Hear these words from Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.
This past week I had a member of the congregation approach me about these words. They are pretty serious here with key phrases like partaking “in an unworthy manner,” “answerable for the body and blood of the Lord,” and drinking “judgment against themselves.” With the heaviness of the words one would assume that we pay particular attention to them…but in most churches that’s just not true.
But, if the act of communion is something that could bring judgment on the person receiving it, it would make sense to ask those persons to “examine” themselves before coming forward to partake. This, I would argue, played into the individualism that came out of the 19th and 20th centuries, where there is a priority placed upon an individual’s relationship with Jesus as opposed to the relationship of the Body of Christ (the church) with Christ. I would guess, too, that it is shaped by the practice in communion in many places where the act of Holy Communion is, pretty much an individual act–we stay seated in our pews and individual cups and individual pieces of bread are passed around. There is a “me and Jesus” attitude that seems much more prevalent today than it was in the Bible.
But regardless of the individualism that may be rooted underneath our interpretation of the passage from Corinthians, if we hold that Holy Communion should come with a pretty serious warning label–WARNING: EATING THIS UNWORTHILY COULD BE DANGEROUS TO YOUR SOUL–we have the question of how much examination is enough. In other words, what is the minimum level of self-reflection, confession, understanding, or sinlessness is needed? And it’s not a simple question.
- Should the “bar” be set at baptized Christians, assuming that profession of (or reception into) the saving Grace of Christ through a public act is enough of a “bar”?
- Do we want to limit it further and say it’s only for those who are baptized into OUR church (whatever the church may be)? This takes on more significance in churches that have an understanding of transubstantiation or “the real presence.”
- Do persons have to at least understand the meaning and symbolism of Holy Communion? This would exclude children, perhaps, or the mentally challenged. You would need to go to class to learn about communion. And, after being part of communion for 45 years, I’m still not sure I understand it enough to make the cut. It’s still a mystery to me in many ways.
- Do we limit it to persons who are free (enough) from sin? Therefore, the officiant should exclude those he/she knows are living in sin? The member having an affair? The gambler? The person who swears too much? The drug user? (I know of a pastor who once wanted to exclude from communion a member who was wearing an American flag shirt–“sin” of nationalism!)
- Should, perhaps, church attendees self-exclude themselves based on examination? One of the problems here is that there are cases of church attendees never feeling as if they are at a point where they are “worthy enough” to take communion. I’ve not had that issue in churches I serve, but I know it’s happened. Here we’ve made communion into a reward for piety and not a sacrament of grace.
I don’t want to say that Paul’s words are unimportant here. But I do want to say that our interpretation of them, and how we apply them, can lead down a path towards legalism, where it’s not a matter of the grace of Christ experienced in communion but our worthiness (spiritual holiness) to receive it or the worthiness of the manner in which we do it.
Plus, I think it’s helpful to see this section of 1 Corinthians in the context of what has come before. Paul, here, is talking about very specific abuses to the Lord’s supper as persons were coming together for a shared meal, with some getting drunk and others going hungry. This is how he puts it in 1 Corinthians 11:17-22:
Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?
The “unworthiness” of what was going on seems to be less a matter of their individual relationships with Jesus Christ or their individual level of sinfulness or understanding but in their lack of ability to come together as the unified body of Christ. As per much of the letter of 1 Corinthians, Paul here is admonishing the Corinthians for the divisions that are in their congregation. And, if we focus here, perhaps it would be good to question in a local congregation whether or not there are divisions present before communion is to be served–specifically the divisions between the haves and have nots that Paul talked about. We could ask folks to examine how they are living the unity of the Body of Christ in their place.
Our United Methodist Book of Worship states: “All who intend to lead a Christian life, together with their children, are invited to receive the bread and cup. We have no tradition of refusing any who present themselves desiring to receive.”
In the churches I’ve served, we’ve had a “ya’ll come” attitude. Everyone is welcome–young, old, baptized, or unbaptized, member or not. It’s been an “open table.” But the question I got this week makes me wonder how we can keep an open table but still have persons more deeply recognize the significance of this gift.