Funny, isn’t it, how you can read a scripture many times and still miss something obvious? It even happens to pastors who have many years of experience.
I belong to our local ministerial association. A regular part of our monthly meeting is a short devotional given by one of the members. At a recent meeting it was the turn of Chuck Clayton, the supervising pastor at one of the local churches. He said he had been thinking recently about 1 Corinthians 11, starting in verse 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, 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.
Well, yes. We all knew those verses. It is standard fare for a communion service. Our individual churches might have different methods of taking communion, but we all agreed on this basic understanding. “So,” Chuck said, “let’s read on.”
Therefore, 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. People ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.
“How do you explain that?” he asked.
It seems obvious. Before taking the Lord’s Supper, you examine yourself to see if you are worthy. Such an examination emphasizes the seriousness of the ceremony.
Or does it? Does this verse, if not explained properly and in context, actually undermine the significance of communion? What kind of examination should it be? Who sets the questions? Who grades it? Who decides what is a passing or failing mark? Are you in serious danger of damnation if you “fail” but decide to take communion anyway?
I could see by the expressions of my colleagues that I was not the only one with some legalism in my background. “So what does it mean?” asked Chuck, and then explained it in a way I had not thought of before. After the meeting I told him, “I found that really helpful. I know many people who might need it. Do you mind if I plagiarize it?”
“Go ahead,” he said. So I have.
When we put the emphasis on examining ourselves, we can shift the focus away from the purpose of what Jesus asked us to do. An examination would inevitably concentrate on our sins and failings — on what we have done or not done. As a pastor, I would feel it my duty to remind my flock that they are sinners, that it was because of their sins that Jesus came to die, etc.
After such sermons, I would always have to reassure some impressionable people who were now convinced that they were “not worthy.” Sometimes I would have to talk them into accepting the symbols of Christ’s broken body and shed blood. They would do so hesitantly, with a, “Well, if you think it is okay. I’ll really try harder in the future, I really will.” I could imagine them timidly nibbling at the bread and sipping the wine with trepidation, deeply aware of their own unworthiness, knowing from experience that their promises to “do better” were hollow.
I have seen ministers hold the microphone so it would amplify the sound of breaking bread. The congregation was encouraged to imagine the crack of the scourge and the pounding of nails into Jesus’ flesh and bones. We wanted to drive home the point. But actually we were missing it.
Jesus did not say, “Do this in remembrance of what you have done.” Or even, “Do this in remembrance of what you did to me.” He asked us to do it in remembrance of what he did for us. Paul mentions Jesus’ request twice — “do this in remembrance of me.” Taking the bread and wine is our recalling of something about Jesus’ love for his body, the church. It is a proclamation until he comes, not about our unworthiness, but about the Lord’s death on our behalf, which makes us reconciled to God. That is the proclamation of the Lord’s death.
Jesus paid the penalty for our sins and became our righteousness so that we can enjoy a guilt-free, positive and constructive relationship with God. He changed everything. He didn’t just die — he was also resurrected. So when we come together to take the symbols of that sacrifice, we do it not in remembrance of our past, but of all that Jesus is for all who trust in him.
I like the way Eugene Petersen renders these verses in The Message Bible.
What you must solemnly realize is that every time you eat this bread and every time you drink this cup, you reenact in your words and actions the death of the Master. You will be drawn back to this meal again and again until the Master returns. You must never let familiarity breed contempt.
Anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Master irreverently is like part of the crowd that jeered and spit on him at his death. Is that the kind of “remembrance” you want to be part of? Examine your motives, test your heart, come to this meal in holy awe.
Before we take the bread and wine, it is worth pausing for a moment to remind ourselves of the wonderful situation Jesus has made possible. But such an examination is not a “do or die” nail-biting test before cautiously going ahead, hoping you are okay. It is a positive and confident proclamation of your status as a forgiven and blessed believer on the road to immortal life. The purpose of the Lord’s death and resurrection was to once and for all open up to us a new and guilt-free relationship with God. Communion is not intended to focus on what you were but on who God has made you to be in Christ.