Discerning the Body

I recently heard a fine sermon by a priest in the Diocese of Dallas. He quoted the Apostle Paul’s warning that the person “who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.” (1 Corinthians 11:29)

What does it mean to “discern the body”? Where is the “body” discerned? The preacher pointed out that it is tempting, especially for those of an Anglo-Catholic disposition, to take Paul to be speaking of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But the context of Paul’s admonition is a rebuke of the factionalism and mutual disregard within the Corinthian congregation, as a result of which, “when you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat.” (v. 20)

Paul’s point is that the integrity of the Lord’s Supper lies in the quality of mutuality among the participants. The Body to be discerned lies in the collective fellowship of the Church as the body of Christ. As Paul will say in the following chapter, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ…Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Cor 12:12, 27)

Our preacher, as the Brits like to say, was “spot on.” Paul did not intend his warning about discerning the body as a proof text for the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Yet the identification of the bread with the Body is not far from Paul’s mind, and is integrally connected to his identification of the community with the Body.

A chapter earlier, Paul says, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Cor 10:16)

The emphasis here is firmly on the elements themselves – the cup, and the bread – which are the means of our “participation” in Christ. They enable us to share in the resurrection life of Jesus and in his communion with the Father. The New Testament places an unavoidable emphasis on the tangible character of the Lord’s Supper as a means of actual encounter and sharing in Christ - beginning with the Lord’s own words, “THIS is my body.” (1 Cor 11:24)

Paul presupposes all of this when he makes a further point about discerning the Body within the community, which develops on his earlier assertion, “because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” When in our disparateness and alienation we are each joined to Jesus Christ, we find that we are joined to one another at the same time. 

To put it simply: when we partake of the Body we become the Body.


This blog is written by the Rev. Dr. Christopher Brown, the Canon to the Ordinary for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.