Sunday, April 25, 2010

Identity Formation and the Lord’s Supper as Ritualized Mission

The Lord’s Supper serves as the constant reminder of the Corinthian’s part in the continuing Pauline mission and has tremendous identity forming implications. Identity formation is often enacted, performed, and embodied in ritual. Paul’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor 11:23-32 serves as an example of this type of performative utterance. After passing along the tradition in vv. 23-25, Paul offers an interpretation of the tradition in v. 26 that argues for the centrality of ritualized mission, in that participation in the Lord’s Supper ‘is proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes’. Paul uses (kataggellete) ‘proclaiming’ which is normally associated with verbal proclamation, however, Paul associates it with ritual. In Paul’s thinking, the enacting of the Lord’s Supper forms the community into one ‘body’ which will further his mission to the nations. Paul normally, in the Corinthian correspondence limits the proclamation verbs to himself or his co-workers, however, in this passage the mission of the community is indexed within that same lexical and conceptual field of proclamation. (Plummer 2006: 122; Eriksson 1998: 196).

The performance of the Lord’s Supper, based on the final phrase ‘until he comes’ also reinforces the apocalyptic eschatological character of their identity in that it allows the community access to the events associated with the death, resurrection, and return of Jesus. This forms an ethos of reversal that is vital to the ethical instructions from Paul in the letter and assists the Corinthians in embodying their transformed identity ‘in Christ’. So, the apocalyptic identity formation that is occurring in this step in Paul’s rhetoric in one that reminds the Corinthians that while they have been transformed and are part of the kingdom of God, there is a future fulfillment of this promise that is yet to be realized. A promise that will be fulfilled to them – Judeans as Judeans, and Greeks as Greeks (1 Cor 12:13); however, these particularized identities are transformed by being ‘in Christ’ and as members of the ecclesia of God (1 Cor 10:32, cf. 1 Cor 10:22).

The emphasis on social practice and relationships that contribute to the existence of nested-identities comes into relief in v. 29 where Paul speaks of the need for the Corinthian Christ-followers to ‘discern the body’. Paul was forming an alternative community with a distinct ethos and the phrase ‘discern the body’ is primarily a reference to this community that Paul was forming, symbolically referred to as ‘the body of Christ’ (1 Cor 12:12-14). The failure to discern the corporate identity of the community of Christ-followers had dire consequences (v. 30). This corporate understanding of v. 29 is echoed by Koester, ‘in 1 Cor 11, the bread as the symbol of the “body of Christ” designates the community, not the corpse of Jesus: “For all those who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves,” The “body” that must be recognized is the community’ (1998: 346; Horsley 1998: 162).


Eriksson, A. 1998. Traditions as Rhetorical Proof: Pauline Argumentation in 1 Corinthians (CB, 29; Stockhom: Almqvist & Wiksell International).

Horsley, R.A. 1998. 1 Corinthians (Nashville: Abingdon Press)

Koester, H. 1998. ‘The Memory of Jesus’ Death and the Worship of the Risen Lord’, HTR 9.1: 335-50.

Plummer, P.L. 2006. Paul’s Understanding of the Church’s Mission: Did the Apostle Paul Expect the Early Christian Communities to Evangelize? (Paternoster Biblical Monographs; Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster).

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