In a Worthy Manner

As a church, we take the Lord’s Supper each week. It isn’t because we believe that you must take it each week. It is simply a regular reminder of what Jesus has done for us as well as a way that we can reinforce with the people in our church of how to take the Lord’s Supper and offer it to others. We have several people in our church who are new believers, so this is an opportunity to reinforce the fundamentals of our faith. In addition, we believe in each believer being a priest in the Kingdom of God, so we regularly ask different believers within our church to lead us through the taking of the Lord’s Supper.

One of the issues that has come up along the way within our church with regard to taking the Lord’s Supper is a question who should take it. Some, especially those who have come from other churches and other church backgrounds, have pointed out to me along the way that someone who possibly shouldn’t have taken it has actually done so, their point essentially to be to ask me why I allowed that to happen, why I allowed them to take the bread and the cup. From there, at times these people have engaged me over a longer conversation in an attempt to explain why we should take the Lord’s Supper in a certain way, including who should take it and who should not. In other times and with other people, the conversation simply ends there, at the original question and query about why the other person is allowed to take the bread and cup.

Today in our daily scriptural reading, though, we came to 1 Corinthians 11, a chapter that speaks to two primary issues within the church at Corinth. The first is that of having a head covering for women while praying and the second is that of taking the Lord’s Supper. At some point, I’ll come back to the head covering for women, but for now, I want to touch on taking the Lord’s Supper.

Paul addresses this issue with the Corinthians because he says that he has heard that there are divisions within the church related to the taking of the Lord’s Supper. In their time, it was literally a supper, a meal, and in the midst of that meal, they would take a moment to remember what the Lord had done for them, just as Jesus had done at the Last Supper. The church wasn’t simply taking a cracker and some wine or juice as we frequently practice it today. They were eating together and the Lord’s Supper was intended to be a moment of unity for the body of Christ. All people, whether Jews or Greeks, rich or poor, regardless of their background, if they are a part of the body of Christ, they should come to the dinner table and eat together as one.

But in the Corinthian church, there was a problem. Some of the people, the poor in particular, didn’t have food and went hungry. Meanwhile, the rich brought food and wine and were even becoming drunk as they ate and drank. Of course this caused significant divisions in the church, whether as a result of socioeconomic differences, or even creating division by being seen before men as somehow being better or worse before God. Some were potentially considered to have a higher, or more important, position in the Kingdom, or in the body of Christ, because they were able to eat as kings, especially in front of the others who may, or may not, even be able to eat as peasants.

It is for this reason specifically that Paul says that he has no praise for the Corinthians. Here is what he says:

In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

1 Corinthians 11:18-22

So Paul goes on to explain what he received from the Lord. Remember, unlike the other Apostles, he wasn’t there. He wasn’t with Jesus for the Last Supper, the final Passover supper that Jesus ate with his disciples. So instead, Paul has received this practice – as he says, from the Lord – and has now passed it along to the Corinthians, and presumably the other churches as well:

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 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.” 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.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

But now we come to the crux of the issue, I believe. This is where I believe most of our contention and disagreements originate and so I want to spend a moment talking about these next couple of verses. In verses 27 and 28, Paul says that we have the potential of committing sin – specifically a sin against the body and the blood of Christ – as we take the bread and the cup. He says that we need to examine ourselves so that we don’t do this. Here are the verses:

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. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup.

1 Corinthians 11:27-28

What is Paul referring to here? When he says that if we eat the bread and drink the cup in an unworthy manner, we will be guilty of sinning. What is he talking about?

In an attempt to answer this question, let’s start with another question: Can we ever be worthy of Christ’s body and blood? Is it possible for us to clean ourselves up enough to be worthy of taking the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper?

I believe that the answer to that question is a resounding No. There is no way that we can be worthy to take the bread and the cup. In fact, the entire reason that we are taking the bread and the cup is that we completely unworthy. We have sinned and we are absolutely dependent on Christ’s body and blood to make us clean through Christ before God. Only his sacrifice can pay for my sins. I have done nothing worthy of salvation from God’s wrath. I can only have faith that God will save me because I have placed my faith in Christ’s sacrifice. That’s it, nothing more. That’s the only reason that I would be considered worthy of anything as I stand before God. I can do nothing to merit his favor, his mercy and grace

So, I can’t be good enough before God. I can’t be worthy enough. And so I think that, because that is true, we should reconsider some of our practices within the church, especially as we think about the Lord’s Supper. For example, I’ve seen situations where, in churches, people do not take the Lord’s Supper because they are sinners. They don’t feel worthy in that moment to take it, and they are affirmed in this feeling and told that they shouldn’t take the Lord’s Supper. Hmm… Yes, actually, their feeling is probably correct. They don’t feel worthy because they are not worthy. They are feeling the weight of their sin as they stand before God. But the truth is that no one else who is taking the Lord’s Supper that day is worthy either. To say it again, neither those who don’t feel worthy are worthy to take the Lord’s Supper, nor those who do feel worthy. Neither one. Only Christ’s sacrifice, his broken body and shed blood make us worthy.

I’m going to assume that Paul knows that, under their own strength, no one is worthy to take the Lord’s Supper. Therefore, I’m also going to assume that there is something else that he is referring to within these couple of verses. He must mean something else when he says that they shouldn’t take the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, and I would suggest that Paul is referring to exactly what he has spoken about throughout this chapter. He is telling them that they should take the Lord’s Supper in a worthy manner based on what he has been saying through chapter 11.

Paul has been telling the Corinthians that there shouldn’t be divisions among them. They shouldn’t have some people that have food and others that have none. They shouldn’t have, nor create, divisions among them, which is what they are doing by having some with food and drink and others without. He explains this both before he reminds them of how they should take the Lord’s Supper in verses 18-22 as well as after in verses 33-34. In fact, in these later verses, he goes on to explain even further how they should eat together as one body of Christ, in unity:

For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 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.

So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.

1 Corinthians 11:33-34

I think it is notable that Paul seems to be giving instruction to both the rich as well as the poor. To the rich, he says that they should discern the body of Christ. They should realize that the poor who are there amongst them are part of the body of Christ as well and they should all be eating together. They shouldn’t be having private parties because they have food and drink. They should be eating together, possibly providing for the others, or eating nothing as the others are doing. Even abstaining from eating a large meal would be more in line with what Paul had been teaching, even as far back as his teaching in chapter 10 where he said that he wouldn’t eat if it were to cause someone else to fall or lose their faith.

In addition, Paul gave instruction to the poor. For those that are hungry as they come to the Lord’s Supper – remember, they are eating a full meal – they should eat something at home so that divisions do not occur and judgment won’t come upon them because those divisions are cropping up amongst them.

I believe, therefore, that this whole discussion about being worthy is really a discussion of maintaining unity amongst the believers through the taking of the Lord’s Supper when they are together. When Paul says that they are taking the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, it is because of their practice of having created division amongst them. I believe that understanding is consistent with what Paul has taught through the course of chapter 11 and is consistent with what Paul has been teaching throughout his entire letter to the Corinthains. Their main problem has been that they have been experiencing division within the church for a variety of reasons, including the way that they have taken the Lord’s Supper, so Paul is encouraging them in their practice to create unity in Christ, never division.

Of course, saying this may cause us to ask some additional questions. Here are some of those questions:

First question: What was the purpose of what Jesus did with the bread and cup at the Last Supper, the original Lord’s Supper? And why did he command them to continue to take it?

Jesus commanded his disciples to go and prepare the Passover meal. The first Lord’s Supper was taken in the context of the Passover celebration. The Passover is the festival that was commanded for the Israelites to celebrate as they remembered how God “passed over” the Israelites as he went through the land of Egypt, killing every first born son, thus causing Pharaoh to command the Israelites to leave Israel once and for all.

Fittingly, Jesus was also put to death on the cross, his blood having prevented God’s wrath from coming upon us in judgment as we put our faith in Christ’s sacrifice. Just as the Israelites put their faith in the blood of the lamb that they wiped over their doorways, we also put our faith in the blood of the Lamb, that of Jesus.

During the meal, Jesus took the bread and gave some to each of the disciples telling them that it is his body that will be broken for them. Then after the meal, Jesus gave them wine telling them that it is the blood of the new covenant, poured out for them. Here are the verses with his words:

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”

Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

Matthew 26:26-28

Coming up to this time, we see that Jesus had been telling the disciples that they were going to Jerusalem and he would be handed over to the authorities and would be killed. But it is clear that the disciples didn’t understand. They continued to believe that Jesus, as Messiah, was entering Jerusalem to become king. They imagined the Messiah as king over Israel, taking once again the political throne of David and throwing off the oppressive Roman government who was over them. They expected the kingdom, the political kingdom, to be restored to Israel.

But Jesus is using the bread and the cup as an object lesson to explain to them how his body would be broken and his blood would be poured out so that they would once again become God’s people because they had been made new through the New Covenant in his blood.

Jesus also knew that, as people, we are really good at forgetting what God has done for us. We move on with our lives, getting busy with the concerns of our daily lives and forgetting what God has done for us. It is for this reason that God gave his people points of remembrance, altars that were set up throughout Israel, to remember what God had done for them in that place and in that time. It was for this same reason that God commanded the people to carry on the festivals. He wanted them to remember what God had done for them. To retell the stories. To remember his faithfulness toward his people, the people of Israel.

So Jesus does the same. Yes, Jesus had told the people that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood, but he didn’t mean that literally when he said it at Capernaum after feeding the 5000, and he certainly doesn’t mean that literally now while taking the Last Supper. These elements symbolically represent his body and his blood that we take so that we can be reminded of the incredible gift of God’s love, grace, and mercy given to each of us through Christ’s death on the cross.

Now, second question: What if unbelievers come into the meeting of the church? Should they take the Lord’s Supper?

To answer this, I will say that I believe that we must be clear about the meaning, the significance, of the bread and the cup. We must be absolutely clear that we are celebrating the death of Christ as Jesus taught us to do, and it is only through his death and resurrection that we are made right before God. This is what Jesus did as they celebrated the Passover and we can imitate him also in our practice.

But shouldn’t the people be baptized before they take the Lord’s Supper? Personally, while I understand why churches say this and use it as a way to make a distinction, I don’t think that we technically see a requirement for baptism before taking the Lord’s Supper. In other words, there is no recipe that says: First you are baptized, and Then you take the Lord’s Supper. Here is my reasoning:

  • Baptism today, given our understanding of the Gospel of Christ, is not only a baptism for repentance, as it was even in the time that John the Baptist was preaching baptism, or even in the time of Christ. Instead, today, our baptism shows publicly that we have both repented and put our faith in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins and have a new life in Christ that allows us entrance into the Kingdom of God.
  • In the time of Jesus, I don’t think that we can say that they had the same understanding. As I noted above, the disciples were waiting on Jesus to become the Messiah that they were expecting him to be. They heard Jesus telling them that he was going to be killed, but from my reading of the Gospels, I believe that this is actually the first time that Jesus says that his blood will be poured out for the forgiveness of sins. Yes, we have seen that Jesus had authority to forgive sins, and we see that Jesus commanded his disciples to forgive others, but I believe that this is the first time that we see the same connection between Jesus’s death and resurrection linked to the idea that we can have forgiveness for our sins.
  • Now, as Jesus explains that to them, especially assuming that it is the first time that he says it, does that mean that they all believed in Christ as both Lord and Savior in that particular moment? That they all understood that they must have faith in his death and resurrection to receive salvation? I don’t think that we could make that claim. What is more, we should ask ourselves: whose hand was in the bowl to take bread with Jesus as they were taking the Lord’s Supper and Jesus was explaining the significance? It was Judas! The one that would not only not believe in him, but would even betray him! I think that we should instead understand the Lord’s Supper as a way to declare the Lord’s death and continue to remember the body and blood of Christ broken and shed for each of us. I believe that is what Jesus did at the Last Supper and should be how we continue to see the Lord’s Supper today.

So, is the Lord’s Supper for believers and followers of Christ? Absolutely. We must take the Lord’s Supper as we follow the commandments of Christ. But at the same time, I think that we should take the Lord’s Supper more as a way to understand and remember Jesus’s sacrifice and less of a way to determine who is in or who is out. Baptism into the death Christ and rising into life of Christ, instead, is the public demonstration of our faith in him for our salvation.

Practically speaking, here is an example of the way that this has been carried out in our church: A Muslim man began to come to church, and in the first time around that we passed out the bread and the cup, he grabbed the bread from the tray and popped the bread and juice into his mouth without even thinking, even before we had the opportunity to explain the significance.

But since that time, once he understood the meaning of the bread and the cup, he hasn’t taken it since, deciding instead to abstain because he wasn’t yet at a place in his understanding that he believed in the body and blood of Christ given for him.

But let’s think about that: We didn’t stop him the first time. We didn’t move his hand away from the tray. He took it. Is it blasphemy? Has he brought judgment upon himself? Did he take it in an unworthy manner? Or even more, did we lead him even further astray by allowing him to take it?

No, he took it in ignorance. He wasn’t doing anything with malice against the body and blood of Christ. He was eating a snack!

But then he understood and he realized that this wasn’t for him…yet. Because he did not place his faith in Christ as both Lord and Savior He chose to walk away, at least for now.

And yet, he continues to come. He sits and he listens. He is trying to understand. We are praying for him, that he understands that God gave himself for him. I would contend that this is all part of the discipleship process, teaching him to obey everything that Jesus commanded us to do, including both him and us.

Now, last question: What if someone has unrepentant sin in their lives? Should they take the Lord’s Supper?

First, let me say that there is nowhere that says that we should, as believers, abstain from taking the Lord’s Supper. Instead, even if we read the passage above out of context, that we should examine ourselves before we take the Lord’s Supper, we aren’t told to not take it. Instead, upon examination, if we find that we must repent because of sin in our lives, we simply must repent.

In a similar way, as Jesus preached in the sermon on the mount, he said:

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

Matthew 5:23-24

No, that isn’t speaking directly of the Lord’s Supper, but I think it gives us instruction and indication of what we must do. Before coming to worship the Lord, if there is something that needs to be resolved, go resolve it. Repent. Now. That is our response to the sacrifice of Christ. We can’t make ourselves worthy, but we can repent and ask for forgiveness. That much we can do, so whether it is something we must do before the Lord or something that we must do with another person, that is the calling that we have in that moment. Whether as believers or unbelievers, Christ calls us to repentance, reconciliation, and forgiveness. There is no way to be worthy except to repent and that is what we must do, going on to take the Lord’s Supper just as Jesus commanded us to do.

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