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 judgment on themselves.
-1 Corinthians 11:27-29 (NIV)
No one denies that it’s one of most distinctive marks of the Christian faith. It’s been practiced in the church since there was a church, since the church was a collection of disciples who didn’t yet know how they were going to turn the world upside down. When confused, broken followers of Jesus were keeping each other company on the road away from Jerusalem, away from the cross; when they were huddling together with the doors locked out of fear they’d be next; whenever they got together, they found their way to a table. And all their experiences of being around a table with Jesus came with them.
They were all welcome, because Jesus welcomed all to his table — even the one who would betray him, the ones who would desert him, the one who would claim not to know him.
Since then, the church’s most meaningful and universal symbol has been that table.
It’s been called the Eucharist, Communion, the Lord’s Supper. It’s been celebrated at actual dining tables, at ornate altars, or sitting in pews. It’s been celebrated standing, sitting, and kneeling. It’s been celebrated as part of an actual meal and as a symbolic meal of a morsel of bread and a sip of wine or grape juice.
Some churches have celebrated it as a highly ritualistic, almost mystic event where in some way Jesus’ body and blood are literally present. They’ve amassed centuries of tradition: words and music and actions in which they find meaning. Others are almost casual with it, thinking of it as simply a memorial — a marker to help us remember what Jesus has done for us.
And, oh, the controversy! Centuries of it. Transubstantiation. Consubstantiation. One kind, or two? One cup, or many? Weekly, monthly, quarterly, or yearly? Ironically, one of the few things that has been characteristic of the church in almost every time and place has also been a source of its greatest division. My own fellowship, Churches of Christ, connects some of its historical dots to a young Irish Presbyterian who grappled with the idea of closed communion. He chose to leave the hard-earned token that admitted him to that year’s observance lying there on the table beside the cup and loaf, unused, as a protest.
I’ve known people — friends, believers, folks who want to please God — for whom participating in communion involves a constant spiritual licking of the finger and testing of the wind. If things are going well that week they’ll share in it. If not — usually because they’ve lost some private battles with sin — they’ll pass. I understand why, too; doesn’t Paul say that we ought to examine ourselves, and that sharing in Communion “in an unworthy manner” makes us somehow guilty of sinning against “the body and blood” of Christ?
So, it sounds right. But, wait: are any of us “worthy” in the sense that we have all our t’s crossed and i’s dotted? The best of us come to the table as recovering sinners, right? In fact, every believer who’s ever shared in Communion has done so because of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins. It would seem strange to imagine that we’re all a lost temper or an inappropriate thought or a careless action away from being DQ’ed.
So maybe “in an unworthy manner” means something else. Some churches have taken it to mean that, in order to participate, we have to be correct on doctrine. This is where the idea of closed communion comes from: it’s not a desire to be exclusive as much as it is a concern for the spiritual health of folks for whom we can’t vouch doctrinally. Some churches have even made communion into an annual event, and there’s literally an examination in the time leading up to it.
Again, that attitude toward Communion comes, I’m sure, from the best possible motives. Who among us, though, would claim perfect understanding of God, his Word, his work in Christ, the movement of the Spirit, or all the mysteries of our faith? And how do we know that what a particular knot of believers in a particular time and place think is most important really is? Besides which, Jesus didn’t invite his followers to his table because they understood. More often than not, it seems, they didn't. He invited them because he loved them, and they him.
And that’s what Communion’s about, really: Jesus inviting us to his table.
We know how to be gracious guests. We don’t need theologians to tell us.
We know what it’s like to come knowing we’re unworthy to take the places of honor, and hear him call us friends and ask us to come closer. We know what it’s like to come poor and lame and sick, and have him welcome us. We know what it is to be called away from our sins and, with our no-account friends, be invited to share the table with him.
But not just us. When we take our places at the table, we’re immediately struck by all the faces around us. Faces that might surprise us, maybe even offend us, belonging to people who we might not sit down with left to our own devices.
That’s what Paul means when he talks about sharing Communion in a worthy manner. He says it explicitly: the only way to share Jesus’ table with him is to recognize that it isn't a private dinner. We are to recognize that we and the people who sit at the table with us make up the presence of Christ in the world, his body. We belong to each other like Christ’s two hands belong to each other. And there are a thousand ways we can disrupt that unity without even thinking.
So he says, “when you come together to eat, wait for each other.” To the church to whom he wrote those words, he meant it quite literally: some of them were wolfing down a meal that they called “the Lord’s,” leaving nothing for those who had to come later (probably because they were poorer and had to work). For them, the Supper was a source of judgment instead of spiritual nourishment.
But even if we don’t share Communion as part of a meal, and even if everyone is there when we share it, we still have to wait for each other sometimes. We have to wait for those who are struggling with sin. We have to wait for those who are doubting. We share the Lord’s table with folks who have a different political point of view, who read a bit of Scripture differently, who don’t see the world like we do. We have to wait for them, and they for us. We share the table with people who are struggling with addiction, whose marriages are crumbling, who are estranged from their children. We need to wait for them while they catch their breath.
Those folks around the table with us are not an inconvenience. They are not to be ignored, or passed over, or disqualified. That’s not what we learn from Jesus. They are part of his body, and every bit as important to it as anyone else. And they are there for the same reason we are: they have been invited by the Lord, an invitation written in his blood.
May our celebration of Communion always reflect that we are the body of Christ.