23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world. 33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.
–1 Corinthians 11.23-34 (NIV)
I dedicate this reflection to my mom and dad, and in loving memory of them, on this the 64th anniversary of their wedding. They were married on Worldwide Communion Sunday, October 5, 1947 at First Presbyterian Church, Van Wert, OH. Enjoy your rest with your Lord, mama and papa. I love and miss you.
Sadly in my life, I have talked to many Christians who are reluctant to come to the Lord’s Table to receive holy communion because they “are not worthy” and too often their reluctance is based on today’s passage. Assuming their reluctance is not some kind of false humility, this is a real shame because they are denying themselves a real and tangible sign of God’s great love and grace offered them through the death of Jesus. Written some 20 years after Jesus’ death, Paul gives us the earliest account of the Last Supper that we have in Scripture and we need to pay attention to its broader context because it gives us some guidance as to what Paul likely has in mind when he talks about partaking the Lord’s Supper in an “unworthy” manner.
Paul has been castigating the Corinthians for making a mockery of the Lord’s Supper (cf. 1 Corinthians 11.17-22). Apparently many confused it with eating a regular meal and that was their first mistake. Yes, we eat and drink the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Jesus, but this was never intended to be a regular meal for us as Paul makes clear here.
The second mistake the Corinthians made was to be cliquish in their participation in the meal and as Paul makes clear here and elsewhere in his letters, the body of Christ cannot be divided in this way. Apparently some of the richer Corinthians brought an abundance of food and drink and then overindulged while their poorer counterparts went hungry. What a travesty this is, says Paul. But why is it a travesty? Because Jesus’ body and blood is offered freely to all who come to the Table in faith. Christ did not die for a few privileged or wealthy folk. He died for all people who come to him in faith and when we understand this, we can begin to understand what Paul was talking about when he spoke of taking communion in an “unworthy manner.”
For you see, anyone who comes to the Table is unworthy of the gift offered because we are all terribly broken people. But that misses the whole point of the Gospel. As Paul wrote to the Romans, God demonstrates his love for us by dying for us while we were still hostile and openly rebellious toward him (Romans 5.8). The point is that nobody is worthy to come to the Lord’s Table based on his or her own merits. Holy Communion is a sacramental sign (an outward and visible sign, in this case of bread and wine, that represents and inward and invisible reality, in this case of the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood in the elements) of God’s great love and mercy for us.
When Paul talks about eating and drinking the elements in an unworthy manner, he likely has in mind the context about which he has just scolded the Corinthians. “Stop treating this meal as an ordinary meal,” Paul says. “Stop hoarding food and drink. Stop being selfish and self-centered. Don’t you know that Christ died for all of you, not just some? Do you really think some of you are better than others? Think again.”
Now of course this does not mean that we should not be self-reflective and willing to change our unholy ways before we come to feed on our Lord’s body and blood. Jesus himself commanded us to make peace with our enemies before we bring our gift to the altar (cf. Matthew 5.22-24) and that surely finds application here. We can’t be at odds with our fellow believers, at least as far as it depends on us (cf. Romans 12.17-19) and come to the Table with an unforgiving and proud spirit because that goes against our Lord’s commandment.
But to exclude yourself from holy communion based on a misunderstanding of today’s passage is just plain sad because God welcomes us in our brokenness, even while he is not satisfied to leave us where we are. He begins to heal and forgive us when we come to the Table and feed on the body and blood of our Lord Jesus. If churches were only for “good people,” they would be utterly empty because there is no such thing, popular opinion excluded. No, churches and the Lord’s Table are for broken and forgiven believers.
It is part of the awesome beauty of communion that folks like you and me are invited to approach the Table in faith so as to receive healing and forgiveness in a powerful and tangible way. In doing so, we remember Christ crucified for us and we feast at the great eschatological (end time) banquet with all the saints of God. Past, present, and future are collapsed into one great moment when we come to the Table to receive the bread and the cup. It is a great mystery and sacrament, this holy communion, and we are to treat it accordingly. The Corinthians apparently did not and that is what got them in hot water with Paul.
Life is hard enough as it is and we are prone to despair and discouragement because we all get beaten up regularly. That is why partaking in communion regularly is such an important thing for Christians to do as part of their growth as disciples. There is no magical incantation going on here, just the wondrous mercy and grace of God, poured out for us on the cross, so that we have a real hope and chance to live with God, now and forever.
The next time you come to the Table, by all means please do examine yourself carefully. Be prepared to change, with the Spirit’s help, that within you that needs to be changed. But do not exclude yourself from coming to the Table if you are willing and able to follow your Lord to the best of your ability, even if you are profoundly broken and flawed. Otherwise, you cut yourself off from feeding on the grace and forgiveness of Jesus so that he can help you grow in your faith, love, and obedience, both to him and to others.
You also cut yourself off from a tangible and real reminder of God’s great love for you manifested in Jesus. If God loves you enough to become human and die for you, and if you come to his Table with a humble and contrite spirit, why would God ever find you to be “unworthy” in that sense? After all, God never rejects a humble spirit or a broken and contrite heart (cf. Psalm 51.17). His very cross stands as eternal witness to this and you can be reminded of this each week as you come to his Table and accept his gracious offer of healing and forgiveness by feeding on the body and blood of your Lord. What an awesome and sacred privilege. Thanks be to God in our Lord Jesus Christ!