The stack of communion trays is a familiar sight to most Christians. Unfortunately, it can become too familiar. We can become so familiar with the communion celebration that we take it for granted. We simply go through the motions mindlessly and miss the significance of what we are doing.
In 1 Corinthians 11:17-33 it appears that the church in Corinth was beginning to take the Lord’s Supper or Communion for granted. Their familiarity with the celebration bred a subtle form of contempt. Paul gives a sobering indictment to the church, “I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good.” It’s a sobering reminder that we can go through our religious routines and actually be offending the Lord rather than honoring Him.
As we look at verses 18-22 Paul says that he has heard that there were divisions in the church. He has talked about the divisions in Corinth many times in his letter. Paul adds that division has a tendency to reveal true believers and expose those who are mere pretenders. In times of division people show their true colors and the true depth of their commitment.
However, the division that Paul is concerned about is something much more blatant and disturbing. The early church had developed a practice of having what was called a “Love Feast” before their worship and celebration of communion. It was intended to be something like a potluck dinner. Everyone brought a dish to share and everyone would sit down and enjoy a meal together. It was a great symbol of caring and unity in the church. It was a perfect prelude to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
What was happening in Corinth was that this good idea had turned into something that was fracturing the church and hurting the witness of the congregation. The more affluent people apparently arrived early (perhaps before the “common laborer” had finished work) and they ate the food they brought to the meal and drank too much wine. They were having their own little gluttonous party! By the time the poorer members of the church arrived, who didn’t have much to contribute, found the dishes on the serving table to be empty. The poorer members (who needed a good meal) remained hungry while others sat around with their pants unbuckled, boisterous, intoxicated, and ready for a nap! To follow this lack of regard for each other with the celebration of communion was to mock the celebration.
Paul reminded the church of what communion was meant to be. The celebration of communion actually looks in three different directions. First it looks back. The Lord’s Supper (Or communion) is designed to remind us of what Jesus did for us in the past. We are reminded of His willing sacrifice as a payment for our sin. We are reminded that we are sinners who have had our debt paid in full by our gracious and loving redeemer. As Steve Brown has said, “The world drinks to forget; Christians drink to remember.”
The Hebrews were given the celebration of the Passover as a way to remember God’s deliverance of the nation from their slavery in Egypt. Each year they rehearsed the events of the Exodus as a reminder that they were God’s specially chosen people. It is not an accident that the Last Supper was actually a Passover meal.
The communion celebration is similar to a war memorial. Such memorials are erected to remind us of the cost others paid for our freedom. We went to see the memorial in Frankfort KY. There is a huge sundial surrounded by the names of 1100 Kentuckians who died or are missing in action in Vietnam. The memorial is designed so that the tip of the shadow points to each name on the anniversary of their death. You can’t look at that memorial without remembering the real people who died in the war. Communion is designed to be like that memorial. It is designed to remind us of the cost of our salvation and the love that God has for us.
Second, the celebration of Communion points to a present reality. We call the Lord’s Supper Communion because it is seen as a time when we meet and encounter (or commune) with the Lord in a special way. Jesus said the cup represented the new covenant (or relationship with God) that is put into effect by His blood. We used to be enemies of God because we could not perfectly keep God’s law. Now we are God’s children; His friends. We used to be alienated from God, now we can come close.
In the Lord’s Supper we are also reminded of our communion with each other. This is the time when the poor beggar and the powerful King bow before the Lord together. We are all recipients of a mercy and grace which is our only basis of salvation. All those barriers and labels that divide us in the world are erased at the table of the Lord. Communion is the great equalizer.
So, Communion leads us to look back and it reminds us of the new relationship we have with God in the present. But there is one more dimension to the Lord’s Supper. Paul says we also “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” We look to the future. Communion reminds us that our salvation has been purchased, our salvation has been experienced, and yet in one sense our salvation is yet to come. We will not truly understand what Christ has done on our behalf until we see Christ on the throne.
Every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we testify or proclaim the message of the Gospel. Communion is meant to be a drama of sorts. It is an object lesson that communicates in a different and powerful way. A person who did not speak English could join us for worship and understand nothing of the sermon but would understand perfectly the celebration of communion. Unbelievers may not understand our theological discourses but they can see something in the celebration of communion that helps them to understand.
It seems odd, doesn’t it, that the Lord’s Supper is so often a point of conflict among Christians? In fairness, I think there is debate because communion significant and we want to view it properly. There are a number of debates that focus on communion. Let me give you three that you may have heard,
1. What is the nature of the bread and cup? Do the bread and drink become something different (in some cases the actual body and blood of Christ) or are they meant to be symbols of the body and blood? The Catholic Church believes the bread literally becomes the body and blood of Jesus. Lutherans (and other) believe the actual body and blood of Jesus combine with the bread and the wine. We believe the elements are symbols of the body and blood of Christ
2. How often should we celebrate communion? Some believe the Lord’s Supper should be part of every worship service (to bring us back to the cross each week). In the early church some Christians may have had communion with every meal. I affirm that mindset. However, others (like us) are concerned that communion taken every week becomes so routine that it can lose it’s meaning (familiarity breeds contempt). So they (we) opt to celebrate communion less frequent and try to take more time when we do come to the table.
3. Who should partake of communion? Everyone agrees that the celebration of communion is only for believers. Some churches (like us) believe anyone who professes to be a believer should be able to participate in the communion celebration because we are all members of the same Body of Christ (this is called “open communion”). Other churches believe only members of that particular church should be allowed to celebrate communion as a safeguard against someone taking it in an unworthy manner (this is called “closed communion”.)
It is a sad thing that the church can be so divided over something that was meant to bring us together. Chuck Colson tells the story of Father Lawrence Jenco, who was held hostage in Lebanon by Shiite terrorists for 19 months. One of Jenco’s fellow prisoners was Benjamin Weir, a Presbyterian minister. These two men (and the two other hostages) could have passionately discussed whether their different views of the communion celebration. Instead, while blindfolded and chained to a radiator Jenco assembled bits of bread and water. He then offered the body and blood to his companions and they all communed together. Instead of a time of division Jenco described that moment as their moment of deepest joy, sustaining them through an unimaginable ordeal. This simple act allowed them to experience grace in a horrid situation. [Colson, THE BODY p. 141]
I believe it is valuable to talk about the differences in order to gain understanding. However, since neither Jesus nor Paul gave instructions on the mechanics or regulations of Communion, we would be wise to follow their example. Our job is to approach the act with reverence because it points to Christ, proclaims the message of the gospel, and unites His people in a profound way.
APPLICATION / PREPARATION
Paul gave the Corinthians a sober warning and some wise counsel.
Hear Paul’s words
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.(v. 27)
For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. 32 When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world. (29-32)
Paul says that those who do not participate in the Lord’s Supper in a respectful and God-honoring fashion will face God’s judgment because they are “sinning against the body and blood of the Lord”. Paul seems to say that some in the church were sick and had died because of their callous approach to the celebration of the Lord!!
In order to make sure we don’t diminish the significance of the Lord’s Supper Paul tells us to examine ourselves before we participate in Communion. One of the reasons we take our time during communion is to encourage people to examine themselves.
1. We should examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith. The Communion celebration is for believers. It is for those who have recognized their sin and have come to Christ as their only hope for forgiveness and new life. If you have not come to that point in your life, you should either take that step of faith or decline the offer of communion.
2. We should examine our hearts for hidden sin. To come to the table while cherishing sin in our heart demeans Christ’s sacrifice. It means we don’t really understand how offensive and costly is sin. We need to do a personal inventory and truly seek God’s forgiveness for known sin before we ever come to the table. If you are not willing to do so, you are better to forego communion and first deal with the issue.
It is important to point out that being unworthy to take communion and taking communion in an unworthy manner are two different things. We are all unworthy to take communion. Communion is “for sinners”. The person truly prepared understands their sin, is grateful for God’s forgiveness, wants to know God more fully and desires to live more faithfully before the Lord.
If you are not truly prepared for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, you honor the Lord more by abstaining from the celebration than by participating in an unworthy manner. No one will criticize you for passing the tray by. It is no one else’s business why you choose to take or to refrain from taking communion. We must make sure that our attitude and heart are right before God.
I think we can draw some general principles from our text.
1. Our approach to the Worship of the Lord is an indicator of our regard for the Lord. When we come to communion in an unworthy manner we show that we lack regard for the Lord who is honored. This is true of every act of worship and service. When we simply go through the motions on Sunday morning we are not honoring God, we are dishonoring Him.
Think about the American Flag. It is more than simply a piece of cloth. It is a symbol of our nation. When someone burns that flag or treats it in a way that is dishonoring or disrespectful, they show their disrespect for the country that the flag represents. When you are at a ballgame and people are talking and goofing around during the playing of the National Anthem we view this as a lack of respect that dishonors America.
In the same way, when we approach an act of worship or service to the Lord in a disrespectful way, we dishonor the Lord. We are wise to examine ourselves and do an “attitude check” every time we enter the house of the Lord so that we honor Him rather than dishonor Him by our actions.
2. Our treatment of others is a barometer of our love for the Lord. The reason for this entire discourse was the fact that the Corinthians were making a mockery of the Lord’s Supper by their disregard for each other in the Love feast. When they indulged themselves while others went hungry, they dishonored not only their brothers and sisters in the Church they offended the Lord.
Jesus said: we show our love to Him by the way we treat “the least of the brothers.” When we ignore the hungry, the imprisoned, and the thirsty, we are turning our backs on the Lord. In 1 John we are told,
This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother. (1 John 3:10)
This isn’t hard to understand. If you truly love me, you will show regard for my children and grandchildren. If you treat those we love poorly, we take personal offense whether offense was intended or not. In the same way, if you truly love the Lord you will care for His children.
Let me caution you. It is much easier for us to notice when an offense has been committed against us (in our mind). We need to change our focus. Our challenge is to forget about how others treat us and focus on how we are treating others. We need to ask ourselves: Are we guilty of dismissing someone as unimportant? Are we prejudiced toward someone because of their appearance, race, or income level? Are we ignoring the needs of those around us? Are we disrespecting someone with our words and attitudes? Are we treating someone unfairly? If so, we not only have a problem with that person, we have a problem in our relationship with the Lord.
3. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper should always be special. Communion must never be rushed. It is a time of fellowship with the Lord that requires preparation and attention. This is a special meeting with our gracious Lord and we must treat it as such.
Just as the Jews used Passover to tell the story of the Exodus to their children so we should use the celebration of communion to instruct our children in the basic truths of the gospel message. I appreciate the recounting of the Last Supper by Sally Lloyd-Jones in her marvelous book for children, THE JESUS STORYBOOK BIBLE
“My body is like this bread. It will break.” Jesus told them. “This cup of wine is like my blood. It will pour out.”
“But this is how God will rescue the whole world. My life will break and God’s broken world will mend. My heart will tear apart – and your hearts will heal. Just as the Passover lamb died, so now I will die instead of you. My blood will wash away all of your sins. And you’ll be clean on the inside – in your hearts.”
“So whenever you eat and drink, remember,“ Jesus said, “I’ve rescued you!”
It is easy to slip into a mindless routine in any aspect of our worship. We must fight this tendency. We must continually work to view these disciplines with freshness and wholeheartedness. Because if we don’t, God might tell us that our meetings are doing more harm than good.