Paul spends several verses outlining for the Corinthians the boundaries for eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Basically, he really wants to make the point that Christianity is something far different from paganism. He wants the older converts to shore up their new brothers. They must be careful not to give the impression that Christianity and paganism are equivalent.
Then Paul says something curious,
15 I speak as to sensible men; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
Paul says that by eating the bread and drinking the wine we participate in the body and blood of Christ. He says that because there is only one bread that eating it makes us into one body. Can a symbol do that? Paul seems to reject the idea that we are dealing with mere symbols. The idea or participation is a very Jewish idea. For example, at the celebration of Passover they do not consider it a historic event. At the Passover supper they ask the question, “Why is THIS DAY different from every other day?” They answer, “Because this day WE are led out of Egypt.” For a Jewish person they participate in the Passover as if it is a current event. They also don’t have a top down – one way covenant with God. A covenant is a partnership and a family bond. They make sacrifices to God at the Temple and then they eat those sacrifices to create, renew and keep that family bond. The sharing of the sacrifices is what bonds the Jewish people into one body. Paul continues:
18 Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? 19 What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22 Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
Now, no one would doubt that Paul believes demons are real. If we interpret the bread and wine of the Last Supper as merely a symbol than it would be something less than the table with meat sacrificed to demons. Paul’s statements only make sense if he means to say that the bread and wine is in fact the Body and Blood of the Lord.
And the key is this idea of “Participation”. The Gospel is about many things. It is about the forgiveness of sins, it is about salvation, it is about Charity, it is about love and it is about God building a new covenant, a new bigger family expanded to include the Gentiles. How is this to be done? By participation! We are being saved to participate in God’s divine life. In Chapter 3 of this same letter, Paul said,
9 For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.
How is this radical goal to be achieved? We must be united to the Lord in a radical ways. We are mind, body and soul composites. God knows this and he provides the food for all three. He feeds our minds through the word. He feeds our bodies by our good works. By living like a Christian we become more Christ like. This is one of Paul’s messages to the Corinthians in this letter. And what of our souls? The primary way He feeds our souls is through participation in the Body and Blood of the Lord, the Eucharist.