter at times, slow to forgive, unwilling to extend mercy, uncharitable toward others that we don’t think deserve it. And as such, we’re all demonstrating that we are not like our heavenly father, who instead took the initiative to extend grace and mercy to the undeserving.

God sent his son to take the initiative in extending grace to the guilty. He self-less-ly acted on behalf of the selfish. He came to the divisive, in order to reconcile and unify. Like Joseph, Jesus was the innocent one was terribly sinned against, and yet became the savior of a nation.

He took on the punishment that his people deserved, and simply by faith, allows us to be treated as if we were innocent. That’s the good news of the gospel, and that is the foundation of any unity that we have in the church. Divine Goodness revealed in and through the plans of sinful men. The gospel of grace, enacted through the wicked plots. The wicked working according to their desires, and God bringing about his designed ends, all in the same moment at Calvary.

And that’s what Paul reminds the Corinthians here. God permits the selfish to exist in the church, in part, so that God can reveal and highlight the authentic believers. God often uses divisive people to test the genuineness of his children. Divisive, ungodly people test the patience, test the love, test the perseverance of true believers.

And while the divisive bear testimony to the condition of their heart, God is simultaneously bringing about good to the believers around them. He’s using the trials of division to sanctify, to test, to purify His children. None of that condones or justifies the sins of selfish division, but it can help us all to hang in there when a divisive faction raises its head in the church.

We can be assured that God is doing many things in that moment of division: sanctifying the godly and allowing them to be recognized, and highlighting the selfish, both groups of which will be known by their fruits.

Now, let’s move on and see some of the results of these divisions. Let’s look at verse 20 and see the result of divisions. That’s our third point: the result of divisions:

 20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.

The simple result of their divisiveness and factions is that they take the Lord’s Supper and turn it into something else. They take a divine ordinance, rob it of its power and significance, and turn it into something that actually proclaims the opposite. It’s similar to what Paul says in 2 Timothy 3 about having the appearance of godliness but denying its power.

They were going through the motions, gathering in worship on the Lord’s day, singing together, praying together, hearing preaching together, and going to the table together. But instead of the Lord’s table being the tangible expression of their spiritual unity, it became the tragic occasion for the revealing of their disunity. Their actions turned the symbolism of the supper on its head.

Rather than it being a picture of peace and the absence of hostility, an emblem of reconciliation, it was instead the moment of greatest resentment and estrangement.

What a parable for us today. We can come to church on Sundays, shake hands, sing songs, sit under God’s word, and take the Lord’s supper together, and yet permit to remain in our hearts great resentment and partiality. That was the fruit of their sin, terrible, hateful partiality. Which leads right into our 4th point:

Look at verse 21 and see the fruit of their divisions. The fruit of their divisions:

21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 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 fruit of their divisions was despising the church of God and humiliating others, especially the poor among them. This congregation was guilty of turning the Supper of the Lord into a mockery of divine grace.

The situation in Corinth, like many other churches of the day, was that the congregation would gather on the Lord’s day, they’d worship together, and part of their worship gathering was a communal meal. It was at times called a Love Feast, where the saints would gather and have a big pot luck, and this meal would be the occasion for those who had more, to share with those who had less. The rich could bring more food than they needed, and the poor would be fed from the surplus of that.

And the Lord’s supper was often a focal point of this love feast. It wasn’t as cleanly divided as we have it here; worship flowed seamlessly into the lord’s supper and the fellowship meal. Or, at least, that was the plan.

But Paul highlights the error of their ways. They are selfish enough to harbor divisions in their hearts, and those selfish hearts are producing selfish actions. Some were clamoring down to the food before others, seeking to gratify their unrestrained appetites, and not giving deference to those poorer and needy ones among them. The rich are indulging their desires, while the poor are despised and humiliated.

It’s the same sin that James blasts in James 2. Hold your finger here and turn with me to James chapter 2. James 2, starting in verse 1. Listen to what he says,

“My brothers,[a] show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in,and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”

Partiality, which is sinfully prejudging some while sinfully privileging others, is clearly condemned by the law of God. But lest we think that we’re immune to such a sin, think about how we might behave in a similar situation. Think of your favorite preacher, favorite theologian, or even favorite politician or celebrity. If they showed up here on a Sunday morning, don’t you think that they’d be greeted with many warm handshakes, shown up to a seat of prominence, welcomed with open arms?

Now, what happens when someone shows up that is clearly down on their luck? Maybe homeless, clothes in disrepair, smelling like they haven’t showered in a week. How do we greet them? Do we shake their hands and warmly invite them in, or do we avoid eye contact and keep our hands on our purses?

Partiality was a sin in Corinth, and it despised the poor made in God’s image, and that same despising is just as tempting today. But we need to remember when we act that way that we are actually undermining the message of the gospel.

Partiality says that Jesus didn’t really come to seek and save the lost, but rather came to seek and save those who look and act a certain way.

Partiality says that grace alone isn’t enough to unite us, and that poverty is a barrier to genuine brotherhood.

Partiality reveals that we don’t understand grace either. It acts as if we aren’t recipients of prior divine grace, and ignores that we have first received benevolent blessing from God. We forget that we are born in spiritual poverty, bereft of any access to salvation or grace, and that God stooped down to us in our poverty, and gave to us the divine riches of salvation.

That’s what we need to hear when we are acting in a partial way: that God in Christ became poor, so that we might have access to divine riches. He became nothing, so that we might be lifted from the muck of sin in this world, and adopted into his household of faith, the family of God himself. Only from that perspective, of gospel-fueled humility, can be begin to melt the coldness of heart that drives the sin of partiality.

We all need to hear that message. We all need to be reminded of the truth. We all need to remember who we were, prior to God acting on our behalf. Because the world does all that it can to foster arrogant division and partiality. We’re trained to think that the rich and cosmopolitan are the ones we should fawn over.

Those who could do nothing to advance us, those are the ones who are irrelevant. The poor, the needy, the despised, they’re no good to us, not worth our time or our energy, the world says.

Praise God that he doesn’t think that way, because if he did, if God only helped those who could help him, then there would be nobody for him to help. He doesn’t need us, we need him. And he has provided all that we’ve needed in Jesus.

Do you believe that message? Do you see your poverty, your spiritual bankruptcy outside of Jesus? If you do, then you are in a blessed position. Jesus himself said that “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” When you realize you have nothing to offer God, and you trust in Jesus as your only means of salvation, then you’re immediately made an heir of the kingdom, a son of the king, a brother to Jesus Christ, and have access to all the blessings of divine grace everlasting.

But if you haven’t yet trusted in Jesus, then know that you stand condemned. And that’s where Paul lands this section. Look in verse 22 where we see our final point: Paul’s rebuke of the divisive. Paul’s rebuke of the divisive.

 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? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.

Paul closes out this paragraph with several, punchy rhetorical questions. Don’t you have houses to eat and drink in? Can’t you feed yourself at home, rather than gorging your stomach and drinking yourself silly in the presence of the poor, who simply want something to eat?

It’s almost like Paul is saying, “do you have no shame?” Can’t you see the embarrassing nature of your behavior, the way that you dishonor the poor and needy? In fact, he uses the language of despising the church of God. You’re feeling contempt and repugnance at the church, which Christ has bought at the price of his own blood. You’re shaming the bride of Christ with your contemptable behavior.

Even more, when we act in selfishly divisive ways, we not only despise the body, but we also end up humiliating the body. We act as if that group over there is unworthy of my fellowship and communion. We are better than them, we dress better than them, we speak better than them, we have better doctrinal knowledge than them, we have our ethics more figured out than them, and so they need to stay over there, lest they infect us with their vile wretchedness.

Have you ever sensed that in yourself? I refuse to commune with them, to fellowship with them, because they aren’t worthy of my company. Maybe when they straighten up, I might show them the time of day, but not right now.

Can you hear the pride in that? Do you see how such behavior is the opposite of the divine grace shown by your heavenly father, and in fact, how such behavior is more like Satan? Satan didn’t have what he wanted, and so pridefully rebelled and divided the angelic host in heaven. And those who think like him likewise pridefully rebel and seek to divide the faithful among Christ’s body.

Don’t be guilty of such prideful behavior, such hateful division, such despising of the church of God. Such action is not commendable, Paul says, which is a polite way of saying that it is sin.

If you find such a disposition in your heart, confess it to God. Take it to him. I know unity and forgiveness can be exceedingly difficult, but that’s the gospel way. Harboring bitterness and resentment is a sure-fire way to undermine your own spiritual health. It eats at us from the inside, and if left unresolved, will eventually produce division within the body.

Don’t remain there. Think much of Jesus, who forgave at great cost, at the ultimate cost. That’s the virtue of love that this world and the flesh can never do: forgive in love.

And if you’ve never tasted of that forgiveness, then I encourage you to hear the message of Jesus in scripture. That we’re all born estranged from God, alienated by our sin, and because of that we aren’t forgiving of others either. We’re quick to take offense, quick to harbor a record of wrongs, quick to be selfish, quick to divide and withdraw from communion and fellowship.

But God takes the initiative to send down a sacrificial lamb. Jesus is sent to be the perfect substitute. He shows us what godly forgiveness and grace is like, and extends that to us, all the while taking on the punishment earned by the sins of his people.

Trust in that Jesus, and you too can be made a part of the people of God, restored in communion with him, filled with his holy spirit, and thereby empowered to grow in your ability to be a peacemaker in this life.

That’s what we really want to be: peacemakers, not division makers. The divisive will eventually be judged, and they will be given the desire of their heart: division. A place eternal division in hell, divided forever from the blessed presence of God.

 But for peacemakers, peacemakers will be heirs of divine fellowship in God’s house. That’s what Jesus promises in Matthew 5: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be Sons of God.”

Will you be divisive, or will you be a peacemaker?

[1] Thomas Watson, Body of Divinity, sermon on the Providence of God, http://shortercatechism.com/resources/watson/wsc_wa_011.html (accessed 6/17/22).


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