arendt“That every individual life between birth and death can eventually be told as a story with beginning and end is the pre political and prehistorical condition of history, the great story without beginning and end.  But the reason why each human life tells its story and why history ultimately becomes these storybook of mankind, with many actors and speakers and yet without any tangible authors, is that both are the outcome of action.” (Hannah ArendtThe Human Condition)

Thompson“[Paul] shows extraordinary pessimism concerning the human potential to do the good apart from Christ, but equally extraordinary optimism concerning the possibilities of his communities to fulfill the will of God [through the empowerment of the Spirit]. His categorical claim that ‘no one is righteous’ (Romans 3:10) is without parallel in both the [pagan] philosophical tradition and Jewish literature. However, he assures his communities that if they walk by the Spirit they will not be overcome by the desire of the flesh (Gal. 5:16), and he assumes that his readers will keep the commandments.” (James W. Thompson, Moral Formation According to Paul: The Context and Coherence of Pauline Ethics, p. 6)

What jumped out at me about this way of putting the matter is how our natural “instincts” as Christians today is so often the very opposite of this.  We tend to have trouble grasping how those who are outside of Christ could really stand in such desperate need of God’s redemptive grace in the gospel, as they already seem to be (quite self-evidently) pretty “nice” people, while we tend to have quite low expectations for our own struggle with sin and the pursuit of newly transformed lives that are qualitatively different from the “way-of-being-in-the-world” that is experienced by those who do not follow Jesus. Are we willing to have our intuitions reformed under the guidance of Scripture, our moral imaginations newly reawakened and refreshed?

gombis“For Paul, then, churches are outposts of the Kingdom of God, communities where God’s presence resides by the Spirit of Jesus.  Because this is so, churches are the ‘body of Christ’ on earth, embodying the self-giving love of God in the world, the same love for which Jesus set the pattern in his cruciform life.  And the Spirit is shaping these communities accordingly, empowering them to embody the self-expending life of Jesus on earth.  This narrative pattern of self-expenditure–death, resurrection, and exaltation–becomes for Paul the normative pattern that God is effecting within communities of the Kingdom of God.  According to Paul, participation in self-emptying and self-giving cements one’s place in glory–guaranteeing participation in the resurrection until life at the day of Christ.  What is more, participation in the suffering of Jesus also draws upon and unleashes the resurrection power of God now.” (Timothy G. GombisPaul: A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 69)

Paul’s Master Story

gombis“[The depiction of Jesus in Philippians 2:5-11 is] ‘Paul’s master story,’ the controlling narrative pattern that reveals the essential character of Jesus, through which Paul envisions his own ministry, the shape of Christian relationships, and the character of Christian community life…In the remainder of Philippians Paul makes exhortations based on this narrative pattern of self-emptying, renunciation of status, death, resurrection, and exaltation.  Paul seeks to share in the sufferings of Christ in order to share in Christ’s exaltation.  The Philippians, too, are to serve one another, adopting cruciform postures toward one another, so that they might share in the glory to be revealed at the day of Christ.  Paul’s letters are filled with references to the self-expenditure of Jesus, as Paul works from this narrative trajectory to shape the community life of his churches…For Paul, this narrative trajectory, embodied by a community, is the manner in which the people of God enact the Kingdom of God.” (Timothy G. GombisPaul: A Guide for the Perplexed, pp. 64-65)

gombis“Paul does not, in any of his letters, lay out a comprehensive ethical vision…Paul writes to actual churches facing specific challenges or going through unique struggles, and he tailors his counsel to fit just those situations as he understands them.  While he is not an ethical theorist, then, Paul does indeed have what we might call an ethical vision.  He helps his churches to re-conceive and re-imagine their situations in light of Kingdom of God realities, and his counsel to them involves ethical reasoning to a high degree.  Because of this, we can trace the basic contours of Paul’s ethical vision and determine just how his thought ‘works’ with regard to Christian conduct.  When we do, we find that Paul’s ethical vision is shaped by the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, and the sending of the Spirit.

The pattern set by the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus is fundamental to Paul’s thought and determines everything regarding the reality of the Kingdom of God.  The life of the people of God is ‘cruciform’–which indicates existence in the shape of the cross…The Spirit’s work among the people of God is focused on producing in Kingdom communities this cruciform pattern of life…The way of life that Paul envisions for his churches follows the pattern of the self-giving Jesus…When Paul helps his communities solve their relational troubles or to imagine how to approach a challenge to their community life, his fundamental lens is the cruciform life of Jesus.” (Timothy G. GombisPaul: A Guide for the Perplexed, pp. 62-63)

Getting to Know Paul

gombis“Paul is best regarded as a herald of the Kingdom of God, or, as he might put it, an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is utterly convinced that the crucified, risen, and exalted Jesus reigns as Lord over all creation and that the reign of God has been inaugurated among the followers of Jesus as the climax of the story of God redeeming the world. Paul writes in order to foster vibrant and fruitful communities that will embody this reality—communities that constitute the Kingdom of God on earth. Each of his letters—whether they appear more ‘pastoral’ or more ‘theological’—serves this end at each and every point.” (Timothy G. Gombis, Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 40)

cousar“[1 Corinthians] sheds further light on how the death of Jesus has a continuing function in the life and discipline of the people of God.  The text speaks of repeatedly observing the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, a remembrance of the Lord’s death, which is to shape the character of the community of faith, providing pointed directions not only for its interior life (i.e., how it is to behave at the meal) but also for its dilemmas in dealing with the world (i.e., participating in pagan feasts).

Actually, 11:17-34 is not the first mention of the Lord’s supper in 1 Corinthians.  In 10:1-13 the ancient Israelites, baptized into Moses and partakers of the supernatural food and drink, are cited as an example to the Corinthians.  The Israelites had their ‘sacraments,’ but God was not pleased with them and they were overthrown in the wilderness (10:5).  They ate and drank, but also engaged in immorality and ‘put the Lord to the test,’ until disaster struck.  This, then, is to be a warning to the readers (10:6, 11).  Sacraments are not insurance policies that either protect their participants against trials or guarantee immortality.  God will assist in times of trial, but ‘let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall’ (10:12)…

In the specifics of Paul’s argument, an important linguistic and theological move is made, which becomes decisive in relating the sacrament to the life of the community.  In 10:16 two rhetorical questions are posed in such a way as to anticipate positive responses.  ‘The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?  The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?’  The author assumes that he and the readers agree that to share in the elements of the Lord’s Supper is to share in the death of Christ.  But in the following verse we read, ‘Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the same loaf’ (v. 17).  The subtle turn comes in the use of ‘body’ (soma), which shifts from being the crucified body of Jesus (v. 16) to being the ecclesial body (v. 17).  Partaking of one loaf makes the partakers to be one body, producing a linked relationship: sacramental bread, crucified body of Jesus, ecclesial body.  What results is that ‘participation in Jesus and his body becomes identical with incorporation into the church as the body of Christ’ [Ernst Kasemann].  The connection enables Paul later to condemn the behavior of the Corinthians who become drunk at the sacramental table but leave others hungry (11:17-22, 29).

Following a consideration of eating food offered to idols (10:23-11:1) and of the wearing of veils by the Corinthian women at worship (11:2-16), the topic comes back to the Lord’s Supper.  Paul finds the practice of the Corinthians so intolerable that they would do better not to gather, for they deceive themselves in thinking that what they are doing is celebrating the Lord’s Supper.  ‘For in eating, each goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk’ (11:21).  Evidently the custom practiced at other social events was prevailing also at the meal at which the community observed the sacrament.  The custom allowed the host to serve the largest portions and the best food to his friends and social peers, leaving the less fortunate to be humiliated and latecomers to get little or nothing to eat…With a series of barbed questions, Paul suggests that those who are so hungry that they cannot wait on others should eat at their homes ahead of time before coming to the community meal (11:22, 33-34).  As is, they are treating the church of God with contempt (11:22).

This initial analysis of the Corinthians’ practice is followed by a recitation of the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper (11:23-25), not new information to the readers but a basis for common reflection…Verse 26, not itself a part of the liturgy, gives focus to the sacrament by anchoring the institution itself (‘Do this in remembrance of me’) in ‘the Lord’s death’ and by orienting the sacrament to the Parousia [the future return of the Lord].  The point is that whenever the Lord’s Supper is celebrated it becomes an announcement of the saving character of the crucifixion…In 11:27-32, readers are sternly warned of an unworthy or inappropriate observance of the sacrament and are exhorted to examine themselves prior to participating.

But how does one participate ‘unworthily’ or ‘inappropriately’?  What can one do to avoid letting the elements become a poison rather than a nourishment, a curse rather than a blessing?  The answer comes in v. 29 in the phrase ‘discerning the body.’  Failure to ‘discern the body’ has already brought judgment among the readers (v. 30).  What does ‘discerning the body’ involve?  With the phrase Paul is certainly not advocating a sacramentalism in which the elements take on mysterious or even magical force and the proper observance demands either a deep spiritual perception on the part of the participants or a fastidious care with the elements themselves.  There is nothing in the text to suggest this.  We have to look elsewhere.

In our consideration of 10:16-17 we observed how the term ‘body’ could shift from denoting the crucified body of Jesus to denoting the ecclesial body, the congregation.  This seems the best clue for our understanding of 11:29.  Since eating the one loaf unites the many into one body, participants cannot ignore the life within the ecclesial body when partaking of the crucified body.  ‘Discerning the body’ (as the context also confirms), then, has to do with how members of the community treat one another, whether they exercise patience and thoughtfulness at the meal, showing concern for the poor and the latecomers, or whether they let the prevailing social customs determine their conduct.  The Lord’s Supper at its heart carries a call to obedience, to the forsaking of practices by which participants ‘despise the church of God’ (11:22), to the loving ordering of life within the community where each member is honored, to an awareness that the crucified Jesus is also the exalted Lord and Judge. [He cites Bornkamm, Early Christian Experience, p. 149, in a  footnote here: 'To discern the body, to esteem Christ's body in its particularity, means to understand that the body of Christ given for us and received in the sacrament unites the recipients in the 'body' of the congregation and makes them responsible for one another in love.']…

At the heart of the identify of the people of God is the remembrance of Christ’s death…Christ in his death not only saves people from their sin; he also, in redeeming them from the curse of the law, tears down the wall that divides Jew from non-Jew, free person from slave, male from female.  God’s way is to unite in justifying and to justify in uniting.  By finding its identity in the crucified Christ, the community of faith operates as one in which table fellowship between persons ethnically, socially, and sexually different becomes not only possible but characteristics of its life.  People with differing histories and different stories to tell belong together at the same meal…The people of God announce who they are by remembering.  And yet the remembering becomes more than merely an anniversary, more than merely a recollection of a past event.  In its proper practice it powerfully shapes the life of the community, calling into question social customs that reinforce rank and privilege at the expense of others…Partakers are called to a new obedience, to a life appropriate to the new covenant.  The bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper indeed carry a numinous quality.  In terms of the setting in the Corinthian letter, however, what is essential is not the transformation of the elements themselves, but the transformation of social relationships that participation in the sacrament demands.  ‘We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the same loaf.'” (Charles B. CousarA Theology of the Cross: The Death of Jesus in the Pauline Letters, pp. 121-30)


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