The Lord’s Supper: Unworthy Participants, Worthy Participation
Topic: Lord's Supper Passage: 1 Corinthians 10–11
A number of you were out of town for New Year’s Day. But we started a series on the Lord’s Supper last week. As a church we’ve been discussing what it would look like to celebrate the Lord’s Supper more often. But before making any adjustments, we thought it best to equip all of us in a greater understanding of the Supper and a greater appreciation for the Supper. If you missed, I’d really encourage you to listen to the sermon online. It really serves as the foundation of all that we’ll be covering in the next two sermons.
Reviewing the Origin & Purpose of the Supper
Last week we looked at the origin and purpose of the Lord’s Supper. We first asked, “Where did it come from?” We saw from the Gospels that it came from Jesus, and how Jesus fulfilled and transformed the Passover (Luke 22:15).
Passover defined Israel as a community after God rescued them from Egypt. The Passover reminded Israel that they were a helpless people. They could not rescue themselves, but God stepped in. He delivered from death. He freed from slavery. He set them apart for God under his covenant. As long as you identified with the lamb’s blood in the Passover, that’s who you were. You were delivered from death, freed from bondage, and in covenant with God. The meal shaped their identity.
Jesus’ death fulfilled all that the Passover pointed to. He is the ultimate Passover Lamb (John 1:29; 19:36; 1 Cor 5:7). Through Jesus’ blood we experience the ultimate exodus. God delivers us from death through the forgiveness of sins; he frees us from slavery to sin; he sets us apart as a new people under his new covenant. All we are and all we will become revolves around Christ’s death and resurrection. The Lord’s Supper is the meal of the new covenant community. It shapes our identity around Christ’s death and resurrection.
We then asked why we take the Lord’s Supper. There were four purposes. We take the Lord’s Supper to proclaim and remember God’s past deliverance in Christ (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:23-24, 26). Others have said before that “where the gospel is assumed the gospel will be forgotten.” The Lord’s Supper doesn’t allow us to forget the gospel. It reminds us that the gospel is the very foundation and life-line for the church.
A second purpose was to participate in the gospel’s benefits and submit to the gospel’s demands (1 Cor 10:16, 21). In the Lord’s Supper, the Lord strengthens our faith by way of announcing again and again all the benefits of Jesus’ death. Third, we eat the Supper to renew our commitment to one another in Christ (1 Cor 10:17). And fourth, we eat and drink to anticipate Christ’s return in glory (Luke 22:18; 1 Cor 11:26).
Now, right at the end of last week’s sermon, I mentioned four “looks” that corresponded with these four purposes. The four purposes affect the way, or how, we participate in the Lord’s Supper. Every time we take the Lord’s Supper, we should look backwards and remember God’s past deliverance of us in Christ. We should also look upwards to receive the blessings of God’s new covenant in Christ. We should also look around at those people who share in Christ’s death with us. And we should look forward in expectation of Jesus’ return.
Addressing How We Participate in the Supper
Today’s message expands on how we participate in the Lord’s Supper by giving us one more “look” to consider. In addition to looking backward, upward, around, and forward is also a look within.[i] I skipped this last week partly because we’re covering it today, and partly because I know how introspective we tend to be as a congregation already. Sometimes that’s a strength in that we take sin very seriously, because God takes sin very seriously.
At other times, however, that introspection leaves some of us spiraling into patterns of perfectionism that ignore what God has achieved for us in Christ. The self-examination becomes an end, and not a reason to cast ourselves once again on the mercies of Christ. Paul says we must participate in the Supper in a worthy manner, but we interpret him to mean that we must make ourselves worthy people. “Have I repented enough? Did I confess all my sins? How could I ever know for sure?”—the questions go while the bright assurance of Christ’s victory over sin fades behind clouds of guilt.
That’s not new to church history, by the way. In his essay on the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper, Greg Allison writes that…
At one time, particularly in Scotland and the Netherlands, elders would visit members of the congregation prior to each celebration of the Supper to determine whether they were fit to partake of the Supper on the Lord’s Day. They were given Communion tokens, which they would present at the worship service to indicate that they had been approved for the partaking of the sacrament. Sadly, in some conservative branches of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches only a few older, “saintly” characters felt worthy of partaking, which meant that the majority of the congregation never experienced the blessings of the sacrament until they reached that stage in life.[ii]
That’s a problem. Taking the Supper seriously isn’t a problem. Failing to see the gospel of forgiveness proclaimed through the Supper is the problem. So what I want to do this morning is answer how we should participate in the Lord’s Supper. In sum, I see Paul encouraging us to come to the Lord’s Supper as unworthy participants in a worthy manner with one another. The main verses we’ll cover are 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 and then 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.
Verses 16-17 of chapter ten will be review for those of you who were here last week, but they shape how we understand the problem Paul addresses in chapter 11. Verse 16 says, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
So, when we eat the bread, we picture what the one bread signifies—Christ’s body was given for all of us. His death makes us one people. We might have different team loyalties, hobbies, political ideology, economic status—we might prefer CNN or Fox News, the beach or mountains, vegetarian or meat—but the one thing we all have in common is our need for a Savior. The Lord’s Supper is the meal where the many are made one in Christ. At least it’s supposed to be. That’s not happening with some in the Corinthian church. Look with me now at 11:17…
17But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, 19for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 20When [therefore][iii] you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat. 21For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 22What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.
Here’s the problem. Some rich folks in the church are despising the poor folks in the church. And they’re doing it by stuffing their faces while the poor go hungry at the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper was celebrated in conjunction with a larger meal, much like the Last Supper was.[iv] In this case, though, some people in the church are wrecking the design of the Lord’s Supper. Remember from 10:17—the Lord’s Supper is where the many become one. Some of them, though, are dividing the many.
It’s so bad that Paul says “it’s not even the Lord’s Supper that you eat.” They’ve so perverted what the Supper signifies that their actions turn it into not-the-Lord’s-Supper—“It’s your own supper you’re eating.” Paul rebukes them.
Then he brings up the Lord’s Supper tradition in verses 23-26 as support for his rebuke (“for” in 1 Cor 11:23). That’s not something we often consider. We usually hear this next section read as we’re taking the Lord’s Supper. But this isn’t Paul’s pastoral handbook on what to say at the Lord’s Supper. These words have a context. Paul is making an argument. Let’s see what it is in verse 23…
23For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
What’s the argument? The argument is that, if they understood the tradition rightly, they’d recall that the Lord’s Supper proclaims the death of Jesus.
The Lord’s Supper proclaims that Christ willingly laid down his life. Jesus instituted the Supper “on the night he was betrayed,” it says. Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray him (John 13:1-3, 19). He sent Judas out into the night (John 13:27-30). He didn’t gather a group of men to protect him; Jesus willingly gave himself up.
The Lord’s Supper proclaims that Christ gave his body for us. That means he became our willing substitute. He was the substitution for the curse we could not bear (Gal 3:13). He was the sacrifice for the death we could not die (Eph 5:2). He was the atonement for the sins we could not remove (Heb 2:17). He was the propitiation for the punishment we could not satisfy (Rom 3:25). And note the plural in verse 24, “you.” He gave his body for you all. Jesus’ death doesn’t discriminate based on ethnicity and social class. All of us had the same problem of separation from God. Nobody can boast as if it was by their own works or their own riches that God saved them.
The Lord’s Supper proclaims that Jesus’ blood established the new covenant. Jeremiah 31 looked to a day when the old covenant would be fulfilled and replaced by a new covenant with better promises—promises like the inner-transformation of the heart for the whole community, unbreakable fellowship with God for the whole community, intimate knowledge of the Lord by everyone in the community, the final forgiveness of sin for all in the community. Jesus’ blood not only creates a new people; it binds us together as one people under a new covenant with God.
So, what does the Supper proclaim? Christ’s willing self-sacrifice for the good of others to bring them under the new covenant in union with himself as one people. Do the actions of some of these Corinthians align with what the Lord’s Supper proclaims? The answer should be obvious: No. The behavior of those welcomed to the Supper must exemplify the Lord of that Supper. He humbled himself to serve others. The behavior of those who eat at the Supper must align with the meaning of that Supper.
If the meaning is, the many becoming one, you can’t show up despising some of the many. If the meaning is, you are freed from slavery to idols, you can’t show up tight-fisted with your idols. If the meaning is, laying down your life to raise others up, you can’t show up putting down others to exalt yourself. They don’t fit.
It’s as if some of them are showing up to the Supper wearing Judas’ jersey and not Jesus’ (cf. 1 Cor 11:23). Judas was the first to rebel against the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. To defile the Supper by dividing the body is to join the enemy who conspires against the Messiah and his kingdom. So Paul goes on to help the congregation out, so that doesn’t happen. He does it with a warning in verse 27…
27Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28Let a person examine himself, then [That’s where I got the look within.], and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31But if we judged ourselves truly, 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.
To eat and drink in an unworthy manner is to eat and drink with an attitude and behavior that lies about the gospel. God gave them a meal so the church proclaims the gospel, but they’re abusing the meal by perverting the gospel. They are guilty for despising what Christ’s death accomplished. The Lord even threatens judgment. He threatens temporal judgments like weakness and sickness to motivate repentance—the purpose here is that “we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Cor 11:32).
That’s not to say that we should make a direct correlation, and say that all sickness must be discipline for some specific sin. The book of Job and the man born blind in John 9:1-4 are great examples of why we cannot go there. But it’s also true that sometimes the Lord will use sickness to discipline us for specific sins.[v] God’s love refuses to let his people remain in sin. He will use extreme measures to keep us from forsaking Christ and from suffering condemnation with the world.
How does a genuine believer respond to this? We can’t respond with clichés like, “Once saved always saved—I’m good!” We can’t respond by looking at something we did in the past, “Hey, I committed myself to the Lord when I was 8.” We can’t respond with things we’re doing now: “I’m a minister. I go to church. I read my Bible. He can’t be referring to me.” No. The genuine believer humbles himself before the Lord, and seeks to understand himself in light of the death of Christ—Does my attitude and life fit the gospel the Lord’s Supper proclaims?
Self Examination in Relation to Christ
Be careful here. Self-examination is always in relation to Christ. When Paul says, “Let a person examine himself…,” he’s not saying we do this as an end in itself. He’s saying we do this in relation to Christ to determine whether we recognize what our share in Christ truly means. Are we discerning the body rightly, verse 29 says? That means, do we truly grasp what the body of Christ given for us means both vertically in relation to God and horizontally in relation to others? Is my identity bound up with the death of Christ and what his death implies about the way I live and treat others?
That’s the question for us every time we eat the Lord’s Supper. That’s the question that must move us to repentance where our life doesn’t align with the gospel. The only time we really see Paul telling someone not to eat is in 1 Corinthians 5 where you have someone who professes to be a brother but isn’t acting like a brother and boasting about it. If that’s the state someone is in, they should not eat the Lord’s Supper.
In a biographical sketch on John Calvin, John Piper tells a story of a time when Calvin had to guard some Libertines from eating at the Lord’s Supper. The story goes…
When Calvin began his ministry in Geneva in 1536 at the age of 27, there was a law that said a man could keep only one mistress (see note 37). Even after Calvin had been preaching as pastor in St. Peter’s church for over fifteen years, the immorality was a plague, even in the church. The Libertines boasted in their license. For them the “communion of saints” meant the common possession of goods, houses, bodies and wives. So they practiced adultery and indulged in sexual promiscuity in the name of Christian freedom. And at the same time they claimed the right to sit at the Lord’s table (see note 38).
The crisis of the communion came to a head in 1553. A well-to-do Libertine named Berthelier was forbidden by the Consistory of the church to eat the Lord’s Supper, but appealed the decision to the Council of the City, which overturned the ruling. This created a crisis for Calvin who would not think of yielding to the state the rights of excommunication, nor of admitting a Libertine to the Lord’s table.
The issue, as always, was the glory of Christ. He wrote to Viret, “I…took an oath that I had resolved rather to meet death than profane so shamefully the Holy Supper of the Lord. …My ministry is abandoned if I suffer the authority of the Consistory to be trampled upon, and extend the Supper of Christ to open scoffers. …I should rather die a hundred times than subject Christ to such foul mockery” (see note 39).
The Lord’s day of testing arrived. The Libertines were present to eat the Lord’s supper. It was a critical moment for the Reformed faith in Geneva.
The sermon had been preached, the prayers had been offered, and Calvin descended from the pulpit to take his place beside the elements at the communion table. The bread and wine were duly consecrated by him, and he was now ready to distribute them to the communicants. Then on a sudden, a rush was begun by the troublers…in the direction of the communion table. …Calvin flung his arms around the sacramental vessels as if to protect them from sacrilege, while his voice rang through the building:
“These hands you may crush, these arms you may lop off, my life you may take, my blood is yours, you may shed it; but you shall never force me to give holy things to the profaned, and dishonor the table of my God.” “After this…the sacred ordinance was celebrated with a profound silence, and under solemn awe in all present, as if the Deity Himself had been visible among them” (see note 40).[vi]
Calvin was right in that we cannot eat in a manner that despises the glory of Christ. We cannot eat in a way that despises the salvation he achieved for all of us. The point, though, isn’t to create in the church widespread refraining from the Lord’s Supper; the point is widespread repentance. Let a person examine himself and so eat.
To help us as a church in this look within, we normally send out a notice in the eNews when we’re taking the Lord’s Supper. Prior to taking the Supper, it would be good to keep these things in mind and examine yourself according to the instructions given here. But what might that examination include? I’ll give you five things to consider…
1. Examine how Christ’s death exposes you before God as a ruined sinner
One, examine how Christ’s death exposes you before God as a ruined sinner. Some of the Corinthians view themselves as superior to others, in particular the poor. But they’ve forgotten how sinful Christ’s death says they truly are. We are bankrupt, defiant to the core. In ourselves, there’s nothing to lift God’s smile upon us. No worldly status, social class, ethnic flare, noble deed will make up for our filth.
When we examine ourselves in this light, we see we have nothing to boast in, brag about, or shove in the face of others. Just like Passover reminded Israel of their desperate predicament before God saved them, so the death of Jesus reminds us of ours. Discerning the body rightly will include agreeing with God’s verdict on our sin. We’re truly without hope apart from Christ. The gospel says we’re all unworthy. But it’s by seeing ourselves as unworthy participants that the worthy participation will follow.
2. Examine how Christ’s death saved you to belong to God
Two, examine how Christ’s death saved you to belong to God. Christ’s death not only exposes us for the sinners we truly are; it also proclaims Christ for the Savior he really is. His body was given for us. Partaking of the supper in a worthy manner does not depend on the worthiness of the person taking the Supper, but the worthiness of the One the Supper proclaims, Jesus Christ. He alone is worthy to sit at the Table, and it’s only through our union with him that we find a place at the Table as well.
Christ has made complete provision for all our sins. When we trust in him, Christ gives us all his righteousness. Both forgiveness and his righteousness means we might have fellowship with God. When you have God, everything else the world will tell you is significant and popular and important and glamorous pales in comparison. You won’t show up boasting in your riches on Sunday; you’ll show saying, “Christ is all!”
Moreover, we now belong to God. Before we belonged to sin and Satan. In Christ we now belong to God. He determines what we give ourselves to and how we give ourselves to others—which brings us to another point of examination…
3. Examine how Christ’s death unites you to Christ’s body
Three, examine how Christ’s death unites you to Christ’s body. Again, look around. The Lord’s Supper is a meal that shapes the community by what we all share in together, namely, Christ. Yes, we may have other shared interests that we enjoy; but that’s not what creates the church or sustains fellowship in the church. Christ does; he is our foundation. Examining ourselves in light of Jesus’ death should remind us that we are, in fact, one body in Christ and individually members one of another (Rom 12:5). Again, the Lord’s Supper is where the many are made one.
Are you genuinely glad to be in fellowship with every member in this local church? Think of names and faces. Is there any tendency to favor some brothers or sisters over others? Is there any sense that you’ve just grown content putting up with some people, but really have no desire to imitate the Lord’s self-giving sacrifice for them? A church thrives only when its members lay down their lives for one another. A church thrives when we become what we eat at the Lord’s Supper. Feasting on Christ at the Table entails becoming like Christ toward the others at the Table.
If you find yourself lacking in this area, repent. Confess your sins before God. The beauty of the gospel is that it frees us to confess sin and assures that God forgives us in Christ. I’ve approached brothers and sisters before that I had offended, at times even on days when we’re taking the Supper. They’ve listened to my confession and forgave me. The Lord’s Supper tastes sweeter on those Sundays. Listen, Christ is our righteousness, and that frees us to walk with integrity before each other. Seek forgiveness and reconciliation with people that come to mind.
4. Examine how Christ’s death compels you to love others
Four, examine how Christ’s death compels you to love others. After preaching the death of Christ, Paul concludes in verse 33 “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another…” That is, welcome one another, care for one another, receive one another, grant each other proper fellowship at the meal, put the interest of others above your own.
Such love did not characterize some of the Corinthians. But it should characterize us. Christ’s love must shape our affections for one another and our interactions with one another. If it doesn’t, then it would be wise to reflect on the first three again. It’s only in seeing and savoring the cross of Christ and its significance for the whole community that we actually grow in our love for others.
5. Examine how Christ’s death is sufficient to perfect the whole church in glory
One more, examine how Christ’s death is sufficient to perfect the whole church in glory, not just you. Paul says that we proclaim Christ’s death until he comes. Part of that message is sobering. When Christ returns, he returns to judge. Every person will give an account before the Lord for what he did in the body, whether good or evil.
But Christ’s return also sets before us a glorious hope. When he returns, he returns to save his church forever from their sins. Every blood-bought saint will be immediately glorified as they behold Christ face-to-face. We shall all be like him, because we shall see him as he is.
There may be a lot of things about other people in this room that irritate you sometimes. I might irritate you sometimes. But our problem is that we normally don’t view each other in light of the gospel. We don’t view each other in light of what the gospel promises that we’ll become. We don’t view each other in light of how sufficient Jesus’ death is to perfect us in the coming kingdom. Basically, when it comes to others, we underestimate what Christ is able to do in them and to them.
But Christ’s return should remind us of what we will all become. The kingdom of God will not be characterized by ethnic pride or economic division or social status or age preference or affinity favorites. There will be one choir of redeemed saints, united through the blood of the Lamb. There will never be any tension, or awkwardness, or fear, or envy, or strife, or anything that would cause division.
No sinful impulses will be present. Every day with each other will be love, kindness, peace, joy, gentleness, and celebration. No sins in us will be hiding God’s glory or hindering the enjoyment of God’s glory as it’s reflected in each other.[vii] That’s how we should see our brothers and sisters as we come to the Lord’s Supper? That’s the vision of the church the Lord’s Supper wants us to keep before us until Christ returns.
So how do we come to the Lord’s Supper? We come as unworthy participants in worthy participation with each other. That worthy participation includes aligning our understanding and conduct with all that Christ’s death implies for us and for the rest of the church. As one pastor put it,
…the Scriptures are not barring any who have ever danced with the Devil. We all have. You simply cannot come to the Table still holding the Devil’s hand. As long as you are repentant, come. Be reminded of the cost of your sin, hate it afresh, and be reminded that your Savior has paid the debt. Be reminded of the grace of God that is greater than your sin. Be humbled anew by grace which is staggeringly beyond what you could expect, ask, or think. Allow the truth of free grace to melt your heart and cause you to long all the more for holiness.[viii]
[i]While I developed three of these “looks” (i.e., backward, forward, within) prior to reading Hammett’s chapters on the Lord’s Supper, I was happy to find such agreement and glad to add the two further “looks” he develops (i.e., upward, around) that correspond so well to the purposes outlined here. See John S. Hammett, 40 Questions about Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2015), 305-07.
[ii]Greg Allison, “Reformed View,” in Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper, ed. John H. Armstrong (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 69.
[iii]The ESV leaves out “therefore” (Greek: oun) in its translation of verse 20. Translating the passage with “therefore” shows that Paul is drawing a conclusion from a point he just made in verse 19 not about how the factions show who are truly Christian and who are not, but about how the factions are giving evidence of a church who has failed to apply the message of the cross, which is at the heart of the Lord’s Supper.
[iv]See the phrase “after supper” in 1 Corinthians 11:25 (cf. Luke 22:20; Acts 2:46; 20:7).
[v]See also, e.g., James 5:15, 1 John 5:16-17, and Revelation 2:21-22.
[vi]John Piper, “The Divine Majesty of the Word: John Calvin: The Man and His Preaching,” Accessed at http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-divine-majesty-of-the-word.
[vii]Matthew 13:43 says, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father;” Matthew 5:16 says, “to let our light so shine before men, that people see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” In glory, all the works of the church will shine with the brightness of their Father’s glory.
[viii]Ray Van Neste, “The Lord’s Supper in the Context of the Local Church,” in The Lord’s Supper, eds. Thomas R. Schreiner and Matthew R. Crawford (Nashville: B&H, 2010), 389-90.