Sometimes familiar passages hit one with renewed significance. Reading yesterday’s Epistle, 1 Corinthians:17-26,33, I was struck by what Paul had to say about two things: the nature of the community there; and the importance of tradition.
For those who hold to the more modern view of ‘once saved, always saved’, the Church at Corinth must pose a puzzle. He is a group of Christians whom St Paul himself had brought to Christ and yet, like all churches any of have experience of, rather than all being born again and knowing the voice of the Shepherd and doing his will, they, like us, argue and get things wrong, and, like us, they have factions within. Yes, that sounds like the Catholic Church we know and love. In its own way this is almost reassuring; if those converted by the Spirit through Paul were this fallible, perhaps we should not beat ourselves up quite as badly as we do sometimes? That doesn’t meant that, like the Corinthians, we shouldn’t heed Paul’s words and try to be better, of course, but it does mean we should not be surprised at our fallibility.
Paul reprimands them for their actions with regard to the ‘Lord’s Supper’. Whatever they were up to (and scholars don’t quite agree on what that was) what is clear is that their claims to be doing what Jesus did in having some kind of fellowship meal did not meet what Paul had been told. We can see how accurately Paul had been told about the events we call the Last Supper; he even quotes the words of Jesus. If, as we think, this letter was written about twenty to twenty-five years after the death and resurrection of Christ, then it is plain that even by that stage, these words and their significance were an old tradition. We know from the Didache and other sources that this practice of meeting to celebrate the Lord Supper was the most ancient tradition of all. There is no argument about whether this memorial is just that, Paul accepts, as the Church continues to, that Jesus meant what he said – the bread is his body, the wine is his blood; those unable to accept this walk away now, as they did even from Jesus himself. But that is how it was, is, and will be until he comes again in glory to judge both the living and he dead.
So, although, like the Corinthians, divided and somewhat fractious at times, we meet as they did, mindful of what Paul says. Because we know we are drinking his blood and eating his body, we know, too, that to do so unworthily is to eat damnation upon ourselves, so we ensure, as far as we can, that we eat and drink after having purged ourself of our sins; the first Christians did, and we do as they did for the same reason. We do not do it exactly as they did – public confession was the fashion at the beginning – but we do it all the same. This is one example of what we mean when we say that we follow the tradition of the Church founded by Jesus.