Paul finally returns to the question that began his rambling: is it OK to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols? In actually answering this question, he provides us with some interesting and important teaching on another subject also: the significance of the Lord’s Supper.
Theologians call it the Eucharist. Some regular people call it the Lord’s Supper. Others call it communion. Honestly, I like the term Communion, and I’ll share why in just a moment.
Paul compares idol worship to true Christian worship. He says:
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? (1 Cor 10:16)
I think it is quite obvious that Paul is referring to the Lord’s Supper. The word “participation” here is also translated “sharing.” The Greek word is koinonia. It is often translated “fellowship,” but especially it is the main word for “community” or “communion.” What Paul means is that to eat the bread and to drink the wine is to enter into community with Jesus. When you are in community, it means that you have relationship with those in the community. It means that you interact, you communicate. People in community are committed to each other at some level. So as we participate in communion, we are connected with Jesus in some way. There is some kind of commitment implied between us and the Lord. There is some kind of communication that takes place between Him and us.
There is also community among the people who take communion together:
Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread (1 Cor 10:17)
Paul further explains by mentioning the temple sacrifices practiced by the people of Israel. In every sacrifice except the burnt offering, the worshipers would bring an animal to be killed. Part of the animal would be burned on the altar, symbolically giving it to God. Part of it would be given to the priests and temple workers to eat. The rest of it would be eaten by those who came to worship. In other words, eating the sacrificed animal was an act of faith, an act of worship and an act of community. You wouldn’t even be there to eat if you didn’t have faith. You wouldn’t be there if you didn’t belong somehow to the group that was offering the sacrifice. Eating and drinking connected you to God and to those with whom you ate. In the same way, says Paul, eating and drinking communion is an act of faith, an act of worship and an act of Christian community. It connects us with the Lord, and it connects us with each other.
Now,There are three widely held differing views about Communion. The first one, held generally by Roman Catholics, is called “transubstantiation.” They believe that when the priest/pastor speaks the words spoken by Jesus, the bread and the wine miraculously turn into the actual flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus said “this is my body, this is my blood.” Thus, the significance of communion in this view is that you are physically imbibing Jesus.
Another view is held by many Baptists, Methodists and others. They would say that communion is all about remembrance. After all, Jesus said “do this in remembrance of me.” So they would say that significance of communion is that it reminds of Jesus and his sacrifice for us. 500 years ago, during the time of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic church was saying that communion (which they called and still call “mass”) was actually a ceremony wherein Jesus sacrificed himself for us again. In other words, every mass was a new sacrifice of Jesus’ body and blood. Partly in reaction to this, many reformers rejected any idea of anything “mystical” about communion. To avoid the clearly unbiblical idea of re-sacrificing Jesus, they maintained that there was nothing at all to communion except a remembrance.
A third perspective has traditionally been held by Lutherans. They would say, “yes, it is a remembrance.” They would also say when Jesus says “this is my body, this is my blood” he is saying that when we do this, he is offering us his presence in some way. They reject the idea of a “re-sacrifice” but they point to verses like these in 1 Corinthians and say “there is something more here than only remembering.” There is, in fact, communion with Jesus and with other believers.
The reason I share this is because you may have had questions about communion. Sometimes, people are concerned about what happens to the bread crumbs or the extra wine. Are we throwing pieces of Jesus on the floor, or dumping him down the sink? That concern, of course, comes out of the Roman Catholic view that the bread and wine physically turn into Jesus. I don’t think so. I think communion bread crumbs are like any other bread crumbs.
Some of you may have heard of, or experienced “close communion.” Churches who practice close communion do not allow just anyone to receive communion. You must be a member of the church or denomination. The idea behind this makes sense. If communion is indeed a participation in community with Jesus and other believers, you should be a part of the community. If you don’t trust Jesus, it doesn’t seem appropriate to participate in communion. And if you don’t trust Him, you aren’t truly part of the community of those who do.
Even so, I think “close communion” goes a little too far. That is why I usually say something like “if you trust Jesus, you are welcome to receive the Lord’s Supper.” Who am I to determine if you really trust Jesus or not? Only you and the Lord really know if you trust Him. So I leave it up to every individual to decide if it’s appropriate for him or her to participate in communion. But it is something I think we should all take seriously. There should be no pressure to take part in communion if you aren’t sure you believe.
I want to point out that Paul’s words here indicate that when we participate in communion, there is something that happens here beyond the daily connection that believers already have with Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Paul is writing to people who believe, and that means they have the Holy Spirit. It is clear from 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14 that the Corinthians have also been filled with the Holy Spirit. Even so, he indicates that in communion, there is some connection with the Lord that is different from our day to day Christian faith of walking with Jesus through the power of the Spirit.
I think the Roman Catholic idea that we are taking in the physical flesh and blood of Jesus is more than the Bible actually says. But I also think the idea of some of the reformers, that it is only a remembrance, is less than what the Bible says. Paul is speaking here of some kind of connection that takes place through the eating of the bread and the drinking of the wine. This connection is not carefully defined, but it is clearly indicated. What is all amounts to, is that through communion, we can be connected to Jesus, and to each other, in a special way. The traditional Lutheran way of saying this is that it is a “means of grace.” It is a special way in which God’s grace can touch us. Lutherans (and others) tend to forget, however, that it is also a special way in which we are also connected with each other – with fellow believers.
So, going forward, as we participate in communion I want to encourage you to receive it in the understanding and in the faith that through the eating and drinking, God wants to connect with you in a special way. I often think of it as a tangible touch from the Lord. As my body touches the bread and the wine, so God’s grace just as truly touches me. At the same time, I also encourage you to bear in mind that as we take it together, we are connected to each other in God’s family. We are in community together.
It is from this understanding of Communion that Paul concludes his thoughts about eating food sacrificed to idols. Remember, there are three contexts in which the Corinthians might encounter meat sacrificed to idols: in the meat market, at a dinner party, or at the temple sacrifice ceremony itself.
Paul says not to worry about whatever they buy in the meat market. God is the only God, and everything is his, so enjoy the good cheap meat. When it comes to eating at someone else’s house, Paul’s attitude is similar. Go head, enjoy. However, he says even then to be careful of the conscience of of the people you are eating with. If there is another Christian present who might be compromised in faith if you eat it, then don’t eat it. Paul makes it clear that there is nothing wrong with it, but that we should be concerned about the conscience of others.
But the third context is different. The temple sacrifice is a little like communion. It is a participation in worship. It is a joining with others in their religion. And, says Paul, it is a participation in demons. This is just a side note, but Paul clearly says here that there are demonic powers behind some of the pagan worship. Elsewhere in the New Testament (particularly in the book of Acts) we have seen that demons have some limited power to enact “miracles.” So even though there is no other God, pagan worship is not harmless.
Paul finally ends this section with a terrific summary:
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.