Communion as Worship (I Corinthians 11:17-34)

This is the sermon I gave last Sunday, February 1, at my church. The audio can be found at the church’s Web site, http://www.bellinghamcovenantchurch.org.

This is the fourth sermon in a series on worship, and one very important thing that the church does when it gathers together to worship is eat the Lord’s Supper together. It is a mysterious thing, and different Christians have tried to express that mystery through the many names that are used to call it: the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Table.

Many of us only have a vague idea of what we’re doing when we take the Lord’s Supper. When I was 15, I was part of a Roman Catholic choir that sang in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. We sang at a Mass one morning, and after singing we all got in line and the priest gave us the “host” – a wafer. I grew up in a Baptist church, and I was used to eating cubes of white bread at communion. I had no idea what to do with this thing that had all these elaborate designs on it, so I put it in my pocket. It wasn’t until I got back to my seat that I looked around and saw everyone else eating theirs, so I took it out of my pocket and ate it without anyone looking. Turns out I probably should have left it in my pocket, because one of the Catholics in the choir scolded me later because only Catholics are supposed to take Mass in a Catholic church.

This passage helps us to know more clearly what we are doing when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. It also helps us to understand good ways and bad ways to celebrate the Lord’s Supper by showing us the bad example of the Corinthian church. The passage comes in three sections. The first one has to do with what is wrong in Corinth. The second has to do with what the Lord’s Supper is supposed to be, and the third has to do with how to celebrate it.

One: The nature of the problems in Corinth, and of this particular problem (17-22).

Corinth was an old Greek city that fought hard against the expansion of the Romans. It was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC, and then was re-founded by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. It is located at a strategic place in Greece, where the mainland meets the large southern peninsula called the Pelepponesus. It became a major trading center because of this location. It was one of the largest cities in the Empire, and it was one of the most influential because of its imperial backing. Status – what class or social group you belonged to – was very important in Corinth, and as a result many of the problems the church in Corinth had were because of their cultural preoccupation with status.

This problem that Paul starts to deal with in verse 17 is one of those problems. The church in Corinth was a house church, or a series of house churches, like most early churches were. They would celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week, but they would conduct it like every other meal in their culture – that is, they would divide everyone up by status. The rich people were in a special room, and the poor people were out in the atrium. Even at one table, people were served different food based on their status. If you were rich and had high status, you’d get the lobster. If you had low status, you’d get a burger from McDonald’s. This is what was happening in Corinth. The rich, high-status people were getting together beforehand, gorging themselves and getting drunk, and the poor people would show up later and everyone would be laying around the table, belching.

In verse 20, Paul says that because of this, they weren’t even really eating the Lord’s Supper. It was meant to be a common meal that was shared by everyone in the church, and the Corinthians made a travesty out of it by treating it like any other meal. They divided people up by class and they humiliated poor people.

Today, it would be like saying, “We’re going to celebrate the Lord’s Supper today, and if your income is over $100,000, you can come first and have the biggest piece of bread.” And status doesn’t just have to do with money: it can be dividing people up by race, or by education, or how many children a person has, or whether people have tattoos, or whether people have children who are Christians – any difference has at least the potential to be divisive. If we divide over those things, we’re not really eating the Lord’s Supper either.

Two: The nature of the Lord’s Supper (23-26).

Paul decides that he’s got to remind the Corinthians of the basics. They have forgotten what the Lord’s Supper is all about, and so he takes them back to the Last Supper, the meal that Jesus ate with his disciples on the night before he was crucified. We could say a lot about what Paul says, because it’s packed with meaning. But for today, I’m going to point out four things that the Lord’s Supper is.

First, It’s a memorial.

“This is my body” and “Do this in remembrance of me.” Some of you may have come from a Catholic background, or you may just know that Catholics think the bread and wine actually turn into Jesus’ body and blood. There is a big theological word for this, called “transubstantiation.” They say that Jesus said, “This is my body,” and they say that he meant it was literally his body. But we don’t believe that, and here is an analogy that explains why. When Jesus said, “This is my body,” he was talking about the bread in the same way that we talk about photographs. I can show you a picture of myself and say, “This is me,” and you won’t be confused whether Elliot is the person speaking or the person in the photograph. In the same way, the bread does not literally and magically turn into Jesus’ body. Jesus’ disciples weren’t confused when he said “This is my body.” They didn’t ask, “Well, if that’s your body, then who are you?” They knew that when he said “This is my body,” he was talking about the bread as a symbol of his body.

But some Protestant churches go all the way in the other direction, saying that the bread is only something we use to remind us of Jesus. Some churches don’t like to use the word “sacrament,” and call it an “ordinance” instead. They say that there’s nothing important or symbolic about the bread and wine, we just do it to remember.

But we don’t go to that extreme either. We use the word “sacrament,” which just means “a symbol that has religious or spiritual significance for a community of faith.” Taking the Lord’s Supper isn’t just something we do to remember Jesus. It’s a symbol – like a flag, which represents the identity and aspirations of a nation, or a wedding ring, which represents the covenant commitment you have made to your husband or wife. Symbols are never just symbols. So the Lord’s Supper is “just bread and grape juice” in that they don’t magically turn into Jesus’ body and blood, but it is also not “just bread and grape juice” because it is a symbol. Paul himself says in chapter 10 of 1 Corinthians, The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?”

If this is a little confusing to you, you’re not alone. I’ve been trying to explain symbols, but symbols can’t ever be fully explained. That’s why we use them – to signify something that we can’t fully put into words. There will always be some mystery when symbols are involved.

To sum up this first point: We do this in remembrance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is a memorial, but it is not just a cerebral action. It’s not just something that happens in our mind. Eating and drinking turn it into something that we do with our whole being. As Gordon Smith says in his book, A Holy Meal, on the Lord’s Supper, “We need to come to the table regularly, when we feel like it and when we don’t, for the great danger is that we would forget. We can so easily forget. I do not mean that we no longer recall or believe that something happened. Rather, our forgetting is one of no longer living aligned with the reality and wonder of Christ’s death and resurrection. We fail to live in the light of this ancient event. So easily through neglect the cross and the resurrection no longer penetrate our present, enabling us to live in the light of the gospel.” (42-3)

Second, the Lord’s Supper is fellowship (communion).

In the church where I grew up, there were some impressive stained glass windows. There was one on the left of Jesus carrying a lamb, there was one on the right of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion, and there was one on the back wall of Jesus ascending up into heaven. At the bottom of all the windows, there was a little sign that said, “Given in memory of so-and-so.” At the front of the sanctuary there was a table, and on the table was written the words, “Do this in remembrance of me.” As a little kid, I thought that this was just a table given in honor of some person who had died, and I thought it strange that there was no name on it.

But my little kid thoughts were not right. Jesus isn’t just a dear friend who has died, and who we remember by eating bread and drinking wine or grape juice. He’s alive, and he is here with us when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. That’s why we sometimes hear this supper called “Communion,” or fellowship. We are in communion with one another, and we are in communion with him. That’s what the big problem was in the Corinthian church: they weren’t celebrating the Lord’s Supper in the right way because they weren’t in communion with one another. They didn’t look at each other and say, “We are one. Jesus has made us one.”
Even though it’s a little out of place, I’d like to mention what Paul says in verse 29 about “discerning the body.” The “body” that he is talking about is probably not the bread, or Jesus’ literal body. Paul is talking about divisions in the church, and so the “body” he is talking about is the body of Christ, the church.

So the practical effect of the Lord’s Supper being communion is that we should not come to communion when we are not at peace with one another. If we are refusing to talk to someone, or holding a grudge against them, we should not be participating in communion. In the Lord’s Prayer we repeat the words that Jesus taught us to pray: “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” We need to be at peace before we participate in communion. If we want to be at peace with God, then we have to be at peace with other people.

Of course, sometimes these things are out of our control. Here is where Paul’s words in Romans 12:18 are helpful: he says that we should be at peace with everyone, “insofar as it depends on us.” We should do everything in our power to be at peace with people before participating in communion. But if we have tried to be reconciled with another person – if we have written a letter and they don’t respond, or we’ve called them and they’ve hung up on us, or we’ve tried to talk to them and they’ve ignored us, then we’ve done all we can do.

Third, the Lord’s Supper is a covenant renewal ceremony.

“This cup is a new covenant in my blood.” Jesus is saying that his blood, his sacrifice, replaces the old covenant, or agreement between God and people, written about in Exodus 24:3-8. This is the new covenant that Jeremiah wrote about in Jeremiah 31:31-34, when God said that he would write the law on our hearts.

All covenants are represented and remembered through symbolic acts. In the Old Testament, it usually involved animal sacrifice. An animal would be cut up into a few pieces. Part of the animal would be sacrificed – burnt up on an altar – and part of it would be eaten in a covenant meal.

In the new covenant, Jesus is both the sacrifice and the one we are in covenant with. Earlier in 1 Corinthians (5:7), Paul called Jesus the Passover Lamb who has been sacrificed. In the church, those symbolic acts that we use to remember the covenant are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Whenever we take the Lord’s Supper, we remember the covenant we made with God when we were baptized.

So the Lord’s Supper is a covenant renewal ceremony. We come to the table to receive mercy and forgiveness for all the ways we have not lived up to who we should be, and to declare our intention to renew the covenant.

Fourth, the Lord’s Supper is a declaration of thanksgiving and hope.

“Eucharist” is one of the fancy words that is used to describe the Lord’s Supper, and it comes from the Greek word for thanksgiving, used here in verse 24. That’s all it means: thanksgiving. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, it really is a celebration. Jesus gave thanks, so we should too. We give thanks to God the Father for creating the world and us, we give thanks to Jesus for saving us by sacrificing himself on the cross, and we give thanks for the gift of the Holy Spirit to live in us and comfort us.

The Lord’s Supper is often linked with the Passover, and it should be: the Last Supper was probably a Passover meal, and Jesus is referred to in the Bible as the Passover lamb. But the Lord’s Supper was also associated in the early church with the peace offering of Leviticus 7:11-18. It is a way to give thanks and celebrate.

“as often as you eat this break and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” This meal that we share together doesn’t just look back at the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples. It looks forward to another meal that Jesus will eat with us when he returns. This meal is called the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in Revelation 19. We look backward in thankfulness, and forward in hope.
The Lord’s Supper should remind us that, even though things may be bad in the world now, that’s not the way things are always going to be. We don’t have to ignore the bad things in the world, and we don’t have to be fearmongers. We can look at the world realistically and say that things are going to be well in the end.

This also encourages us in mission. We know that all will be well in the end, and this should encourage us to share this hope with our friends and neighbors.

Three: How to celebrate the Lord’s Supper (27-34).

Moving on to the last part of the passage, I’m going to talk a bit about how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. I’m not going to talk about whether you should pass the plates or have little glasses or whether you should celebrate once a month or every week or four times a year. I’m going to talk about what should be going on in our hearts when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

There are a few words here that have been misunderstood over the years in a lot of churches. They are found in verse 27: “in an unworthy manner.” These words have been used to encourage people to think that just because they are sinful, they can’t take the Lord’s Supper because that would mean they are taking the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. But looking at the context, that isn’t what Paul means at all. When he warns the Corinthians against taking the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, he telling them that they shouldn’t abuse it. They shouldn’t make the Lord’s Supper about status.

In verse 28, “Examine yourselves” doesn’t mean “make sure you don’t have any sin.” We come to the Lord’s Table to receive mercy, and if we waited until we were all without sin, no one would be able to come. Jesus is our host at this table, and Jesus ate with sinners! Jesus welcomes us at this table the same way he welcomed and forgave Peter after he denied him.

“Examine yourselves” does not mean “make sure you don’t have any sin.” Rather, it means, “Repent of your sins so that you can come to the table with thanksgiving, knowing that your sins are forgiven.”

“Discern the body” is talking about the Body of Christ, the church. The Lord’s Supper is a table of mercy where you can receive forgiveness, but is not just about you. It is not even just about you and Jesus. It is also about the Body of Christ, the church, coming together to celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Lord’s Supper is not just any meal; it is THE meal at which the church declares that we are ONE in Christ. The church is not a club of like-minded people getting together because we like the socializing. We are, or ought to be, a diverse group gathered around Jesus Christ. There should be no divisions at the Lord’s Table. If we divide ourselves, if we start to think that some are better than others, Paul says that it is possible that God will judge us.

Jesus is the only thing that can keep us together. I read an article in the Washington Post recently called: “Why the Ideological Melting Pot is Getting So Lumpy.” Here is an excerpt:

“About two in three Americans say they prefer to live around people belonging to different races, religions and income groups. In reality, however, survey research shows that people are increasingly clustering together among those who are just like themselves, especially on the one attribute that ties the others together — political affiliation.

Nearly half of all Americans live in “landslide counties” where Democrats or Republicans regularly win in a rout. In the 2008 election, 48 percent of the votes for president were cast in counties where President-elect Barack Obama or Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won by more than 20 percentage points, according to the Pew Research Center.

The clustering of Democrats in Democratic areas and Republicans in Republican areas has been intensifying for at least three decades: In 1976, only about a quarter of all Americans lived in landslide counties. In 1992, a little more than a third of America was landslide country.

A third of both Obama’s and McCain’s supporters have said they “detest” the other guy.

A consequence of such polarization is that large numbers of Americans no longer have much contact with people belonging to the other party. Many feel the views of their political opponents are not just wrong but incomprehensible.”

This is the way the world is: people congregate with other people who are the same race, the same income, the same political affiliation. The Bible tells us that the church should not be like this. We are called to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us. We are called to preach the gospel to the whole world; not only to people who are just like us. The Lord’s Supper tells us that we are one in Christ, and we should always be reminded to draw others into that fellowship. This is what the world needs.

Finally, I’d like to reiterate that the Lord’s Supper is a time of hope. We don’t just look back during the Lord’s Supper; we look forward.
If you don’t like getting together with the Body of Christ and celebrating the Lord’s Supper together, you probably won’t like the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. If it is all about you and Jesus, and you don’t think you need to be a part of a community of believers, then you’re going to hate what will happen when Jesus comes back. Because it’s not going to be just you and Jesus; there are going to be a LOT of people there. There are no lone ranger Christians. There are no Christians who can have a good relationship with Jesus without having good relationships with his church. Some of you may have had bad experiences, or been parts of dysfunctional churches, and I wish that had not been the case. But past experiences are no reason to give up on trying to be the community that Jesus wants us to be.

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5 thoughts on “Communion as Worship (I Corinthians 11:17-34)

  1. Dawn February 21, 2009 / 5:43 pm

    I have finally read through this message, and it is great. Thank you, Elliot, for sharing it with us! I am facilitating S.S. tomorrow, and part of the passage is the last supper as recorded in Luke. I may quote some of your points. Thanks again.

  2. bobritzema March 1, 2009 / 4:25 pm

    Elliot,
    You do a beautiful job of explicating the passage. I am particularly drawn to the notion of Communion as a declaration of thanksgiving and hope. In the Lutheran church, we often sing as part of the communion service, “This is the feast of victory for our God, Alleluia!” While singing, I sometimes imagine the celebration that will go on in heaven when we will join in the marriage supper of the lamb.
    Thanks for posting the semon online.

  3. Libby April 3, 2009 / 4:24 pm

    Thank you for posting your sermon. I am working on a Sunday School lesson from this passage and your sermon was very helpful. I like the four parts of communion outlined, especially that it looks forward to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

  4. elliot April 6, 2009 / 8:57 am

    Libby,

    I’m glad that it helped. When I was preparing my sermon, I got a lot of great insights from Gordon Smith’s book “A Holy Meal,” so that may be a place for you to follow up too.

  5. greg smaga January 31, 2010 / 7:46 am

    Elliot thanks for the help on what was going on in Corinth, but especially the section on, “in an unworthy manner”, this seems to make better sense than the encourgement of some to partake in a morbid introspection of all of our short comings. It makes the celebration part of the Lord’s Supper somewhat difficult and disingenious. I do have a thought though that I would like to share in a spirit genuine desire to search out all things, ah I just want to get it right you know. Is it really a time of where we renew the covenant? Or, is it a time in which we are reminded of the new covenant, which is the covenant of forgiveness, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the World”. Maybe I don’t make promises to God about how I will do better, maybe I remember the promises God has made to me, He who has begun the work in me will complete it. Anyway maybe we are saying the same thing and I just am seeing it through my frame of reference. Finally thanks again for the insight it is very helpful. I am placing your sight on my list of favorties.

    In Christ,
    Greg Smaga

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