This evening we will observe the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Are you ready? Are you ready to observe it in the proper manner? How do you get ready? For that matter, are you qualified to receive it? Our text this morning provides for us an examination time to answer these questions.
Consider the context and argument in this full passage (11-34) about the Lord’s Supper. The Corinth believers celebrate the sacrament as part of a religious meal held in someone’s home. They have shown bad table manners. The more well-to-do take advantage of their social standing to receive more and better food than their brethren who are on the lower end of the social ladder. This is despicable behavior. The very meal intended to display unity in the body of Christ is being used to display divisions. It shows a disdain for the church of Christ (18-22).
Paul recalls for them (23-26) the words of institution in an effort to impress upon them the sacred intent of the sacrament. The bread and cup represent the very body and blood of their Lord. They speak to the new covenant made by Christ for his people. To receive them is to proclaim the benefits of his death – salvation and inclusion in his covenant. Therefore, the participants should understand what the Table means and in what manner they should participate.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.
With such a warning, we certainly want to know what is an “unworthy manner.” We get our answer through context (what the Corinthians were doing), through the previous verses that reveal the worthy manner, and the following verses that further clue us in. Again, the context is the disrespect that some believers are showing their brothers and sisters in Christ. That disrespect is carried over to the sacrament itself, because they are showing it at the very table of the Lord. Indeed, they treat the sacrament as little more than any other social event. The sacredness has departed the tradition.
What constitutes a worthy observance? Remembrance of Jesus Christ: “Do this in remembrance of me” (24, 25); “proclaim the Lord’s death.” An unworthy manner is, again, to partake of the sacred meal as though eating a common meal (or snack in our case).
The next two verses give us further insight. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.
Note the connection of “examine himself” with “discerning the body.” A person is to examine himself before partaking of the elements because if he does not discern the body he will invite judgment on himself.
The participant, then, needs to examine if he is discerning the body. What does that mean? Is he to discern that the bread symbolizes the body of Christ? “Remember me” is the repeated instruction. And, as noted, the Corinthians’ behavior revealed their cavalier attitude towards the meal. Possibly. It is odd, though, that the blood is not also mentioned as it is every other time with body. It also seems an odd expression to tell the participant to examine himself, which seems to have more to do with examining his moral behavior.
More to the point would be for him to discern the body of Christ with whom he is observing the sacrament. What did Paul accuse the offenders of doing in verse 22? Despising the church of God and humiliating those who have nothing. In the previous chapter he had taught that the believers make up one body as exemplified in partaking of one loaf (10:17); in the next chapter he will again speak of them as making up one body (12:12). Add to this further, Paul’s closure of the discussion: 33 So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another—34 if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment.
Put it all together. “You Corinthians have been behaving badly at the Lord’s Table. You are treating the brethren who are lower socially as second class citizens of God’s kingdom at the very meal intended to show equality and unity. Evidently, you have lost the significance of the sacrament. Remember what it is about. The bread and cup represent the body and blood of our Lord. The sacrament is the time to remember Christ’s death and the new covenant he made for you. It is the time to acknowledge that he gave himself, body and blood, for us all and unites us together as his body. You each need to examine yourselves and see if you are observing the Supper in a manner befitting what the sacrament is about. You need to recognize the body of Christ composed of your brothers and sisters. If the food is temptation, then eat at home before coming, so that you may properly observe the sacred meal together.”
Paul adds some sobering words:
30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
Perhaps some sort of plague has hit the city of Corinth. Perhaps by “coincidence” a number of the believers have taken ill; some even have died. Whatever the case, Paul is acting as prophet and interpreting the significance of the deaths. They are the Lord’s means of disciplining believers. Note that the judgment serves to both discipline and protect. Their very deaths prevent them from falling into apostasy and being condemned. Furthermore, their deaths serve to warn the rest of the church to repent. “If we judged ourselves truly” – if they would examine themselves honestly, they would avoid their sin and judgment.
This text is a prime example why expository teaching is important – i.e. teaching first and foremost what the scripture text is actually saying. For this passage has too often been interpreted and taught without regard to its context, and thus has led to regulations beyond the intent of scripture, has led to false theology, and, worse of all, either made the sacrament a burden to bear or even frightened Christians away from the table altogether.
You can see how such a passage can lead to such misconceptions. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord…29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. Those are sobering words. Do you want to be guilty?
It is this passage that gives the concept of “fencing the Table.” To fence the table is to figuratively set a fence around the table to prevent unworthy participation. We fence the table in two ways. Often we will print an announcement in the bulletin setting forth guidelines. The pastor administering the sacrament will also say a word at the table, noting that it is for believers only and warning believers not to partake if they are harboring sin and resentment towards other believers.
Some churches will allow only their own members to partake. Some will provide opportunity for visitors to meet with elders who inquire into their Christian testimony. In some periods and places, elders would visit in church members’ homes and inquire into their lives. If the members passed examination, they would be given a token with which they may come to the table.
Let’s consider first this matter of receiving the sacrament in a worthy manner. Note first of all that the issue is not about the kind of person you are, but about your behavior at the table. It is what you do at the table. That was the issue in Corinth.
The typical participant, during the sacrament, thinks this way: “What sins have I committed? I better confess those, so I can have my heart prepared to receive the bread and cup worthily.” He thinks of past sins. Furthermore, he thinks in terms of this sacrament being between him and his Lord alone, so that it becomes incidental that there are others receiving the sacrament at the same time. Certainly, we should examine ourselves for sin. Certainly, we should commune with our Lord on a personal level. But what we really need to examine is our love for those persons around us who are receiving the sacrament as well. Are we showing them respect? Are we demonstrating before the Lord our union in him that this sacrament represents?
We need to understand how important our relations with one another are to our Lord. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23).
The apostle John wrote, If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother (1 John 4:20-21).
The judgment coming upon the Corinth Church is due to the way they are treating each other at the Lord’s Table. Therefore, if you want to eat and drink in a worthy manner, remember that you belong to the Church of God, the Bride of Christ for whom he died and for whom he gave this sacrament. Remember that Christ gave himself to the believers who are here with you, that he gave his body to all his people that they might truly be his body.
That leads us, then, to the matter of discerning the body of Christ. Some have taken this to mean that we are to discern that the bread is literally Christ’s body and the wine his blood. Others believe that, though the elements are not transformed into Christ’s body and blood, nevertheless, they become endowed with a sacredness that transports them to a higher plane, so to speak. Our own Reformed tradition regards the sacrament with great reverence. Listen to the Larger Catechism: “Worthy receivers partaking of the visible elements do also spiritually receive and feed upon Christ crucified and all the benefits of his death. The body and blood of Christ are present to the faith of believers not physically, yet in as real a spiritual sense as the bread and wine are to their physical senses.”
But let us beware of exalting bread above the very Church of Christ. It is for the Church that Christ died; he is the bridegroom of the Church; the Church is his body. And the Church is composed, not of bread, but of people. Listen, your Christian neighbor is a saint, made holy, made righteous in Jesus Christ, who died for him. He does not come second to bread and wine. As important as it is to recognize the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament, all the more important to recognize that your neighbors in the pews are, with you, the body of Christ.
We may be saved individually, but we are saved to become members of the body of Christ of which he is the Head. Together we live for Christ; together we live in Christ. Together we partake of the Lord’s Supper and receive his spiritual blessing. Therefore, at the Table, let us demonstrate that we belong to Christ by the mark he gave us – let us love one another (cf. John13:35).
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