In dealing with the issue of the poor at the Lord's Supper, Paul quotes Jesus' words, delivered at the time of its institution, 11:23-26. He then goes on to make the point that the Corinthians have failed to understand the meaning of the meal they share together. At the Lord's Supper the church at Corinth gathers to remember Jesus' death on their behalf, but the actions of some members have undermined the spiritual benefits of the meal.
v23a. Paul, as with the other apostles, was a source for the oral traditions of the life and teachings of Christ. These traditions Paul passed on to his churches. On the particular tradition of the Lord's Supper, Paul explains that the Corinthians have failed to give due weight to Jesus' words.
v23b-24. In the last days of Jesus' earthly life he joined with his disciples to celebrate the Passover meal, a meal which focuses on Israel's salvation from slavery in Egypt. At the point of the blessing, Jesus takes a loaf of bread and reinterprets it as a symbol of his own "exodus" - the bodily offering of himself as "the lamb of God" for the salvation of the world ("which is for you"). A believe is to "do this", ie., share together in the story, share together in the bread, share together in faith ("remember")
v25. After the meal Jesus takes the cup and states that it signifies the sacrificial outpouring of his blood to death, and as such ratifies a new covenant, or agreement, between God and mankind. Again, Paul restates the phrase "do this in remembrance of me" and so underlines what we are doing when we join in the meal, ie., we recall and recommit to the cross of Christ.
v26. The eating and the drinking serves to "proclaim", or set forth, the story of the cross. In much the same way as the exodus story was recounted during the Passover meal, so the story of Christ's death and resurrection is recounted during the Christian passover meal, a meal that begins with the sharing of a loaf and ends with the sharing of a cup. As the story of Christ's sacrifice is recounted, the people reaffirm their faith (they remember), expressing that faith in a shared loaf and cup.
v27-29. Paul now returns to his "instructions", concerning the Lord's Supper, which commenced in verse 17. The Corinthians were acting with little care for each other in the Lord's Supper. Obviously, they were missing the point of this meal. This special meal serves to focus the gathered believers on the sacrificial death of Christ. In Christ's death we become God's eternal family. How then can we participate in the meal while ignoring the needs of our other brothers and sisters? A person who acts with disregard toward their brothers will be held accountable for treating the visible expression of the sacrifice of Christ with disdain. What we need to do is give due weight to what we are doing in the Lord's Supper, for if we fail to recognize the cross in the loaf and cup we stand condemned.
The Lord's supper is an affirmation of Christian community. It is a declaration that we are a people bound under a new agreement with the living Lord, an agreement which sets us apart as an eternal community - a people bound in love to one another and to the Lord.
Christ's death and resurrection has achieved this for us. In the cross, Jesus takes a people out of the bondage of sin and death and gathers them in a new land. So, when we participate in the Lord's Supper, we remember what Jesus has done for us, and as we eat and drink we reaffirm our faith in his death and resurrection on our behalf. In this eating and drinking we affirm our oneness and love, our community, and then in thanksgiving we go forward toward eternity.
The high ideals of the Lord's Supper are very easily undermined and it is clear that God does not treat this offence lightly. In fact, the scriptures warn us that if we eat and drink "in an unworthy manner" we eat and drink judgment against ourselves. So, beware!
In the third exhortation of The Book of Common Prayer the communicants are warned that if they receive the holy Sacrament unworthily they eat and drink their own damnation. Obviously, it all comes down to what is meant by participating in an "unworthy manner." The first exhortation lists many unworthy human traits such that if we took the exhortation seriously none of us could honestly attend the Lord's Supper.
In verse 29, eating and drinking "worthily" is restated in the terms: "without recognizing the body of the Lord." This is often taken to mean not acting in a considerate way toward the other members of the congregation. The Corinthians had turned the Lord's Supper into a feast where some were bloated while others went hungry, so maybe a lack of consideration toward others in the Lord's Supper is what is unworthy, although, is this deserving of "damnation"?
The "body" Paul is talking about here is probably not the congregation, but the body and blood of Christ, that is, his sacrifice on our behalf, a sacrifice which is symbolically expressed in the sharing of a loaf and cup at the Lord's Supper. If we fail to recognize, fail to discern the significance of the Lord's Supper, fail to commit ourselves to the cross of Christ, then we eat and drink in an "unworthy manner." As The Book of Common Prayer puts it: "As the Son of God did vouchsafe to yield up his soul by death upon the cross for your salvation, so is your duty to receive the Communion in remembrance of the sacrifice of his death, as he himself hath commanded: which if ye shall neglect to do, consider with yourselves how great an injury ye do unto God, and how sore punishment hangeth over your heads for the same."
On Maundy Thursday we remember the time when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, cf. John 13:1-15. In what way does the feet washing touch on the substance of the Lord's Supper, even though John does not give us an account of the new Passover meal?