So it was 1,954 years ago in ancient Corinth. Famine in Rome coupled with drought in Asia Minor, a breadbasket of the Empire, had driven up the prices of food staples for several years. The royals and others of means in Rome could afford to pay premium prices. Folks in other places, especially the Corinthians through whose city the Rome-bound grain was shipped, had to match those prices or just go without.
The fledgling church in Corinth gathered each Lord’s Day for agape feasts — pot-luck, covered-dish dinners incorporating the Lord’s Supper. But given the cash crunch, the poorer members of the church would work in fields, shipyards, or other commercial endeavors from sunrise to sunset — seven days a week — and on Sundays arrive late for the agape feasts. What did the others do? They went ahead and ate without them. “We can’t let this great food get cold.” Some drank themselves silly.
As Biblical scholar Gunther Bornkamm* wrote, a “shameless picture of social cleavage” resulted. Malnutrition, too. Some grew weak. Several got sick. A few died.
All the while, the well-to-do members, many of them super-spiritual mystics and enthusiasts, probably felt some pity, but they didn’t connect the dots; they saw no complicity in their own behavior, no blame to be taken for the others’ plight.
They continued worshipping God, exulting in the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ, and enjoying the presence of the Spirit — especially as embodied in the weekly Eucharist. The pagan temples from which they had converted had served ritual meals as a mechanism for communing with their respective deities; the agape feasts shifted that meaning to Jesus, capped off by the re-presentation of the his body and blood.
When he heard about the feasting of the privileged to the neglect of the poor, Paul burst into a rage. “I do not commend you,” he said, “because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” In fact, he rejects the whole act. “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (I Cor. 11: 17-21).
He then recounts the original Last Supper, and with a pointed use of double entendre, says, “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment upon themselves.” The body? Yes, both the body presented in the bread and the body presented in the gathered people. In their enjoyment of the bread-body they were oblivious to the people-body. “For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (vv. 29, 30).
Believers through the ages have read those words, and have taken to heart the ensuing exhortation to “judge ourselves” so that “we would not be judged.” But do we get the point? The apostle clarifies the behavior that to be rectified: “when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” (vv. 31, 33)
Seems almost too obvious, doesn’t it? It isn’t that obvious. To wait for one another requires us to notice one another, and especially, to notice others’ absence.
In times of economic upheaval, some folks drop out. Too humiliated to keep saying, “No, I haven’t found a job yet,” or too proud to admit, “The unemployment checks have stopped,” or worse, “The cupboards are bare,” they fade away.
Is that happening now? Will it happen in this season of financial disruption? Hardly in our lifetimes has there been a better time for us believers to show that the gospel does not simply send us soaring on heights of mystical, enthusiastic experiences but, all the more, out into the streets and into the homes of friends who might otherwise slip from view.
In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, prosperous Rome, he said that the whole creation is groaning in anticipation of seeing manifest the children of God. Perhaps here and now we might provide that manifestation. Perhaps we can begin by paying attention to those others around us.
*Early Christian Experience, H&R, 1969, p. 126