so what were those corinthians squabbling about?
Last June Pope Benedict proclaimed a Year of the Apostle Paul.
Mike Riddell offers the first of a short series of reflections on Paul’s Letters selecting certain themes within the Apostle’s teaching
Paul is nothing if not a pragmatist. Much of what he writes in the epistles is in response to the frequently petty troubles of Christian congregations. Because of this we have admonitions on such earthly matters as head coverings, circumcision, family dynamics, dietary habits and sexual activity.
It is perhaps possible to underestimate him because of this level of inter-vention; to see him as a stolid ‘grump’ somewhat akin to an interfering aunt. We need to remember that his letters are snapshots of real-time activities, rather than carefully crafted spiritual guidelines. They arise from the heat of conflict and the pressures of mission, and are all the more remarkable because of that.
I love the fact that the mundane and unseemly makes its way into our Holy Scripture. The fact that Paul left his cloak behind in Troas is celebrated for all generations. (I recently left my scarf at a restaurant in Dunedin, but I don’t expect it to be recorded for history.) Paul’s spirituality is not ethereal or unworldly. It reminds us that following Christ is done in this world rather than some other.
Were it not for the famously licentious Corinthians, we may not have those beautifully modulated phrases which institute our Communion, drawing us to both the centrality and significance of what is taking place in the Mass. From the hot coals of conflict and self-indulgence emerges the pure crystal of the eucharistic invitation.
Over the years I have met many sincere people terrified by 1 Corinthians 11, often assisted by enthusiastic preachers who stress the possibility of taking Communion unworthily. Indeed, some would-be communicants suffer needlessly in the pews, too fearful to partake of the healing meal which is at the centre of our faith.
It is easy to forget that Paul commends us to examine ourselves and then partake. He is not trying to put people off participation in communion, but rather to be involved thoughtfully and responsibly. This reminder to treat the Eucharist seriously is one which needs to be presented from time to time, in all gentleness and humility.
It is worth spending a few moments to reflect on what the central impediment to a right attitude is, in Paul’s thought. He describes it as a failure in “discerning the body”. He is of course speaking of the body of the church, one which he goes on to describe in some detail in chapter 12. There he describes the catholicity of the community: the essential unity which transcends difference.
It would seem therefore that the major sacrilege against communion is that of division and disunity – the failure to properly recognise the significance of Christ’s inclusion of difference. We may do well to recall that at the Last Supper, even Judas participated in the sacramental meal.
If we consider ourselves superior, or denigrate the dignity of others through our actions, then we dishonour the body of Christ which we are called to consume. In this sense it should be our attitude to others we should be examining, rather than interior soul-searching. The Corinthians allowed their own needs and squabbles to take precedence over others, and so Paul names their factions and their inhospitable behaviour as sins against community.
On the personal level it is a useful call back to our mutual belonging, and a reminder of the essentially social context of communion. In the Western climate of aggressive individualism, Eucharist declares an alternative vision of what it means to be human.
Paul’s words surely have significance in the ecumenical arena as well. How is it that we continue to celebrate Communion when there are “divisions” and “factions” rending the church? Does the Catholic stream of faith sin against catholicity in its exclusion of others from participation? Is this ‘fencing of the table’ a dishonouring of the body of Christ which it purports to celebrate?
It may be thought that such issues are in the realm of church politics rather than that of devotion. But Paul reminds us time and time again that the way we act carries and forms the shape of our belief. It’s in the midst of historical quarrels that we demonstrate faith, or the lack of it.
The call is not to neglect our eating and drinking as a revered Sacrament. Rather the challenge is to do so consciously, in full awareness of all those who surround us in their own broken humanity. It was, after all, the entire creation that Christ called to redemption.
Mike Riddell is a theologian, novelist, playwright, poet and social activist, living in Cambridge, Waikato.