1 Corinthians 11:27-33
27Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. 28Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. 30For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. 32But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. 33So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. 34If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come.
As a pastor, it is important to be able to remember names. I read this week about a pastor’s spouse that found this task a little difficult. A new couple was coming to the church, and she decided that she could remember their names because they were the same as a couple from a popular children’s story.
After the service, the pastor’s spouse was saying goodbye to the couple and she said, “Now you be careful going up that hill, but I bet you get that all the time.” The couple just smiled and left quietly.
Later, the pastor asked her what that was all about. “Jack and Jill went up the hill… You know!”
“Sure,” said the pastor, “but what does that have to do with Dick and Jane?”
Remembering is important. We need to remember to pay our bills, take our vitamins, and send birthday cards to our relatives. And if you are like me, you probably find it a lot easier to remember something if you have a bit of a reminder.
Now I don’t wish to diminish the significance of the Lord’s Supper, or Communion, but it is indeed a reminder of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Jesus gave the words of institution to his disciples at the Last Supper, he told them, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Later in the service this morning we will be partaking in this act of remembrance. As I was preparing for this sermon, I found that there are a lot of stories circulating on the internet about people that are “afraid” to take communion in their church. They are afraid because of what Paul has to say in this passage of scripture. Just look at the first three verses from our scripture this morning, “27Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. 28Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”
In an email that I sent out earlier in the week, I encouraged us all to “examine ourselves” so that we do not take the bread and the cup in an unworthy manner. As I read storied of people who were afraid to take communion, they kept coming back to this passage because they were not sure if they were worthy of participating because of they were not perfect. They had impure thoughts, maybe they told a lie or two. And then you get to verse 29 and it says that all who eat and drink without discerning the body will eat and drink judgment against themselves. If you look at that in the KJV, it says that they eat and drink damnation upon themselves! I would be afraid to take communion as well!
Okay, so if you can’t take communion if you are a sinner, who then can take communion? Not I. Now I do believe that there is some merit to taking time to reflect on your relationship with God and with your fellow human beings before you take communion. This story is a little different, but Jesus tells us in his Sermon on the Mount, that if you are making a sacrifice and you remember that there is something between you and a brother or sister, you are to leave your sacrifice there on the altar and go and make things right. Worshipping God while fighting with your neighbor is not pleasing to God. So yes, make sure things are good between you and God and your neighbor before taking communion. Make sure that things are good between you and God and your neighbor often, regardless of when you partake of the bread and cup! But that is really not what this passage is saying when Paul is talking about participating in the Lord’s Supper in an inappropriate or unworthy manner.
One of the problems with our modern Bibles is that we cut them up into short sections (Because we in the 21st century have very short attention spans?). In its original form, the Bible was not broken up into chapters and verses. It wasn’t until the early 13th century that the Bible was broken up into chapters and verses so that people could use these chapters and verses when they wanted to refer to them. Think about it, when Jesus quotes the Hebrew Bible, he never says, “Isaiah 61 verses 1 and 2 tell us, ‘The Sprit of the Lord is upon me…’” Luke’s Gospel simply tells us that he read from the scroll of Isaiah where it says…
I am thankful for the chapter and verse references in our Bibles. They help a lot. Also helpful are the little subheadings found in our Bibles that I believe are put there by the publishers of our Bibles. That is why they are different from Bible to Bible. Chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians in my Bible (NRSV) has four subheadings: Head Coverings, Abuses at the Lord’s Supper, The Institution of the Lord’s Supper, and Partaking of the Supper Unworthily.
As I said, these subheadings are helpful for us to get a bit of an understanding of what each section is talking about. This is very helpful when you are skimming the Bible, trying to find a specific verse. “Where is the section in the Bible about the sheep and the goats?”
But these subheadings also provide a stumbling block to understanding the scriptures. Just like today, I asked the worship leader to begin reading our text at verse 27. But if you really want to understand what Paul is saying, you need to go back another 10 verses to verse 17. If you want to understand a Bible verse, you need to read it in its original context. In fact, I would say that in order to understand a Bible verse, you need to read it in context of the entire Bible. A fun phrase that helps us to remember this is, “A text without a context is a pretext.” (Dictionary.com defines a pretext as “something that is put forward to conceal a true purpose or object.”) So we need to go back to verse 17 to understand what Paul is talking about when he says that anyone that eats or drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment upon themselves, which I will get to after a brief illustration.
This story reminds me of when I was in High School. I went to a small school of about 400 students. Our lunch periods were not divided by class, meaning that freshman ate at the same time as the seniors. My freshman year I remember very clearly the seniors, who seemed much bigger at the time, always cutting in line. There was no written rule, but it seemed like we were destined to eat according to our class year at the school.
I have never been one to make a fuss about things, so I always just kind of let this go. But it would really bother me on my favorite day of the week, which was pizza day. School lunches cost $1.25 and you could purchase an extra helping of the main course for $.75. So for $2.00, you could eat pretty well.
So these seniors would cut in line with their $2.00 in hand and purchase an extra piece of pizza. Then when the lowly freshman got to the front of the line, we got whatever was left. And I remember that my school had a frequent menu option known as “Whatizit on a bun”. I always thought that name was peculiar because if those cooking it didn’t know what it was, there was no way that I would be able to figure it out! No, this was actually their way of using up whatever breaded meat product was left over at the end of the week. So you didn’t know if you were getting pork, chicken, fish, or beef.
I saw this as an injustice! The seniors got an extra portion of the prized food and the freshman got whatizit on a bun. And as I thought about this experience from my youth, I thought of two ways that this injustice could have been made even worse. The first would be if there was no food left at all for the freshman, if we didn’t even get the whatizit on a bun. The second was if this practice was being carried out by people who are claiming to be following Christ.
Verses 17-22 tell the story of how those in the Corinthian church have been practicing the Lord’s Supper. In the early church (and in some churches today), the Lord’s Supper was not just a bite of a cracker and a thimble of grape juice. They would bring food together at an agreed upon location, and they would sit and eat together. This shared meal was held frequently in remembrance of Jesus.
However, Paul says that there was division among the people; division likely along the socio-economical lines. The rich people would bring the most food and drink and therefore they thought that this meant that they got to eat and drink more than those that were not able to bring as much. Paul’s argument was that in enforcing these socio-economic divisions within the church, the people were not really observing the Lord’s Supper. They weren’t observing the Lord’s Supper because they were not doing this as a way of remembering Christ. To remember Christ wasn’t just to look back and reminisce. To remember Christ means to live as he lived.
Paul then goes on to tell the church at Corinth the origins of the Lord’s Supper. And this passage from 1 Corinthians is believed to be one of if not the oldest recording of the original Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians would have been written before the Gospel accounts). Paul says twice that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper as a way of remembering him.
It does not matter to me what you believe about the Lord’s Supper. You may believe that Jesus is physically present in the bread and cup, you might believe that he is spiritually present, or symbolically present. You might believe that the sharing of the elements is the administration of the grace of God. Regardless of what your theology of the Lord’s Supper is, you cannot deny that Paul understood this practice as something that was to be done by the followers of Jesus as a way of remember who Christ was and what he accomplished.
So what Paul is saying here is something like this. “Are you really remembering our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who came preaching the Good News to the poor and marginalized when you continue to enforce the boundaries between the rich and the poor? Are you truly remembering Jesus and the sacrifice that he made, laying down his own body so that we might truly have life when you are not willing to sacrifice a little bread and wine for your brothers and sisters in need?”
This is what Paul means by eating and drinking in an unworthy manner. All of this talk about eating and drinking in an unworthy manner is sandwiched within this conversation about making sure that there is enough for everyone. Just look at verses 33 and 34 and it is clear. Paul begins by talking about not sharing with those in need and he ends with not sharing with those in need.
I recently read that the Greek word that we translate as unworthily (anaxious) is an adverb, not an adjective. This means that it is describing an action, not a person. Who is unworthy to take communion? Everyone, because nobody has earned that privilege. We are giving that privilege. Who takes communion in an inappropriate way? Anyone who does so in a way that is inconsistent with the very person who instituted this practice. If you take communion in a way that does not celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, they you are doing so in an unworthy manner.
The rest of our text makes better sense in this context. Verse 29 tells us, “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” What does it mean to discern the body? Well Paul often uses the phrase “the body” or “the body of Christ” to refer to the church, which is people, not a building. So all who eat and drink without first thinking about the rest of the people in church are eating and drinking judgment upon themselves because God and everyone else can see that they are clearly not remembering Christ in this.
Verse 30 tells us that for this reason many are weak and ill and that some have even died. I always assumed that this was talking about those that were taking communion in an unworthy way; that God was punishing them by making them weak or sick or even taking their lives. But maybe, just maybe Paul is saying that it is the poor, the needy, and the hungry that have gotten weak, ill, and died because the rich have not shared with them. Remember what Paul says in verse 21, some are getting stuffed with food and drunk on wine while others go hungry. Maybe, just maybe, eating and drinking in an unworthy way is what we as Christians do when we splurge knowing very well that there are others in need. Maybe Paul is saying, “Don’t claim to do this in remembrance of Christ if you aren’t willing to follow him and give of your abundance.”
That need is very clear to all of us this week. At about 5:14 on Tuesday, the 12 of Januar7, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 hit one of the poorest nations in the western hemisphere. Early estimates coming out of Haiti were that over 100,000 people were dead and over 3 million people affected by the earthquake, either dead, injured, or homeless (CNN.com).
We have seen the pictures and heard the stories. And we can ask questions all day long as to why God would allow these things to happen. Believe me, I want to know the answer to that question. But perhaps the more helpful question for us today needs to be, “How are we as followers of Jesus Christ to respond to such an enormous tragedy?”
A wise man once said, “For true evangelical faith…cannot lay dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it…clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it.” (Menno Simons, 1539). My intention is not to try to guilt you into giving money to Haiti today. But I am going to remind you that as we remember Christ through the Lord’s Supper, that we cannot do this in remembrance of him if we do not remember his teachings in the way we live.
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has already designated $1,000,000 for relief efforts in Haiti. I strongly encourage you that if you feel called to give, consider giving through MCC. I am a big supporter of MCC, not because it is a Mennonite organization, but because it is a good organization. MCC has some of the lowest overhead costs (between 15-18%) among non-profit organizations. This means that of every dollar that you give to MCC, 85 cents of that dollar is sent to help those in need. We can also assemble relief kits that will go to those that need essential items like soap, towels, and blankets. My friends, we don’t have to give to MCC, but I don’t think that we can just sit back and do nothing and say that we are remembering Christ today. (Check out the website for the American Institute of Philanthropy www.charitywatch.org for a rating of nonprofits.)
Let us examine ourselves today as we remember the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. Is our life a testimony to the life of Jesus Christ? Is this practice consistent with who Jesus has called us to be? May it be so.