August 3, 2008

The Lord of the Table

"You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and table of demons. Or are we provoking the Lord to jealously?" 1 Cor. 10:21-22a

The Apostle Paul offers relatively little reflection on the Christian practice and significance of the Lord's Supper in his letters. If not for 1 Corinthians 10 and 11 we wouldn't know any of Paul's thinking about Communion. The above verse is Paul's first mention of the Communion meal and it comes as Paul is warning the Corinthians about the danger of apostasy or falling into destruction (1 Cor. 10:12-14). It is in this context that Paul brings up "the cup of blessing that we bless" and "the bread that we break" (16). He says that the cup is a "sharing in the blood of Christ" and the bread is a "sharing in the body of Christ" (16). The cup seems to indicate fellowship with Christ through the New Covenant in his blood (cf. 11:25) while the bread appears to indicate the fellowship and unity in the Church, the body of Christ. "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (17). So, we might say that the meal involves both vertical participation with Christ and horizontal participation with the Church. To partake at the Lord's table somehow involves both fellowship with Christ and fellowship with his Church.

Paul goes on to use the Lord's Supper to create distinction between Communion and the cultic meals which were held as part of worship to pagan gods. Paul does not acknowledge the existence of other gods and actually declares that when the pagans sacrifice, "they sacrifice to demons and not to God" (20). It is at this point that we encounter the verses italicized above. You cannot go eat at Jesus' table and then go eat at the table of demons. Now we modern folks may read this and think little of it. After all, I don't know anyone who sacrifices to idols and eats at the table of demons. However, this injunction could be particularly troubling to a craftsman in first century Corinth. In the Greco-Roman world, one had to be a member of a trade guild to obtain material with which to work. This would include material like lumber or metal. Each trade guild had its own patron deity and the guild meetings would involve a meal in honor of the deity. The reason this would be a problem for Christians should be clear. Paul is saying that you cannot come to the Lord's table on the first day of the week and then go off to the table of a false god on the second day of the week. Even if that is how you obtain the material you need to practice your trade and provide for your family.

The point here is that there is only one Lord, and his name is Jesus. To come to his table is to announce your singular devotion to his lordship. The Communion table is an affirmation of the supremacy of Christ everywhere and in everything. To go eat at another table, or at the table of demons, is to deny the supreme lordship of Christ.

This should also be troubling to thoughtful Christians who perceive that the modern Church is often fighting for a place at any number of tables while forgetting the centrality of our Lord's table. We want our voice to be heard. We want to be heard at the school board, but we don't want to declare that Jesus is lord over our children's education. We want to be heard at the city council meetings and we want a place at the lobbying table to make our voice heard in Congress. But we don't want to remind the governing authorities that Jesus is lord and that they are his servants (Rom. 13:4). We just want to get our turn to vote. The problem is that when we run off to sit down at any old table in order to be heard, then we are implicitly denying the lordship of Christ. Some might respond by saying that we cannot positively impact society if we don't get involved in the conversation. I'm not saying that Christians should not be involved in the conversation. I am saying that we should not play by their rules. We do not have to choose between bad and worse. Sometimes making our voice heard means walking away from the table when everyone else at the table denies the supremacy of Christ.

It is only when we forsake our Lord's table that we lose our voice. The Church should make its prophetic voice heard in society by sitting only at the table of our Lord and refusing to be seated at any table where Christ is not seated at the head of the table.

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