Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, is an integral part of Christian worship. Here we meet Jesus, celebrate His death and remember He is coming again. Here we rededicate ourselves to his service. So how is it that Communion has become for some people a sign of condemnation? In some traditions, excommunication – the refusal of communion – is a means of discipline. In others – and this is what I encounter regularly – individuals exclude themselves from communion because they feel their lives are deficient in some respect. Both of these indicate a total misunderstanding of the meaning of this precious event.
First, discipline. Whatever your understanding of the feast (merely a symbol/highly sacramental or somewhere in between), this signifies the body and the blood of Christ which was broken and shed for the world. Christ gave himself freely for the sins of the world – so who gave a church or an individual church leader the authority to refuse access to that body and blood to anyone, no matter how sinful? I would not dare to refuse communion to anyone for whom Jesus died.
Let us stop passing judgement on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling-block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. (Romans 14:13)
If discipline is required, find some other way.
To the other problem: that of individuals feeling unworthy of taking the elements. This, I believe, usually stems from a misunderstanding of Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32.
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. 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 judgement on themselves. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgement. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.
So it seems that communion does have something to do with discipline after all?
Unfortunately this passage has so often been taken out of its context and used to make sincere Christians afraid – afraid not only of communion but of God himself. God seems to be standing over them ready to judge, and if they should prove in any small way to be unworthy of taking communion, then they will suffer. Better to be on the safe side and avoid it.
This is completely, utterly and totally wrong! It is reprehensible. It stinks. I cannot tell you how much I hate this devilish twisting of the Word!
To correct this, remember the context. (A useful piece of advice for most cases of bad Scripture application). In this case, Paul writes to the church in Corinth to correct abuses of this wonderful feast – they should be celebrating the Lord’s Supper, but instead are using it as an opportunity to highlight the differences among themselves. It’s clear that the suppers they are having consist not just of a little wafer and a sip of wine, but more like what we would call a ‘bring and share’ supper – except they were bringing and not sharing! Paul calls them out for their lack of concern for each other – some are hungry; others are getting drunk! When actually this supper, above all others, ought to involve a recognition that we are all one body (see 10:16-17). When we take part in this feast we do so as one body – the body of Christ.
This wonderful phrase, ‘the body of Christ,’ operates on three levels during Communion: we remember and are thankful for the actual body of the human Jesus which was broken for us on the cross; we break and eat the loaf to show we accept what Jesus has done for us; we recognise that, along with all other believers, we make up the body of Christ.
So what should exclude us from participating? A vague sense of unworthiness? NO! The “unworthy manner” to which Paul refers (11:27) is a failure to discern the body of Christ (11:29).
So let me examine myself (11:28):
- Am I actively discriminating against a brother or sister?
- Am I carrying hatred in my heart against someone else for whom Jesus died?
- Are my actions keeping someone else from receiving the grace Jesus offers them?
Any of those might prevent me participating in the body of Christ by taking Communion. BUT (and this is very important) – if I recognise any such attitude when I examine myself, do I just let the plate pass and shrug my shoulders? NO! I must sort this out. I must repent. I must restore my fellowship with the person I have wronged. It doesn’t have to take long. In fact, if the person is present, a great way of restoring fellowship is to take the bread or wine to them, ask them to forgive me and share the feast together, so this becomes a feast of unity and not one of division (for Jesus’ teaching on a similar issue, see Matthew 5:23-24).
This is why when I lead communion I make sure everyone can be included.
- Children can be included.
- But they haven’t been baptised! - So?
- But they don’t understand! - Don’t they? What are you teaching them? Tell them this is a special drink and bread to remember that Jesus died for us and if they are, or want to be, Jesus’ friend they can join in. I haven’t yet found a child who can’t understand that. Christian parents, if you want to keep your children in the faith, you won’t do it by excluding them from the start. If you leave them out here, don’t complain when they leave altogether in their teens.
- People who have not made a public profession of faith can be included.
- But they aren’t saved! Aren’t they? Do you know what has gone on in secret between them and God? Do you know they haven’t just asked Jesus to save them? Communion is a great evangelistic opportunity. When I know there are people in church who are not-yet Christians, I make a point of explaining that Jesus has died for us all and he offers himself freely. They may decide to decline his offer, and they are free not to participate in communion, but if they want to know more about Jesus, or if they want to ask him for forgiveness, they can pray like this [lead a suitable prayer] and take the bread and the wine as a sign that they are accepting what Jesus has done.
- People who know they have sinned can be included.
- But I’m a sinner! Great! This is a feast especially designed for you! Only sinners are allowed to take it. Come on in, celebrate the goodness of Jesus. Be glad that it’s His righteousness and not your own which will save you.
So when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, of course there must be some self-examination. Am I walking with Jesus? Am I full of the Spirit? Holy Spirit, is there something I haven’t been listening to you about, so that I’ve injured my brother or sister and not recognised the body of Christ or treated it properly? I’m sorry about that. I’m putting it right now. Thank you Jesus for your cross, your forgiveness, the new life I have. I now take this bread and this wine with deep thanksgiving and joy that all my sin has been dealt with and I can live my life in the constant knowledge and experience of the glorious grace of God.