Scripture Study -- The First Epistle of Paul to Corinth

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St. Paul established a Christian community in Corinth about the year 50, on his second missionary journey. According to his own testimony, he began his work in Corinth in "fear and trepidation." Moderate success attended his efforts among the Jewish Corinthians at first, but they soon turned against him. His year-and-a-half mission among the Gentiles in Corinth was more fruitful. However, while in Ephesus on his third missionary journey, he received disquieting news about Corinth. They were displaying open factionalism, certain members identifying themselves with the teaching of Paul of Apollos, of Cephas and others apparently claiming a relationship to Jesus peculiar to themselves alone. Worse yet, the community’s ills were reflected in the celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy when some members behaved clannishly, drank too freely and denied Christian social courtesies to the poor among the membership.

This first Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians paints a pretty dismal picture of this group of first century Christians. Apparently this congregation of new Christians in the city of Corinth was torn apart by internal divisions. Those divisions were most obvious in their "celebration" of the Lord’s Supper. In point of fact, the Lord’s Supper was more like a civil war rather than a love feast. In those early years, the Lord’s Supper was an actual meal and that’s where the problems started. The more prosperous members of the congregation brought plenty of food for the "love feast," but they shared it only with their families and friends while poorer people in the congregation literally went hungry. Worse yet, these people got into the wine heavy enough to get falling-down drunk.

It wasn’t a pretty picture. What made the picture all the more ugly was the fact that these things were happening at the Lord’s Supper! Above any other Christian symbol or ritual, the Lord’s Supper is supposed to demonstrate harmonious and sacrificial love. When Christians come to the Table of the Lord, they come as one family. The meal should gather all the members of the family together in peace and harmony. And the meal itself—the bread and the wine representing the broken body and the shed blood of Christ—is a dramatic re-enactment of sacrificial love. There is no more eloquent "sermon" on harmonious and sacrificial love than the Lord’s Supper. But those selfish and contentious Corinthian Christians put the lie to that sublime message. They turned the truth of this great sacrament into a lie.

The New Testament describes the church through a rich variety of metaphors, each of which captures some distinctive feature of this distinctive community of faith. The church is referred to as family, as a sheepfold, as a kingdom, as a ship, as a rock, as an army, as a nation, as a bride, as a building, as a body. St. Paul’s favorite way of talking about the church was to refer to it as the Body of Christ. Writing to the Corinthian Christians, he declared: "The body is one and has many members, but all the members, many though they are, are one body; so it is with Christ. It was in one Spirit that all of us, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, were baptized into one body. All of us have been given to drink of the one Spirit. Now the body is not one member, it is many. You, then, are the body of Christ."

Paul’s language is, of course, metaphorical. We are not literally the body of Christ any more than we literally have the mind of Christ. And yet we should take these terms more literally than we do. The church is very much like a body in two senses of that term. First of all, the church is made up of diverse groups and different individuals. Just as a tooth, an arm, a toe and a heart are very different parts of the same body, so a Pentecostal, Baptist, a Presbyterian, and a Catholic are very different parts of the same body. Second of all, the church draws its inspiration and imagination from the spirit of Christ. The vitality and wisdom of the church are not based on the collective efforts and ideas of its members. They are drawn from the life and teachings of Jesus. We Christians really are the body of Christ! GLP

This reflection is from the September 1998 Edition of the San Francisco Charismatics (ISSN 1098-4046). If you would like to receive a copy of the San Francisco Charismatics, e-mail us your snail mail address. Sorry, only USA mail where we mail bulk rate..

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