Is Taking Communion/The Lord’s Supper Dangerous? #Eucharist #ICantDrive55
Happy Monday, friends. May the Lord bless you and carry you through this sometimes grim day. Today’s Bible readings include Exodus 7, wherein Pharaoh’s magicians perform some amazing feats, a topic that we will tackle in episode #56 tomorrow. Job 24 continues Job’s epic speech? Rant? Lament? I’m not sure how to classify his third speech. It’s something, though – wow! In Luke 10 Jesus sends out not 12, but 72 disciples and also tells us the amazing Parable of the Good Samaritan, one of the most well-known stories in all of human history. Our focus question comes from 1 Corinthians 11. This is an interesting and fairly controversial chapter. The first part concerns head coverings, and the second contains instructions, exhortations and warnings about The Lord’s Supper/Communion/Eucharist/Breaking of the Bread. (These four phrases all refer to the same ordinance in the Christian church. Eucharist comes from the Greek word for ‘Thanksgiving’ and it is found in 1 Corinthians 11:34) We will probably cover head coverings later this year when we go through 1st Corinthians again, but today we are going to zero in on Paul’s mysterious and terrifying warning about the dangers of taking Communion in an unworthy manner. Let’s read the text and pay special attention to the warning, then we will come back and discuss it.
Just in case you missed it, here is the text that we are discussing today:
27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sin against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself; in this way let him eat the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For whoever eats and drinks without recognizing the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 This is why many are sick and ill among you, and many have fallen asleep. 31 If we were properly judging ourselves, we would not be judged, 32 but when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined, so that we may not be condemned with the world.1 Corinthians 11:27-32
When you understand that ‘fallen asleep’ is a biblical metaphor used to indicate death, then you understand how serious Paul is being here. He is saying that some in the Corinthian church have become weak, sick and some have even died because of the way they handled the communion. Pause and let that sink in for just a moment. The New Testament is telling us here that, if we partake of communion in an improper way on Sunday morning, then we are running the risk of weakness, sickness or death. When I first read that in the Bible many years ago, I was quite shocked – especially so because I don’t recall having ever been warned about such a thing in the churches I grew up in. It might surprise you to hear that communion is such a serious matter, but we should know that it was at the very center of Christian practice in the first few centuries of the church. I believe the modern church takes the practice of communion far too lightly, and probably far too infrequently. It was a dispute over the meaning of communion in England in the 1500s that caused Bloody Mary, the Catholic Queen of England, to order the deaths of almost 300 Protestants who had a different view of communion than did the Catholics. This number included 55 women, 4 children and more than two dozen church leaders and pastors. What was the exact nature of the dispute? Here’s British Bishop J.C. Ryle on the answer to that question:
The doctrine in question was the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the consecrated elements of bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. Did they, or did they not believe that the body and blood of Christ were really, that is corporally, literally, locally, and materially, present under the forms of bread and wine after the words of consecration were pronounced? Did they or did they not believe that the real body of Christ, which was born of the Virgin Mary, was present on the so-called altar so soon as the mystical words had passed the lips of the priest? Did they or did they not? That was the simple question. If they did not believe and admit it, they were burned.John Charles Ryle, Light from Old Times (Moscow, Idaho: Charles Nolan Publishers, 2000, first published 1890)
Thankfully, Catholics don’t kill Protestants over communion disagreements anymore, but the above struggle does demonstrate that communion is not merely a quarterly snack of crackers and juice that the church sometimes does. Rather, it is a life-giving, Gospel-proclaiming, faith-building, thankful heart-producing, Christ-focusing act that causes us to remember and proclaim that central truth of Christianity – that the body of Jesus was broken (instead of ours!) for sin; and the blood of Jesus was violently spilled out (instead of ours!) for our sin. When we eat and drink the bread and fruit of the vine, we proclaim the Lord’s death and resurrection and return together.
How can such an act be dangerous? I believe the answer to that question lies in the very importance of the act itself. Though some churches treat it as such, communion is no light matter, or peripheral issue. Listen again to Paul’s instructions on the matter:
17 Now in giving this instruction I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. 18 For to begin with, I hear that when you come together as a church there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. 19 Indeed, it is necessary that there be factions among you, so that those who are approved may be recognized among you. 20 When you come together, then, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. 21 For at the meal, each one eats his own supper. So one person is hungry while another gets drunk! 22 Don’t you have homes in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I praise you? I do not praise you in this matter!1 Corinthians 11:17-22
It would appear that the central trouble to communion in the Corinthian church was related to disunity. Something was causing disunity – a lack of unity so profound that Paul is suggesting that they would be better off to not even have church on Sunday! (vs. 17, reminiscent of Malachi 1:10, “How I wish that one of you would shut the Temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the LORD Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands.“) What was the exact nature of this disunity? Apparently people were selfishly seeking to eat and drink (so the early church communion was more than simply a tiny cracker, and a thimbleful of juice!) and not allowing the whole church to eat and drink! Some were overeating, and some were getting drunk, while others were going hungry and thirsty. Verses 33-34 confirm that this dynamic is going on:
33 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, welcome one another. 34 If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you gather together you will not come under judgment.1 Corinthians 11:33-34
Thus the purpose of communion was not necessarily to eat a full meal and receive nutritional sustenance, it was more of an act of worship and remembrance – but some people were taking the opportunity to ‘pig-out’ and, in doing so, were being unwelcoming, rude, inhospitable and downright selfish.
Modern Christians have a funny view of sin – funny in that it is not often very informed by biblical truth, but more by societal dictates and our own logic. We rightly realize the soul-endangering nature of sexual sin, but consider greed and verbal abuse to be somewhat lesser sins, and yet 1 Corinthians 6 notes that all of those sins are soul-endangering and disqualifying from the Kingdom of Heaven. What about complaining? We almost laugh it off, but God sent a deadly judgment of fire against complaining Israelites in Numbers 11. Likewise, the kind of pride and selfishness that characterized some of the Corinthians’ practice of eating and drinking all of the food before others could eat seems fairly innocuous to us, but it was deadly serious (literally!) to the Lord. There is no place in the Body of Christ for a ‘me-first’ kind of selfishness. And that gets us to the antidote and proper approach for communion, which was, according to Paul:
27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sin against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself; in this way let him eat the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For whoever eats and drinks without recognizing the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.1 Corinthians 11:27-29
Before communion happens, we must examine ourselves and reflect on the rest of the church, considering our place in the Body of Christ. As members/body parts – we are no more or less important than anybody else. We must honor them above ourselves, and we must put their needs ahead of our own. They must do the same for us, and when we are doing that in union – we become the beautiful, radiant, sweet-smelling Body of Christ – lovingly caring for each other in a kind of unity that proclaims the gospel of Jesus to a lost and dying world. (see John 17)
Allow me to close with a wonderful meditation from Pastor John Piper on this passage. We, as humans, consider a punishment of death or even sickness to be incredibly harsh. This is primarily because our understanding only covers the 70-80 years of our lives. Our Heavenly Father does not view time in this narrow lens. If we are saved by Jesus and adopted as His brother and a Son of God, then we are eternal beings. Our mortal life on earth is but a finger-snap. If, in death or sickness, God can spare us from worse things (yes, there are many things worse than death for created beings who are saved to live in eternal bliss with God the Father!) then it is gracious of Him to do so. In this we can see that even discipline is love. Consider well Pastor Piper’s words:
Sometimes death is a disciplinary deliverance to save us from condemnation. “A number [have died]…so that [they] will not be condemned along with the world.”https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-if-our-dying-is-discipline
This is not the reason for every death of God’s precious saints. Don’t jump to the conclusion that your sickness or your death is owing to a trajectory of sinning that God must rescue you from. But suppose that this is indeed what happens?
Is that encouraging? Will thinking about this help you die more peacefully and with greater faith and hope? My answer is that everything in the Bible is meant to help you die and to be encouraging for your faith in the light of truth (Romans 15:4).
How then would this truth strengthen us for a hope-filled death? It would happen like this: is not a great threat to our peace the thought that we are sinners? Does not the thought that God is sovereign and could lift this sickness threaten us with fearful feelings that he must be against us? And how shall we handle these fears when we know that we are indeed sinners and have corruption remaining in us? In those moments, we look for some encouragement from the Bible that God is willing to save believers who have sinned and are very imperfect.Yet we know that God is holy and hates sin, even sin committed by his children. We also know that God disciplines his children with sorrowful experiences (Hebrews 12:11). We are not among those who say God has nothing to do with the painful experiences of life. So we look for help and hope from God’s utterly realistic Word. And we find it in 1 Corinthians 11:32, that even the death of saints—even the death of saints which is “discipline” and “judgment”—is not condemnation, but salvation. God is taking this sinning saint because he loves him so much he will not let him go on in sin.
This is our solid encouragement. What it says to all of us is this: we do not need to be certain whether the time of our death is owing to our sinning, or to the devil’s cruelty (Revelation 2:10), or to God’s other wise purposes. What we need is the deep assurance that even if my dying is owing to my own folly and sin, I can rest peacefully in the love of God. At such a moment, these words will be precious beyond measure: “We are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned.”
Learning to die with you all,