Preparing for the Lord's Supper
1 Corinthians 11:17-34 contains Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth concerning correct and incorrect practice of the Lord’s Supper (i.e. Communion). Ever since Jesus Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23) on the evening before his arrest and subsequent crucifixion, the practice has remained a repeated staple of Christian worship across ecclesial lines, even though historical debates have often raged concerning Christ’s presence in the supper. At Spruce Creek we partake of communion once per month. Although some churches do so more frequently and others less frequently, in theological parlance the issue of frequency is known as a ‘circumstance’ of corporate worship (i.e. an issue of preference) because no instructions on frequency are given to us in scripture. Thus this issue is left to the discretion of the session. Nevertheless, when we do partake of the Lord’s Supper it’s important to know what exactly we’re doing and what the grounds for participation are.
1 Corinthians 11:17-34 & The Lord’s Supper
In the Biblical passage referenced above (1 Cor. 11:17-34) the Apostle Paul, the author of 1 Corinthians, begins by admonishing the church in Corinth for exacerbating divisions within the church (11:17-22). Directly in view are divisions that were propagated between the rich and poor. The problem Paul raises is as follows: when the church gathered in homes, as was the customary meeting place, the wealthier were afforded greater prominence than the poor. One way this division manifested itself was in the physical arrangement at the Supper. The rich were offered a place in the dining room, whereas the poor within the covenant community were forced to sit outside the dining room in the atrium. Such divisions, Paul tells us, have no place in the church and they even undermine the gospel!
Given the abuse of the Lord’s Supper, Paul transitions to remind the church of the Supper’s foundation and purpose by fixing his readers upon Jesus’ words of institution at the last supper. In short, this is the feast of the covenant community wherein we feast on Christ. During the protestant reformation one of the chief dividing lines concerned the presence of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper; how exactly do we feast on Christ? In reference to the bread Jesus says, “This is my body” (11:24) and in reference to the cup (i.e. wine) Jesus says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (11:25). One the one hand, Martin Luther believed that while the elements did not transform into the actual body and blood of Christ, Christ’s body and blood were somehow present in, with, or under the elements. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli believed the elements served little more than a memorial to remind us of Christ’s sacrifice. However, the reformed view, which is the position this church assumes, is more of a middle road between these two reformation views. We believe that Christ is really present through his spirit and we partake through the mouth of faith. Thus, Christ is really present in the supper but rather than feeding upon him physically (e.g. Roman Catholic view), we feed upon him spiritually through the mouth of faith.
When we take the bread we are reminded of Christ’s sacrificial and atoning death on behalf of his people. We are reminded that Christ bore the full weight of our sins, and we rejoice that we are considered righteous because of the righteousness of Christ imputed (i.e. attributed) to us. And when we partake of the grape juice, we are reminded of Christ’s blood that inaugurated the new covenant (cf. Jer. 31:31-34). When we take the grape juice we are assured that because of the precious blood of Christ, we will one day feast with our Lord in paradise. Thus, in our eating and drinking the bread and grape juice we are announcing the gospel to the world and proclaiming our union with Christ.
The Heidelberg Catechism captures this picture well in Q&A 75. The catechism asks, “How does the holy supper remind and assure you that you share in Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross and in all his benefits?” It answers in this way:
Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat this broken bread and to drink this cup in remembrance of him. With this command come these promises: First, as surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup shared with me, so surely his body was offered and broken for me and his blood poured out for me on the cross. Second, as surely as I receive from the hand of the one who serves, and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, given me as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely he nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with his crucified body and poured-out blood.
Finally, after reorienting his readers to the Lord’s Supper Paul provides brief instructions for how one should partake. Lest we partake “in an unworthy manner” he exhorts, “Let a person examine himself” (11:28) and implicitly calls his readers to “discern the body” (11:29). There are both vertical and horizontal dimensions to this preparatory calling. On the one hand, Paul calls his readers to examine themselves according to how they are presently relating within the covenant community. Any socioeconomic division within the covenant community has no place and the call to examine oneself and to discern the body are intended to eschew this division, among others. At the same time this is a call to examine oneself in relation to the covenant community, at its foundation, this is a call to examine oneself in relation to the person of Christ. When we meet for the Lord’s Supper as a church, we are partaking in the body and blood of Christ. Thus, even though the immediate issue in Corinth were horizontal divisions – divisions among the body – the root issue is vertical. New Testament scholar Gordon Fee writes, “…such an abuse of the “body” [(i.e. the church)] is an abuse of Christ himself.” The church was ultimately failing to “Do this in remembrance of me” (11:24); they were failing to take stock of what the meal truly represents. In this way the church was being called to renewal in the gospel through repentance and faith.
Because we are one body in Christ, we are called to consider both our vertical relationship and horizontal relationships before we partake in the supper (1 Cor. 11:28-29). However, the command to ‘examine oneself’ (11:28) has often led people down the road of endless introspection. While it’s wise to know ourselves, the idea of cataloguing and grading our sins to determine whether or not we should partake is far from Paul’s goal. Once again the Heidelberg Catechism helps us by answering the question, “Who should come to the Lord s Table?” It answers as follows:
Those who are displeased with themselves because of their sins, but who nevertheless trust that their sins are pardoned and that their remaining weakness is covered by the suffering and death of Christ, and who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and to lead a better life. Hypocrites and those who are unrepentant, however, eat and drink judgment on themselves.
If you are a believer in Christ we invite you to come to the table, and as you prepare to partake the following questions are worth considering as a way of ‘examining yourself’ prior to the Lord’s Supper:
- Do I understand what the Gospel is objectively (i.e. what scripture says about the good news concerning Jesus Christ) and what it means for me, (i.e. not only the objective ‘facts,’ but why it is good news for me)?
- What sins and idols of the heart (e.g. comfort, control, power, etc.) do I need to repent from? In other words, are there any areas of my life where I am ‘lord’ rather than Christ?
- Is there anyone in the church I need to ask for forgiveness?
- Is there anyone I need to forgive?
Because this is a feast that signifies our union with Christ, it is a feast for believers in Christ. This is why we ask that if you are not yet ready to embrace Jesus Christ as he is freely offered to us in the gospel, we respectfully ask that you refrain from partaking of this feast. But if you have become keenly aware of your sin and your need for the grace of Jesus Christ, this is the work of God who is calling you to embrace Jesus Christ. Why not take the next step and embrace Jesus Christ as your Lord? Receiving Christ as Lord simply requires repentance and faith. Repentance is a turning from sin and self-trust. And faith is trusting in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. If you’re not sure what exactly to do, we invite you to begin by praying the prayer below. But this isn’t some incantation or magical charm. Rather, this prayer is simply an outline that we invite you to make your own if indeed God is prompting you. Being a Christian involves a lifestyle of repentance and faith. Furthermore, being a Christian means that you live your life in the context of the Christian community, which involves finding a church home. Please let us know after the service if this is a commitment you are taking. The pastoral staff and elders would be more than happy to walk alongside you in this journey.
Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner. I need your forgiveness. Thank you for living a sinless life and dying a sinner’s death on the cross for my sins. I now turn from my sinfulness and self-trust, and I place my trust in You alone for the forgiveness of my sins and the free gift of eternal life. I now receive you as my Risen Lord and Savior. Thank You for taking my sins upon yourself and giving me the gift of Your righteousness through faith. Take control of my life and make me the kind of person You want me to be.