We are about to partake in the Lord’s Supper in a moment. And if you’ve been a Christian for a while attending church, you might have taken the Lord’s Supper as frequently as every week and as infrequently as once a year. In any case, if you’ve been in church before, then you know the verses from 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 about taking the bread and the cup, this is my body and my blood, do this in remembrance of me.
As Baptists, we call the Lord’s Supper an ordinance rather than a sacrament because we don’t believe that anything sacred is happening during the Lord’s Supper. We don’t believe that the elements of the bread or wine (or in our case, Welch’s grape juice), we don’t believe that these elements actually transform into the literal body and blood of Christ. Nor do we believe that any kind of spiritual regeneration is happening in our hearts during the Lord’s Supper.
Rather, we read the phrase “do this in remembrance of me” to mean that this is a symbolic act to remember and commemorate what Christ has already done in a believer’s heart. It’s the same with baptism. There is nothing mystical happening in the ceremony of the baptism, but it is a public declaration of what Christ has already done for the believer inwardly, in his heart. That’s why instead of a sacrament, we call the Lord’s Supper an ordinance. Christ ordained 2 things for all believers to do — baptism and the Lord’s Supper — so out of obedience to Scripture, we at LBC observe these 2 ordinances. Our current plan for next year is to observe the Lord’s Supper every other month on the first Sunday of the month and on special occasions such as Thanksgiving.
Usually, at this point, the presider reads v23-25 and we jump into the ordinance, but I think we miss something really important if we fail to study the context.
So I am going to read starting from 1 Cor 11:17-22. For now, we are going to skip over the familiar verses that are read during the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper in v23-25 because they will be read later on. And so we’ll jump to v26 and then read until the end of the chapter. Just listen as I read.
I want to focus on the phrase in v27 — what does it mean to eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner?
I’ve heard it said before that this phrase — partaking of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner — refers to non-Christians coming forward and drinking judgment upon themselves. And that is why non-Christians are commonly asked to refrain from partaking in the Lord’s Supper. That is simply incorrect. I would say that when we are ready to observe the Lord’s Supper in a moment, those who do not profess Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord should refrain from partaking, not because if you did partake, you would be doing so in an unworthy manner. Rather, you are asked to refrain because the act would be utterly meaningless to you.
Then, what is Paul referring to when he warns not to eat the bread and drink the cup in an unworthy manner?
First, we should note that Paul is writing to the Christians gathered at the church at Corinth. That’s significant. He is talking to those who already profess Jesus as their Savior and Lord.
And Paul is clearly upset at them because the manner in which they are observing the Lord’s Supper is a reflection of a deeper problem in the life of this church.
v17 — Paul says their church meetings do more harm than good. That’s pretty harsh. Then, he explains further why he thinks their gatherings are harmful in v18, their meetings are harmful because there are divisions among them and Paul is shocked because he doesn’t think a body of Christ filled by people who have been saved by the blood of Jesus can be this dysfunctional. And Paul has difficulty wrapping his head around this divided church because it’s an oxymoron to him to have a body of Christ and yet it be this divided.
Then, Paul goes into more specifics of how this church is fractured. Starting with v20 – Paul now ties their disunity in their every day life as a church with the unworthy manner in which they observe the Lord’s Supper. To get the full weight of what Paul is saying, we have to realize that back then, the Lord’s Supper was not a little cracker fragment and a sip of grape juice. It was a full meal where people gathered in one of the believer’s homes. Often, in those days, churches were not separate places of worship. The church was not a separate building like this one. A church was a group of believer’s meeting in homes. House churches. A stranger from off the street wouldn’t just barge into one of these homes. This was an intimate fellowship among believers who knew and loved one another.
But what happened at Corinth? Basically, some who were more well-to-do economically came early and they gorged themselves during the meal and ate up all the bread and drank up all the wine, to the point of drunkenness. And so by the time others arrive, specifically some poor members of the church, everything is gone. There is no bread and wine left. And these brothers and sisters who lacked the financial means actually depended on this meal for their physical survival.
Is this how a church should be? One thing we can presume is that the church of Corinth was not a mega-church. If they had several thousand members, then of course, it is impossible to know each person and their specific financial situation. But Paul is confident to call them out on this kind of behavior because he assumes that everyone knows everybody else. To me, this is significant. This is why I believe in church planting rather than staying in one place and making a single church bigger and bigger. But I digress, that’s another topic altogether.
We are expected to be one and you can’t be one unless everyone knows and loves one another. Now, I think we can safely assume that those who were filling their stomachs were well aware of these members of the church who struggled financially. Yet, these rich members either deliberately and willfully chose to ignore the poor among them or they were only thinking about themselves as they were stuffing their faces. In either case, this is not how the body of Christ should be.
We are members of one body. We are supposed to be united. Unity is not abstract, it’s not a shallow feel good emotion. Unity is not the same as being polite and cordial. Unity is hard work. It requires effort and denying oneself and dying to our rights and preferences. Unity can be messy at times. Unity was supposed to be real and tangible and Christian love and self-sacrifice ought to make a difference in how we relate with one another.
So if these brothers and sisters who were indulging themselves during the meal had the financial means, out of their love and concern for others who were less fortunate, wouldn’t they eat at home prior to coming and make sure that there was enough food for their fellow brother or sister whom they knew was starving? This is the argument Paul is trying to make.
In the world, people only think about themselves. In the world, rich people only hang out with other rich people. In the world, people of a particular ethnicity cluster around others of the same ethnicity. In the world, you only spend time with people who are just like you. And sadly, many churches are no different. The gospel ought to break down barriers between rich and poor, black and white, yellow, brown, male, female, young, old. We are to be one. It is my prayer that God would transform us into this kind of church.
If you can say to the brother or sister next to you, although I have nothing in common with you, I am compelled to love you because of what Christ did for me, that’s the power of the gospel. And if the gospel is the only reason that we are together and we love each other despite our vast differences, that’s a sign that God has changed us from the core. If our church acts out the gospel in this way, the world will take notice.
Now that we understand the context, I pray that we can approach the Lord’s Supper a bit differently. We are going to ask you to come forward twice. First, after a time of self-examination, I will invite you to come forward to take the bread and you are free to take it whenever you are finished praying on your own. This is to stress the individual aspect of the Lord’s Supper. Second, I will ask you to come forward again to take the cup and this time, I ask that you wait until everyone has been served and we will take the cup altogether. This is to stress the corporate aspect of the Lord’s Supper.
We have 7 elders at this church and I am going to ask a couple of them to come forward and stand facing the congregation. So as you come forward, the 3 of us, as representatives of the leadership of this church, we are going to pray for you silently because it is our commitment to serve you and to lead this church primarily through the preaching of the Word and through prayer.
But before you come forward for the bread, Paul instructs us in v28 to examine ourselves. How should we examine ourselves? To do this, I think we need to place v28 in the context of this entire chapter. The Lord’s Supper has vertical and horizontal, or individual and corporate implications. Examine your relationship with Christ, what sins do you have to repent of before the Lord? If you know you are committing blatant sin and you are unrepentant, then for your sake, I would ask you to refrain from partaking in the Lord’s Supper. That’s between you and God. No one else can see what is going on in your heart. This is a time to re-evaluate your individual relationship with God.
In addition, we must also examine our relationships with one another, what sins do we need to confess before our brothers and sisters in Christ? If you have someone outside of this church that you need to forgive, use this time to forgive them in your heart. If you need to ask for forgiveness from a brother or sister in this church, I ask you to refrain until you are able to pray with that person and reconcile.
Again, I would ask non-Christians to refrain because this ordinance has no meaning for you. And even if you are Christian, you may read this chapter and realize for the first time, hey wait a minute, I never really committed myself to a body of Christ. You are still welcome to partake in the Lord’s Supper, but I ask you to consider the corporate aspect of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper originated in the Last Supper where Jesus shared an intimate meal with his 12 disciples. And again in 1 Cor 11, Paul is calling the Corinthians to partake in the Lord’s Supper in a worthy manner in terms of how they treat their fellow brothers and sisters whom they are called to love.
Let me read starting from the second half of v23 —
23 The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
Let’s spend some time in prayer, but not too long, maybe 1-2 minutes. When you have finished praying, come forward and take the bread back to your seat. And when you are ready, please take it individually as a symbol of Christ’s forgiveness given to you personally. To avoid congestion in the front, I ask that people come up using the center aisle and then return to their seats around to the sides.
If you haven’t come forward to take the bread already, please come forward now because we will be moving on to the cup soon.
Now is the time we invite you to come forward for the cup. This time, I ask everyone to take the cup and wait at their seat until everyone has been served. Then, as a symbol of our corporate unity, we will take it together so please hold on to the cup and wait for everyone to be served.
Please come forward.
25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
You may take the cup.