1 Corinthians 11:17-29New International Version (NIV)
17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 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. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 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. 22 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!
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. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.
We are in the third week of an indefinite-in-length sermon series that I am calling “Rituals, Rites, and Holy Days” where we explore the reoccurring practices and holidays of the church that we tend to celebrate but not always take time to understand. We have already considered Passover and baptism; today we look at Communion…or maybe we will look at the Lord’s Supper. No, no I mean that today we will be looking at the Eucharist. That’s it, the Eucharist.
In the Mennonite Church we often call this ritual Communion, and there is a reason for that, which I’ll get to shortly. Today I want to consider why we call it what we call it, how we practice it, and what this ritual means (spoiler alert: not everyone agrees!).
Our scripture for this morning is one of the first places that we find the phrase “Lord’s Supper” used to refer to the celebratory meal that Jesus initiated the night before his crucifixion. And if you haven’t picked up on this yet, Paul isn’t really excited about how the Corinthians are practicing this meal. In Verse 20 he writes, “So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat.” It might be a supper, or dinner, or whatever you like to call your evening meal. But what the Corinthians are doing isn’t the Lord’s Supper. We will get into why in a few minutes, but notice that Paul is either the one who coined the phrase “Lord’s Supper” or he is borrowing it from some other source without giving appropriate credit. And this is why we sometimes call it the Lord’s Supper today.
That was an easy one, but what’s with the name “Eucharist?” This word comes from the Greek eucharista, which simply means “thanksgiving.” Nowhere in the Bible is the Lord’s Supper called the Eucharist, but there are plenty of times when the word eucharista is used to describe the Lord’s Supper. In our scripture for this morning we find this in verses 23b-24, “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.’”
The word translated as “thanks” is a form of eucharista. You may also notice that in the middle of eucharista is the Greek word “charis,” which is the word we translate as grace. When you give thanks, you are showing appreciation for grace, for a gift from God. And this is why we sometimes call a prayer a mealtime “Saying grace.” The first known written usage of the word Eucharist to describe the Lord’s Supper was in the late 1st century document known as the Didache, so like the phrase Lord’s Supper, this one goes way back.
Now what about Communion? Where do we get this name from? In the chapter just before our scripture for this morning, we find this: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16)
This one can throw us a bit. The word that is translated as thanksgiving here is eulogia, which means words of praise, and it is the word we get eulogy—like at a funeral—from. The word I want to look at is the one that is translated as “participation” in the NIV. That word has the base “koinonia,” which means community. Communion is the act of sharing something, thoughts, feelings, or possessions. Communion and community are different forms of the same word and same concept. When we participate in Communion, we are a community founded in the blood and body of Christ.
There are several other names given to this practice as well, but out of these three big ones, which is right? Should we call it the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, or Communion? I think all are appropriate! Call it what you want, just don’t call me late for supper…the Lord’s Supper, that is.
Where we often run into disagreements is when we ask questions about how to observe Communion and what this event means. This is important stuff, and you are very welcome to disagree with me here. But trust that I’ve come to my opinion on the matter through study, prayer, and personal experiences, and I’ll trust you have as well.
There are obviously a lot of difference in how we observe the Lord’s Supper. How often? Who’s invited? What do we serve? How do we do it? All of these things are debatable, and though I have my own opinions, I’m very flexible on some of these concerns.
How often? It used to be that Mennonite churches held Communion services once a year. Today it is more common that we do it quarterly. Some want to see it done more, others less. There is always the argument that if we do it too much, it will lose meaning, that we are just going through the motions. Others see Communion as the highlight of the service and something that we should do more. I personally think that the sermon is the highlight, but that’s just me J. The Bible never says how often to observe Communion, just that we are to observe Communion.
Who is invited? Some churches practice what is called “Close Communion,” which means that only members of the church can participate. It is “close” because the community is to be close. Sometimes this is called “Closed Communion” by people who don’t practice Close Communion. Closed Communion has more of a negative connotation to it.
I grew up in a church that practiced Close Communion. The service was held once each year at a special worship gathering. I never joined that church, so I never even saw a Communion service until I was in my early 20’s.
Some churches make an announcement that all baptized believers are welcome to participate. I usually invite those who consider themselves to be followers of Jesus to the table. In my mind, this is a part of the self-examination process, which we will address shortly. We are never told to examine one another! Then there are always questions about whether a visitor can take communion. This is awkward, I know. I’ve been on both sides of the Communion table! So I always try to be clear: Christians are welcome.
What do we serve? I usually go with an artisanal bread because it looks nice on the table and grape juice. Some people demand that the bread be unleavened bread, bread made without yeast, because that’s what Jesus would have used. I find it odd that those people also don’t find it necessary to use real fermented wine. And if you need to be as accurate as possible to the original, Jesus probably used a common cup and passed it around for everyone to have a sip. There are also stories of churches serving Pepsi and potato chips for Communion because that would be a modern equivalent to what Jesus served.
I personally think that Jesus is mostly interested in the fact that we do observe Communion, and less interest in what we serve. My concern is that we try to be aware of the needs of the congregation. If there are people who are opposed to using real wine, or if there are people who are recovering alcoholics, use grape juice. If there are gluten-intolerant people in your church, serve gluten-free bread.
And how do we do it? Do we share a common cup, passing the chalice around to the entire group? That’s a good way to spread germs, which I’m told is actually less of an issue if you use real wine because the alcohol kills bacteria. Some people like the little cups and a personal wafer. I usually serve Communion by allowing you to tear off a piece of bread and dunk in in the cup, a method that is called “intinction.”
I personally would chose against the common cup, even if it is the most accurate. The little cups are convenient, unless you are the one trying to fill and then clean each little cup. And how many should you prepare? I use intinction because it is the easiest to prepare and clean up.
Finally, what does Communion mean? Like everything else in this sermon series, Communion is symbolic, but symbolic of what? I tend to take the “more the merrier” approach, so I have a list of about 5-6 things that Communion means, and you could probably convince me to add a few more as well.
Communion is an act of remembrance. In our passage for today, Jesus repeats a certain line after each element of Communion is introduced: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus was about to give up his life on the cross, which would understandably change the way that he would relate to his disciples in the future. So he gave them a ritual to repeat. Every time you eat this bread and drink from this cup, do this in remembrance of me. Remember my teachings, remember my sacrifice, remember my promises for the future.
If you recall, the first Sunday of this series we talked about Passover and we specifically looked at the Pesach Seder. The Seder is a meal that the Israelites were to eat every year as a reminder of how God brought them out of slavery in Egypt. This is the meal that Jesus and his disciples were celebrating in the Upper Room the night he was to be betrayed. Jesus takes this meal of remembrance and tags onto it a new meaning. Yes, eat the lamb and the bitter herbs in remembrance of the Passover. But do this in remembrance of me, your Passover lamb. Much as the Israelites were saved by the blood of a lamb, the Church is saved by the blood of the Lamb.
This is also an act of proclamation. Paul writes in verse 26, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” I’m not sure to whom you are proclaiming the Lord’s death, but at the very least we are proclaiming it to one another. Every time we participate in Communion, we retell the story, and we reenact the story. “On the night when Christ was to be betrayed and handed over to the authorities…” It is an act for us to remember the death of Jesus.
And in some ways Communion is a way to proclaim the Lord’s death to people outside the church. In the early years of Christianity, the Christians were accused of being cannibals because they talked about eating the body and drinking the blood of their leader. Bunch of weirdos! If that doesn’t scare people away, it would surely make a great conversation starter.
I think that this is a good critique of Close Communion done in a members’ only meeting. As I said, I didn’t even see a Communion service growing up, so how was I to even know that I should be asking questions? Communion is an act of proclamation.
The Lord’s Supper is a time for Fellowship and Unity. If we look at today’s passage, the entire pericope is set up as a critique of how the church is breaking into groups based on social status when they observe the Lord’s Supper. The rich eat first, and they eat the most. Sometimes those who are poor go home hungry while the rich get their fill. This is what prompts Paul to say in verse 20, “So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat.”
Call it what you want, but that ain’t the Lord’s Supper. When there is disunity, it isn’t the Lord’s Supper. When one group is elevated above another, that isn’t the Lord’s Supper. That isn’t a healthy fellowship, that isn’t full communion, there is not unity, and it isn’t the Lord’s Supper.
We’ve talked about this being a time of Thanksgiving, so let’s move on to Expectation. And let’s look again at verse 26, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
I think we can interpret this as saying that we are to observe Communion, and not just do it once. Do it again, and do it again. Keep doing it until, well, until Jesus comes back. We don’t serve Communion one Sunday and say, “Well, that’s good. We’ve done our job.” It isn’t like baptism, where we baptize believers one time and call that good. We keep serving Communion, and we will keep serving Communion until we can’t serve Communion any longer.
And finally, Communion is a time of self-examination. Verses 28-29 say, “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.”
Examine yourself. You check yourself for ticks after camping in the woods. You check yourself for spots after bathing in the sun for a lifetime. In the words of the great lyrical poet, Ice Cube, “You better check yourself before you wreck yourself.”
Paul seems to be building upon Jesus’s teaching from Matthew 5, where Jesus says that if you are making a sacrifice and remember there that a brother or sister has something against you, first go and be reconciled. Paul says to both discern yourself, but also discern the body, that is, the church.
I mentioned several weeks ago that years ago when the bishop would come to your church to serve Communion, it was common to meet the night before and the bishop would ask each individual, “Are you at peace with God and your fellow man?”
Self-examination isn’t just asking if you and God are cool. This is about the entire community of believers. Are you living as Christ would have you live among one another?
I heard a former megachurch pastor talk about what he would do if he were to start a church again, and without hesitation, he said that he would focus on the Eucharist. But to him, this wasn’t just about tearing off a bit of bread and dipping it in a bit of juice. The Eucharist is about community. So he said that before they break the bread and pass the cup, he would ask, Okay, has everyone paid their rent this month? Does anyone have any outstanding medical bills that need paid?
The point isn’t that you don’t get to take Communion if you haven’t paid your bills this month. The point is that none of us get to take Communion if someone in our community has bills that they cannot pay.
My friends, I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface. We haven’t spoken about what to do with the extra bread and juice after it has been blessed. We haven’t talked about transubstantiation, whether the bread and juice really become the body and blood of Christ! Perhaps the mystery of Communion will have to remain…at least for another week.