1 Corinthians 11:23-28 New International Version (NIV)
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, 24 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.” 25 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.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
27 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. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup.
We are in week three of a seven-week sermon series on the Schleitheim Confession, the first confession of faith from an Anabaptist perspective. It traces all the way back to February 24, 1527. I thought it would be neat to see when we would finish this sermon series because I knew that it would be coming to an end right around February 24, and do you know what the last Sunday will be when we look at this confession of faith? February…19th. Just five days short of the 485th anniversary of the signing of this confession of faith.
What’s special about the 485th anniversary? Not much. But I wouldn’t be surprised if in 2027 there was a large celebration in the Mennonite Church commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Schleitheim Confession.
We like to celebrate special events, and I believe it is a good thing. Every July 19th, my wife and I celebrate our wedding anniversary. Last Monday we celebrated Paxton’s birthday. Every year, on these specific dates, we do something to remember these important events in our lives.
But this birthday for Paxton wasn’t really a big one. He turned two. It wasn’t his fist birthday, which, if you recall, we made cupcakes for everyone in the congregation to help celebrate. He really isn’t old enough to know what’s going on, so his second birthday was a lot more low-key. Our anniversary this year will be our 9th. I don’t think we will do much for our anniversary this year. The 50th anniversary is the gold anniversary; the 60th is the diamond anniversary. I think the 9th anniversary is the nap anniversary. Just a nap; it would be great if you could get me a nap.
But next year will be our 10th anniversary. Do you know what the traditional gift is for the 10-year anniversary? Tin. That’s right, baby cakes. You’re getting a can for our anniversary! No, I assume we will celebrate in some special way.
We like our celebrations. We mark the years that have gone by since a special day and we celebrate together. July 19th is just one of 365 days on the calendar (or 366 this year). But each year we use this time to remember something special that happened in our lives.
The Bible is full of things intended to help us remember. When the Israelites were ready to cross the Jordan River and enter into the Promised Land after wandering through the wilderness for 40 years, Joshua instructed the people to choose 12 men, one from each of the 12 tribes of Israel, to gather 12 stones. Joshua then stacked the stones where they crossed the river as a memorial to what God had done.
These stones were meant to look out of place. Joshua anticipates that the Israelite children will see these large stones in strange places and they will ask, “What do these stones mean?” And when the children ask, the adults are to tell them the story, the story of how God has been with them.
Another example of rituals in the Bible that are meant to help us remember God’s blessings is something that we as Christians do not celebrate, and that is the Passover meal. The Passover is the event where God passed over the 1st born of each Israelite family and spared their lives before the Israelites were released from captivity in Egypt.
The Passover Meal is complicated. There are 15 parts to the meal, and I am impressed with a three-course meal! In the Passover meal, each part is significant and symbolic. The night begins with the youngest child asking the question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Then follows ritualistic hand washing and symbolic food like the bitter herbs, which reminds the Jewish people of the bitterness of slavery in Egypt and the matzo, or unleavened bread, which is a reminder that they had to leave their homes quickly and didn’t even have time for bread to rise.
You begin to see the importance of rituals and celebration in religion. It is done to help us remember and it is done as a way of teaching of the next generation. But sometimes we get so caught up in these things that we just do them year after year and we don’t give them any thought. This isn’t what God wants. Keep Amos 5:21-24 in mind, “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
Rituals for the sake of rituals aren’t the point. We find the point again in the second part of verse 24 from our scripture for this morning from 1 Corinthians 11, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus gives his disciples a new ritual after the Passover meal that they are to practice as a way of remembering his life, death, and resurrection. And we know that this was continued and passed on to the followers of Jesus in Corinth because they were participating in this ritual.
Paul’s concern in our text is that the Corinthians were not practicing the Lord’s Supper in an appropriate way. It became evident to Paul that this act that was intended as a memorial, as a way to remember Jesus, was being used and abused as a way to separate the rich and powerful from the poor and the weak. The rich and powerful are stuffing themselves with the food and intoxicating themselves with the wine that was meant to be shared in this act intended to remember Jesus. And Paul says to them that what they are practicing isn’t the Lord’s Supper. They aren’t remembering Jesus because if they were remembering Jesus they wouldn’t neglect the needy among them.
So Paul concludes today’s passage with verses 27-28, “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.”
Article III of the Schleitheim Confession says this:
In the breaking of bread we are of one mind and are agreed (as follows): All those who wish to break one bread in remembrance of the broken body of Christ, and all who wish to drink of one drink as a remembrance of the shed blood of Christ, shall be united beforehand by baptism in one body of Christ which is the church of God and whose Head is Christ. For as Paul points out, we cannot at the same time drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of the devil. That is, all those who have fellowship with the dead works of darkness have no part in the light. Therefore all who follow the devil and the world have no part with those who are called unto God out of the world. All who lie in evil have no part in the good.
Therefore it is and must be (thus): Whoever has not been called by one God to one faith, to one baptism, to one Spirit, to one body, with all the children of God’s church, cannot be made (into) one bread with them, as indeed must be done if one is truly to break bread according to the command of Christ.
So, to the first Anabaptists, baptism was a prerequisite for participating in communion or the Lord’s Supper. Again, everyone was baptized in those days as an infant, so what they were saying is that in order to partake in the bread and the cup in an Anabaptist gathering, you needed to have been baptized as an adult. Furthermore, you needed to have separated yourself from “the world,” that is, sinfulness. If you were not baptized as an adult or if you were found to be involved in sin, you were excluded from the table.
I grew up in a congregation that practiced “close communion” and is often incorrectly called “closed communion,” though that descriptor isn’t too far off. Close communion is when communion is only offered to those who are members of a particular congregation or perhaps a denomination. You avoid any awkward situation by serving communion at members-only gatherings held on a weeknight. I never even saw a communion service in this church.
Also in this church, before the communion service the members are given an opportunity to examine themselves, to consider any sins that they might have committed and to seek forgiveness from God and from brothers and sisters that they might have sinned against. That’s biblical and that seems to have been the practice of the early Anabaptists as well. I like this aspect of communion and I believe it is important that we all take time to self-reflect or self-examine. It is a good way to ask yourself how you could be doing better at following Jesus. But it is the close communion that I have a problem with. I do not think it is biblical, and I do not think it is good for the church. I think it misses the point.
Jesus frequently dined with the tax collectors, prostitutes and the sinners. He didn’t do so in order to justify their lifestyle, he did so to validate them as human beings, loved and cared for by God. Jesus’ table was not closed. Even at the Last Supper, when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, gathered around that table were men who would soon be failing Jesus. There were disciples who would fall asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane while they were supposed to be praying. There was Peter who would deny Jesus three times. All of them would scatter and hide when they thought they might be in danger. And there was Judas, who would betray Jesus, handing him over to the Roman soldiers. Baptism is never a prerequisite for communion, and neither is sinless-ness. All that is required to participate in the Lord’s Supper is desire to do so.
This makes me think about a story that seems totally unrelated, but I think I can tie it together. The story that I am thinking of is commonly called the Prodigal Son. A young man embarrasses his family, disgraces his father, and squanders a large amount of money on things that were, shall we say, less than holy. Furthermore, he not only goes against the wishes of his father, he finds a job that would make him ceremonially unclean, feeding pigs. He has gone against family; he has gone against God. And he is left with nothing to show for it. So he decides to go to his father, not looking to be restored to his once privileged position, but just to get a job. He rehearses over and over in his head what he is going to say. He wants to get it just right. He is truly sorry, and all he wants is something, anything, to put in his belly.
Luke 15 tells the story so well. As soon as the father sees the son on the horizon, he drops everything and dashes off to greet the son and welcome him back. The son tries to tell the story that he has rehearsed, “Father, I have sinned…” but he is cut off. The father is too busy hugging and kissing his son, calling out for fine things to welcome him home. The father isn’t any too concerned with what the son has to say. His actions say it all. The son has returned.
The story of the Prodigal Son shapes my understanding of communion. You don’t have to go through years, days, hours, or even minutes of confession. You don’t have to prove yourself to be worthy, because none of us are worthy. The simple act of coming to the table says that you want to be made right with the Father again. And the Father was right there ready for you. You don’t have to say a word, your coming says enough.
So what is Paul talking about when he says that anyone that drinks or eats these elements in an unworthy manner sins against the body and blood of Christ? Well, let’s first ask the question, Who is worthy to drink the cup and eat the bread? Nobody. All have sinned and fallen short. You’re not worthy, I’m not worthy, nobody is worthy.
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. All people are unworthy. What Paul is critiquing is the way that they are participating in communion. Anyone who participates in a way that is inconsistent with the very person who instituted this practice is doing so in an unworthy manner. 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. And I would argue that close communion, based on the teachings of Paul, is not the Lord’s Supper. Jesus’ table was always open to anyone, who like the Prodigal, made the decision to come.
When we practice communion at Staunton Mennonite, I am very particular about my words. I say something like “If you consider yourself to be a follower of Jesus, you are welcome to participate.” Baptized or unbaptized, sinner or saint, you are welcome.
We also offer grapes and crackers for anyone that has not made the decision to follow Jesus. The grapes are a sign of the early stages of the juice or wine. I believe that offering these items says that even though you may not fully consider yourself to be a follower of Jesus, there is a place for you here.
And something that close communion seems to forget is an aspect of these religious rituals that is so important: This is meant to not only be a time of remembering, it is meant to be a time of teaching. Children must be present for communion; they must see this strange act of people drinking out of little cups and nibbling on bite-sized pieces of bread so that on the ride home after church, they can turn to their parents and ask, “What does this bread mean?” The table is open to everyone who wants to follow Jesus.
Whether or not you participate in the Lord’s Supper is not to be decided by what you have done, it has been decided by what Jesus has done. It is to be decided by whom you will follow. Do this in remembrance of Him.