In the previous two posts, we’ve been exploring a situation in the congregation founded by the apostle Paul in Corinth. The Christians there were gathering for a common meal in the private home of one of the wealthier members.
But probably without intending to, the rich were humiliating those of more humble means by their habits of what economists today would call “conspicuous consumption.” What should have been an environment of welcoming hospitality ended up parading the disparities of social class and income instead. The rich gorged themselves on food and wine while the poor went hungry in their presence — and then they were all supposed to commune together to remember the body and blood of the crucified Jesus, who died to bring peace and reconciliation. The common meal is not for the purpose of stuffing your face, Paul seems to say. If you’re going to do that, do it at home so others don’t have to watch.
Paul will say more about the Lord’s Supper, as we’ll see in future posts. For now, however, I want to raise a broad question of application. Our situation may not be identical to the one in Corinth, but the membership of many Christian congregations still cuts across socioeconomic lines. Sunday may be the only time during the week (if even then!) that we associate with others who in many ways are unlike us. Some have jobs, some have careers, and some are simply unemployed. Because of this and other factors, we have different income levels and standards of living, drive different cars, and live in different neighborhoods; we eat in different restaurants and take different kinds of vacations.
In America, a great deal of our social standing and identity is tied to economic success. Upward mobility is nearly assumed to be the entitlement of every citizen, and those who don’t embody the dream are often eyed with suspicion. Obviously, one is tempted to think, they’re just not trying hard enough. And while it is true that there will always be those who try to game the system, it is also true that we are too often blind to the social advantages into which we are born, advantages that themselves cannot be chalked up to personal achievement.
When we gather together (Paul uses the verb three times in the span of four verses), is it more as a church or a social club? What do we talk about? Most conversations could just as easily have happened around the office water-cooler. That’s not necessarily a problem in itself — but are we even aware of how our desire for social status may creep into the conversation? Ask yourself honestly: is that story about your vacation only about how much you enjoyed it? Or is it in some small measure also about how you can afford it? Hey, look where I can go — aren’t I successful?
And it’s not just about money. The church must be a place where all cultural distinctions of status and value are relativized by the cross. Indeed, Paul has been on the Corinthians about this since the beginning of the letter: “The one who brags should brag in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:31, CEB).
Is there something similar Paul would get on us about?