When St Paul wrote his letter to the Christians in Corinth – our second reading today – there were no buildings for Christian worship. So people met in the homes of wealthy people who had houses large enough to host them. And when they gathered together, it was the practice in Corinth to combine their commemoration of the Lord’s Supper with a normal meal.

Archaeologists tell us that the dining area of these large houses would have had a triclinium – a three-sided chamber in which the more privileged guests would recline around a low table. The less important or poorer guests would be located for the same meal in a larger adjoining area, an atrium. As in our trains and aeroplanes today, what we know as the Mass had first- and second-class guests in Corinth, and the quality of the food and service would have reflected this.

To Paul’s anger, the wealthier guests ate well and got drunk at these meals, whereas the poorer Christians got less or were even left out altogether. The social gap between rich and poor was even evident in their celebration of the Eucharist.

In his letter to these Corinthians, Paul confronts this problem with an appeal for unity. He quotes what he had originally handed on to them about the Last Supper – the earliest written account we have of it – when he was in Corinth. He told them that their failure to be united at the Eucharist, with no class divisions, flew in the face of what their worship should be.

Paul teaches that in a true celebration of the Eucharist (Greek) or Mass (Latin), we first of all enter into what he calls the ‘death of the Lord Jesus’ i.e. we enter into the presence of the Christ who died and rose from the dead. Secondly, in this encounter we not only are in communion with the Risen Lord but – critically – are in a ‘common union’ with each other as well. And in this sacred meal we become a Christian community, what he calls the ‘Body of Christ’ on earth. (Hence his appeal never to do anything in their lives that would fracture their common union in Christ.)

In using the idea of bread becoming Christ’s ‘body’ and the cup or chalice containing Christ’s ‘blood’, Paul takes it for granted that his readers understand and accept this. He uses these terms of body and blood not to be understood literally but as metaphors to explain that the Christ who lived, died and rose from the dead, and is now in heaven, truly becomes one with them in the Eucharist.

What Paul taught here was the unchallenged faith of those first Christians and, handed down to us over 2,000 years later, is still the faith of our Church today. We believe that when we gather in his name, as we do now, the Risen Jesus comes to us in his Word and as food to nourish us in our journey with him from this life to the next.

To be fair to those first Christians in Corinth, the practice of poorer people being treated less well than the wealthier has been a problem for the Church down the ages. Paul’s message is a reminder to us that there must be no room in our community, especially in our celebration of Mass, for divisions based on class, income, housing, sexuality or gender … young or old, married, single or divorced, and whatever their gender or sexuality, all are welcome and must be treated the same. 

Michael Campion
Holy Name, Jesmond
19 June 2022

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