Today we started our new summer series called Loose Ends, which works to “make sense of the verses we skip”. Since we shared communion together this week, we focused on a strange verse related to communion — 1 Corinthians 11:27-32.
Today we started a new series called Loose Ends, which works to “make sense of the verses we skip.” We will look at troubling verses in the Bible that most of us gloss over. Since we are taking Communion this week, we are going to focus on a verse related to communion that is just weird: 1 Corinthians 11:27-32.
“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. 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.”
The first thing to keep in mind when you come upon something strange in the Bible, is to not pretend it’s not as weird as it is. God can take it, we can start from a place of admitting that it looks crazy. And this verse certainly does! On the surface of it, it looks like Paul is saying (and indeed some churches teach) that if we take communion when we are not worthy, it could bring judgment upon us, making us sick or even kill us! If true, this would certainly be a shocking thing! We’ve been taking communion all this time and little did we realize that each time we have been risking our lives! Are you willing to bet your very life that you are worthy enough to take the Lord’s supper?! Surely most of us have taken communion at times that we were unworthy, and we have not died yet. If this verse was really saying what it sounds like, you’d think it would be a common thing that you would hear about all the time!
And a bigger question this brings up is what even counts as being worthy? There are a million things that you could include but there is no checklist and no clear definition (probably a good thing otherwise this would start to look a lot like trying to earn one’s salvation). With or without a list, this reading makes church sound like a holy club of “worthy” people (all of the people that haven’t died from taking communion). And if church was just a big holy club of worthy people, Greg would be the first one to opt out, wouldn’t you? As we know to do when we run across a strange verse that we don’t know what to do with, we should zoom out and look at the context. A few verses back in verse 17 is when Paul first starts talking about this.
1 Corinthians 11:17-22: “In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 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!”
He’s noticing here that groups tend to serve to make people better or worse. They amplify the characteristics of the individuals in the group. And church should make you better as a person. But we know from reading other areas of Paul’s letters, this church in Corinth had a LOT of issues. They turned gifts of spirit into a contest. One guy was sleeping with his mother in law and the people around him were more or less justifying it by bragging about how much grace they therefore had. They slept with prostitutes, they were unforgiving and suing each other a lot, and, as we see here, some people drank so much wine at the Lord’s supper they get drunk while others went hungry. (Unlike how we do communion today, people probably treated the Lord’s supper more like a potluck, where all brought the bread and wine along with them, the rich bringing more, and then naturally separated into “cliques” where the rich would all hang together and eat & drink everything they brought, not sharing. So if the poor couldn’t bring any with them, they would have gone hungry.)
The Lord’s supper is the sign of the covenant. It’s supposed to proclaim and remember the lord’s death until he returns. It has to be about what he was about, including generosity. So if you are hoarding the lord’s supper for yourself, you are really missing the point of the covenant! In 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 Paul reminds them what Jesus says about purpose of communion. And then he follows that by saying they should examine themselves and only then take communion. When he talks about worthiness, he is talking about something not matching the value of something else — in this case, it’s the worth of the lord’s supper that is being diminished, not the individual. He is saying, are you reflecting the worth of the lord’s death in the way that you take his supper? As a group, as a body/community are you celebrating the lord’s supper in a way that is worthy of him?
In fact, the very LAST question we should be asking ourselves during communion is if we personally are worthy. Because guess what: we’re not! If we were already worthy we wouldn’t need a savior! We take communion because we want to praise the one that IS worthy. He died for us when we were not worthy. He makes us righteous when we were sinners. Serving God who is faithful even when we were not faithful. The one who ascribes unsurpassable worth onto us even when we do not deserve it. HE is our righteousness, he is our faithfulness, and HE is our worthiness. It’s not about us, it’s about him. Everything we are before God we are because of him.
So if you are someone that is always asking yourself if you are worthy anyway (even before this verse) and if are your own worst critic, the personal-worthiness reading of this verse is a labyrinth of darkness that you need to avoid. That kind of intense self-criticism is bondage, self-orientation (even though it’s critical, it’s still obsessing about yourself) and condemnation. It’s one thing to ask the Holy Spirit to show you your sin, that can be healthy. But it’s another thing to wallow in it and always be obsessing about it, especially if it distances you from God.
If obsessive self-criticism sounds like you, you need to be set free! You need to break that self-focused mirror and instead focus on Jesus Christ and his beauty. Realize that your flaws mean nothing because he loves you anyway. You have to opt out of that. That’s the old game, the new game is who you are in Christ Jesus. Be free of your fear of the accuser and judgment. Be motivated by his love. In 1 Corinthians 4:3-5 Paul says “I don’t even judge myself.” If you know what God thinks of you, that is the only opinion that counts. This is why he says in 1 Corinthians 2:2 “I resolve to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
In light of this, there are a few things to say about where Paul says “many of you are weak or ill” —
1) this is the only passage in the Bible that says anything remotely like this about communion. When there is an oddball verse that is unlike all the others, the best advice is don’t base a doctrine on it. Treat it as a standalone thing.
2) It’s clear that Paul felt there was some kind of judgment going on, but it was for this particular community. It was situational, not a statement about all followers around the world for all time.
3) If the sickness or illness the Corinthians experienced was a result of God’s judgment, that doesn’t mean God was the one that was making them sick. On the cross Jesus suffered a violent judgment but God did not lift a finger to do it, he simply withdrew his protection so Jesus could take place of sinners. God withdraws protections when we sin, this is how he “judges”. Like in 1 Corinthians 5:5 when Paul says turn him over for destruction, this is how we are to respond to sin — we are to withdraw protection, the way God does. So he is saying something similar about the church as a whole, God is turning them over to their sin and allowing natural consequences to take place (since illness or death could result from both too much drink as well as too little food).
The point of communion is not “are we worthy”, it’s not about us at all, but taking our communion as a community in a way that reflects the worth of Jesus and our covenant with him. Remember the price that was paid for your freedom from self-judgment!
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