(# 6 in a series of Lenten reflections)
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Cor 11:26, NRSV)
Scholars disagree as to what Paul meant by this. Some read Paul as saying, “When you take the bread and cup, you should also make a verbal proclamation of what it symbolizes.” Others take the communion celebration as the proclamation itself, the embodiment of the message.
But in the end, it may not matter much. Even if the first alternative is correct, the context makes the second alternative the practical point. Saying the right words is not enough; Paul wants the Corinthians to also do right by each other. Their words and behavior should send the same message.
Imagine yourself as a Roman slave, living in an empire in which Christianity is a new and mysterious phenomenon. You’ve heard that there’s a small group of people in your local community who say they are adherents of a dead Jewish rabbi who, oddly, is not really dead. You actually know very little about these people. But one rumor has piqued your curiosity: it’s said that when they get together they pretend to eat the body and drink the blood of their dead leader.
Weird, you think. And kind of disgusting. Would you dare to check these people out for yourself? What would you have to see in them, in their life together, to get over the hump of reservations you brought with you?
Here’s a guess: if you saw the rich treating the poor with respect, if you saw masters and slaves worshipping in unity side by side, you’d stick around to find out more.
What keeps people coming back to a particular church? Is it the preaching, or the relationships? It’s both/and. The message proclaimed from the pulpit must match the one proclaimed by the life of the congregation. And this is what the Corinthians don’t seem to get: their way of celebrating the Lord’s Supper makes a mockery of the ritual because it proclaims the wrong message.
Lenten observance, in the best sense, should be another way of proclaiming the Lord’s death. But all such remembrances must also carry the memory of Easter, of Jesus’ resurrection. Paul wants to see signs of new life in Corinth, in transformed relationships that break down the barriers of social class. To proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus “until he comes” means to engage our rituals with one eye fixed on the future, on his return and the fulfillment of the resurrection destiny already evident in our life together.
Easter approaches. Make ready.