Paul and the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist

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Here’s a little something I’ve drafted for a presentation. Basically, I argue that Paul assumes some sort of real presence of Christ in the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11:17ff:
Many recent treatments of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians take their point of departure from Dale Martin’s The Corinthian Body, which identifies a binary split in the congregation along typical Greco-Roman status lines. The problem with the Lord’s Supper, Martin and others assert, does not primarily concern any particular theory of the Real Presence of Christ but rather socioeconomic division in the body of Christ.

To be sure, the text of 1 Corinthians 11 does discuss deplorable divisions in vv. 21-22. But without making too many sacramental commitments at present, I think certain commentators have let go of the question of some sort of real presence of Christ too quickly. For in this passage Paul does set the bread and the cup of the Lord in parallel with the body and blood of the Lord v. 27), and he indicates that sinful behavior at the Lord’s Supper has resulted in illness and death (v. 30). In ancient Jewish, Christian, and pagan cultures, divine presences are deadly. One thinks here of the most unfortunate case of the singularly unfortunate Uzzah, who in 2 Sam 6:6-7 touched the Ark of the Covenant, in which the God of Israel dwelt, and died. One also thinks of the medieval tradition (it is not as ancient as many teaching the Bible assume) according to which the High Priest would have a rope tied to his ankle when he entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement in case he died in the presence of the deity. In the premodern world in which Paul lived, and moved, and had his being, one does not die from mishandling common things; one dies from mishandling sacred things in which the deity is present. Thus, Paul’s mentioning those who have become ill and died in the context of sin in the context of the Lord’s Supper suggests that this foundational Christian ritual is more than a community meal.

Certainly modern commentators are correct when they assert that the “body” in 1 Cor 11:29 (“For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves”) does not refer directly to some theory of Christ’s real presence in the Lord’s Supper, and glosses ancient and modern that insert “and blood” after body to complete the parallel here with “eat and drink” are misguided. Paul is probably referring to the body of the Christian community. On the other hand, for Paul the body of the Christian community isn’t simply a sociological reality on earth, but rather also a Christological entity in heaven whose unity is not merely a moral unity but also a real spiritual unity, as all believers are “in Christ”, the one Christ in heaven who makes himself also present on earth in the Lord’s Supper. And thus here too in v. 29 the real presence of Christ plays a role, just not in the way many traditional commentators who wish to find support for some doctrine of the real presence suspect.

Indeed, that Paul is more concerned for the integrity of the ritual than the unity of the community is shown in his comments in 1 Corinthians 11:20-22a:

When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?

Paul asks, rhetorically, “Do you not have homes to eat and drink in?” The implication is that it would be better not to have what we in North Dakota call a “potluck dinner,” or what my southern friends at Duke called a “covered dish dinner” together, but rather to celebrate the ritual of the Lord’s Supper itself. Indeed, one can then read the words of institution which follow directly as a subtle instruction to do just that: to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together without any community meal. Given how sacred the Lord’s Supper is due to his very presence therein, Paul’s recitation of the tradition of the words of institution suggest to his audience that it is better to drop the common meal altogether.

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