What Communion Isn't

Something's been on my heart for several months now, and I've been looking for the right time to share it with the church. It turns out this coming Sunday is the right time. So what follows is a bit of a "sneak preview" of part of what I'll say Sunday morning for all you Harvest people, and a little window into what our church is discussing for those who aren't attenders. As always, the full message will be available for download from our web archives and is also podcasted at iTunes by searching Harvest Community Church sermon audio.

What's been on my heart is our celebration of Communion, or the Lord's Supper. Not Communion itself, but the way we typically approach it. In evangelical churches like Harvest it is common for Christians to be instructed to examine their own hearts before participating in communion, often followed by a warning that participating while one has sin in his/her life is at best inappropriate, and at worst is somehow a desecration of the cross of Jesus. And so in some cases Christians will even refuse to participate because they know of some deep-seated sin that's got hold of them, and they don't want to profane the cross.

That view is not only wrong, it's a travesty. Let me explain.

The "examine yourself" idea comes from 1 Corinthians 11:28-29, wherein Paul tells the Christians in 1st century Corinth to check their motives before they participate in communion. (BTW, a cool feature on this blog is that if you hover your mouse over a Bible passage like the one in the last sentence, it will automatically pop up without you having to click away from the blog. Try it! It's cool.) But notice why he tells them to examine themselves: in 1 Corinthians 11:20-22 Paul describes the problem in Corinth. They treated communion as a potluck feast, not the sacramental symbol of Jesus' death that it was intended to be. Further, they profaned this feast by bringing their own favoritism (already dealt with by Paul in chapter 3) to the table, and gorging themselves with their friends whilst the "un-cool" people didn't even get to eat. This is why Paul tells them to examine their motives.

In other words, this passage isn't a universal call for Christians to "clean up their act" before participating in communion. Communion isn't a call to get clean so we're acceptable to God. In fact, rightly understood it's just the opposite.

In the same passage Paul talks about what communion is when he says in verse 26 "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes." Think about that for a moment: what does it mean to "proclaim the Lord's death"? It means we declare that Jesus' broken body and shed blood are the only way our sins are cleansed. So then, why would we try and clean up our sins before celebrating the death of Jesus, when the cleansing of our sin is exactly what makes the death of Jesus worth celebrating? If we're not careful we may find ourselves not only be guilty of misinterpreting Paul's point in 1 Cor. 11, but we may also be guilty of proclaiming exactly the opposite of the gospel: that we have to get cleaned up before we come to Jesus.

The best person in the world to take communion is the Christian who is wrestling with sin. By participating, that believer is declaring that the sin in question is only conquerable through the cross of Christ - that freedom from bondage to that sin comes only from Jesus. The death of Jesus, and the sacrament that symbolizes it, is a sign to the world that we're utterly dependent on the savior for life. Let us not rob that glory from him by attempting to clean up before we come to him. As if we could.

Now, I do think a period of reflection is appropriate to communion. We should seek to become aware of our sin during the Lord's Supper, but the reason is so that we can bring it to him for forgiving and cleansing - a spiritual reality of which we're reminded as we eat the bread and drink the cup. Christians should make communion itself an act of confession of sin and rejoicing that Christ's death covers it.

But let us be on guard against the subtle idea that we have to clean up our lives before we come to the communion table, or the idea that we shouldn't participate if we still have sin in our lives. The sacrament does just the opposite for us. It reminds us of how our sin is dealt with: once, for all time, by the blood of Jesus on the cross.

"But as it is, [Jesus] has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself." Hebrews 9:26


Jerry Casper said...

Thanks for the sneak peek, Matt. We'll be in Seattle this weekend, so I'll miss being there in person. Your comments will give me something to think about and talk with Kari-Ann about during our drive, especially since I realized that I have exactly the wrong interpretation of "examining yourself" stuck in my mind.

Darrel said...

Thanks Matt, I think it would be great to give us something to be thinking about for the coming Sunday message each week (but I know it could be hard to find the time).

I agree with you and I hope you go into more detail on how I might be taking communion in an unworthy manner. I think we should have a bit of fear when the Bible says "will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord", "eats and drinks judgement on himself", and "that is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died". Strong stuff!

What does "without discerning the body" mean in vs 29?
What are our "unworthy manners" of eating the bread an drinking the cup? Since it is not a real meal everyone is going hungry and no one is getting drunk on Welches.

I wonder if it is doing it without remembering Jesus; of just thinking about myself instead of my Saviour?

I'm looking forward to Sunday morning. Thanks for teaching.

Darrel said...

By the way I happened to listen to this message yesterday and thought it was a very good one on Communion.

Matt Guerino said...

Jerry, thanks. Definitely take a look at the passage and tell me what you & Kerri-Ann think. It's only recently I've begun to think more about it myself, so I'd be interested in any thoughts you guys have.

Darrel, great questions. In fact, they're too important to pass up, yet I won't have time Sunday to get into them since my communion comments will only be a couple minutes long. I may need to do a whole stand-alone message on this passage sometime soon!

Regarding what to make of Paul's strong comments, I'd have to ponder them more. But my preliminary thoughts (which is a nice way of saying 'don't quote me - I may change my mind any moment now!') are that the key element Paul is dealing with is the failure of those Christians to recognize and honor the purpose of communion. I think that's why he twice emphasizes when quoting Jesus, "in REMEMBRANCE of me." He's reminding them of what communion is all about. And later (verses 31-34) when he refers to them failing to judge rightly he means their failure to correctly jusge (or "discern" / understand) the purpose of communion.

All of which is to say I'm not sure we're really in a lot of danger of repeating their mistake. Of course we COULD - Christians who know the purpose of communion but reject it, and sort of willfuilly make it something else would I suppose be guilty of the Corinthian problem. But we just do it so differently nowadays than they did then I just don't see that happening much.

I might be wrong of course (don't forget my caveat above!) and there may be a real danger here. But I tend to think some Christians are actually TOO worried about messing communion up and thus they don't participate. I find myself wanting to say to them "relax."

Good thoughts - I need to ponder them some more.

sandy said...

Mr. Matt. I agree with you my friend. Judas was in the process of betraying Jesus and Jesus knew this but did not deny him the bread and the wine.


Jerry Casper said...

So, Kari-Ann and I spent much of the trip up to Seattle and back reading through all four of the gospel accounts of the Passover dinner and then reading I Corinthians 11 several times. Although we didn’t come to any startling conclusions, our conversation was divided between the gospels and the verses in I Corinthians.

The first thing that stuck me about the gospel accounts is that it is understandable without knowing much – if anything – about the culture of the day. There are clues in the passage that the Passover dinner has specific events in it, but the meaning of the passage doesn’t rely on those events. If you’ve ever been to a Passover dinner, you’ll be told that the ceremony surrounding it hasn’t changed significantly in the 2000 years since the apostles had dinner with Jesus. Given the clues in the gospel accounts Jewish believers maintain that they can point to the part of dinner where Jesus talked with his disciples about the new covenant. Understanding the Jewish background to the conversation provides richness and color that isn’t in the gospel accounts, but it does not in any significant way change the meaning of what Jesus has to say.

In a strikingly dissimilar way, the I Corinthians 11 account has blatant cultural references that make the passage difficult to understand. Let’s face it, all of I Corithians 11 is strange by our standards. Although I’ve often thought men look ridiculous in long hair, I would never presume to say that, “nature itself teaches you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him?” I’ve heard several sermons on the last half of I Corithians 11 where the pastor talks about sickness or death that can come from taking communion unworthily, but I have yet to hear a pastor suggest that we start shaving the heads of women who pray or prophesy with their heads uncovered. I’m sure you can imagine how much … fun … Kari-Ann and I had in this part of the conversation. With that said, until I know significantly more about the culture in Corinth at the time of the writing, and specifically about the divisions or heresies that Paul is addressing in this part of his letter, I’m only willing to commit to the following items:

• Paul definitely reaffirms Jesus command to “Do this in remembrance of me.” There is never a question in I Corinthians 11 that a believer is to partake in the communion ceremony.

• Paul adds the expectation in I Corinthians 11 that a believer examine himself before taking communion. “a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” I think this lines up well with your comments about proclaiming the Lord’s death.

I think it would be fun to meet at Peet’s with anyone who is interested, grab a cup of coffee, and work through the entire chapter of I Corinthians 11. When we were going through The Sermon on the Mount, Darrel always had an insight into the verses that I hadn’t seen when studying for the class, so I’d love to hear his full thoughts on the topic.

Matt Guerino said...

So, first question: When is Kari-Ann going to go Rapunzel on us?

And don't think I didn't catch the Peet's reference, which is a blatant attempt to pander to my weaknesses. And it'll no doubt work... :)

But anyway, you make some interesting observations. I actually find the earlier part of chapter 11 to be a pretty straightforward passage (with a couple minor exceptions in one or two curious phrases Paul uses). I even preached that passage to 2,000 people once at Good Shepherd - that was fun! And I tend to read the latter part of the chapter in the same straightforward way. You're right though that the flow of Paul's thought throughout the book, as well as some background on the situations he was addressing, makes all the difference.

Good stuff!

Tim KC6QLV said...

Hi Matt:

Just came back from a Creekside Men's retreat from Mt. Hermon over the weekend. I will e-mail you my thoughts on this matter if you don't mind. Thanks Tim

Jerry Casper said...


I think we'll both be waiting a long time for Kari-Ann to go Rapunzel on us. I wouldn't expect Paul to comment on how challenging it is for a mother of two young ones to care for long hair, but I'm sure I've heard the sermon several times from other sources. :-D

As for the rest of chapter 11, when I talked with my brother over the weekend, he has the same opinion about the Paul's statements at the beginning of the chapter. Then again, he didn't preach about it in front of 2000 people. Gutsy move. I would love to have seen the looks on the faces in the pews.

Anytime you want to meet at Peet's, let me know. There's nothing like a little caffeine to stir the mental processes.

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