THE CONCEPTION OF COMMUNION CLARIFIED
By Pastor Glenn Pease
The pyramids of Egypt are symbols of man's desire to be remembered. Man alone among all creatures builds a tomb to perpetuate his name. He builds houses, but so do muskrats and birds. He organizes into cooperative society, but so do bees. He forms armies with captains and generals, but so do ants, which also have hospitals for the sick and schools for the young. Other creatures weave, spin, set traps, and hunt game, but none ever bury their dead and set up a marker for a tombstone. Man alone has a desire to be remembered, and he alone instinctively senses that death is not the end, but that the real person is somewhere continuing to exist, and they want to be remembered.
On the night Jesus was betrayed, only hours from the cross, He too expressed a desire to be remembered, but He did not request that they build a towering tomb or a marble monument, or any material memorial at all. He only asked that they observe a simple service in remembrance of Him. Its very simplicity makes it all the more appalling that men could pervert it into anything but what it was meant to be, and more amazing yet that they should begin to do so only 20 years after its institution. As we look at our text we immediately see that Paul is trying to solve the problems of a local church involving the Lord's Supper. His handling of the problem falls into three sections we want to consider. We see the perversion of the Lord's Supper by the Corinthians; the purpose of the Lord's Supper according to Christ, and the peril of the Lord's Supper for the careless.
I. THE PERVERSION OF THE LORD'S SUPPER.
Try and imagine what would happen if we observed the Lord's Supper by everyone bringing their own meal. The bread would be distributed during the meal and the wine at the conclusion. Add to this the presence of people who are not converted plus Christians just shortly converted from paganism. This is the picture we see at Corinth.
The idea was beautiful to have what was called an agape feast at the same time they observed the Lord's Supper. It was a literal reproducing of the setting in which Jesus instituted it. He and His disciples had a Passover meal on that occasion. But what happened was that they began to secularize the church and make it like one of the Greek clubs that met for a common meal. It became a mere satisfying of the physical appetite. The meal became an end in itself and its significance as a memorial to draw their minds to the remembrance of the cross was being forgotten. Verse 20 says it was not the Lord's Supper but their own supper they came to eat.
On top of this it became a scene of thoughtless indifference to human need. It became a statis seeking banquet in which those who could bring all the best things did so. And the poor were left to look on in envy as they chewed their dried bread. It was not pot luck, but each brought their own meal. The result, of course, was as Paul indicates in verse 17 that they went away from the Lord's Supper worse than when they came, and they were bad enough then. In verse 22 he writes, "Shall I praise you for this? I praise you not." This love feast led to such disorder that it was finally prohibited completely by the Council of Carthage.
You might ask how such corrupt conduct could come into the church even to the point of drunkenness, as Paul charges in verse 21? It is a very simple process. All you need to do is bring the world into the church and you soon have a church of the world-not only in it, but of it. The Corinthians used the Lord's Supper as an excuse to continue their pagan banquets, and the result was that the purpose of the Lord's Supper was perverted and became paganized. Paul does not write them off as hopeless, but goes on to teach them.
II. THE PURPOSE OF THE LORD'S SUPPER.
Verse 24 and 25 have been two of the most influential verses in history. How one felt about them has often been a matter of life and death. The question is, are they literal, or are they symbolic? These words were read in the first evangelical communion service ever held in Zurich, Switzerland on April 13, 1525. Zwingli the famous Swiss reformer had convinced the people that they were symbolic, and by approval of the town council and order of service was published a week in advance telling the people that the Lord's Supper would be observed like never before. As people gathered in the great cathedral they saw tables with linen cloth and platters of unleavened bread, and wooden beakers full of wine. Zwingli preached a sermon in which he restored in the minds of the people the centrality of Jesus in the Lord's Supper. From then on people had both elements every week, and a service in their own language.
Zwingli felt it was time that Christians considered Christ as the center of their faith. He began by restoring the simple and symbolic meaning of the Lord's Supper. Ever since the free church tradition has held a similar view. The Roman church sees the words of Jesus as literal. The bread and wine by a miracle actually turn to the body and blood of Christ. If God actually wanted to do so this would be no problem, but it is not good interpretation. To believe in miracles where none are necessary is not a virtue. It is obvious that when Jesus broke the bread and said, "This is my body," He meant that this represents my body. It could not literally be His body as He stood there or His blood would have been flowing onto the floor. They were Jews, and they were commanded of God not to eat blood. It took Peter along time to even eat and unclean animal. You can imagine his shock if Jesus was asking him to literally eat His body and blood.
Everywhere else the words of Christ are recognized as symbolic. When he says I am the vine, or I am the door, Jesus is using symbolic language. It was common to use such language in His day, for symbolic language can be powerful. Do not say it is only a symbol, for this is to underestimate the value of what is priceless. The American flag is only a symbol, but it represents a nation of great power, and so it has power in itself. It stirs us loyalty and devotion, as well as emotion. If you are on your knees in mud as enemy shells are exploding all about and you see a plane fly over with that symbol on it, it can change your whole outlook and give you courage and renewed hope. It represents the power to rescue you and deliver you from what seems to be a hopeless situation. There is power in a symbol if there is power in what it symbolizes.
W. E. Sangster, the famous British preacher, told of a British soldier who was arrested in a foreign port and falsely charged with being in a shooting incident. He was condemned to die before a firing squad. The British Consul protested the injustice, but failed, and so he asked to be at the execution. As the firing squad took position he ran and threw a British flag over the condemned man. He shouted, "Shoot if you dare!" They didn't dare and the case was reheard and the soldier was acquitted. Can a flag stop bullets? It is only a symbol, but a symbol stands for something, and if the something it stands for is powerful, then the symbol is also powerful.
Therefore, do not say that the Lord's Supper is only a symbol, as if that lessons its value. Language and mathematics are systems of symbols, but they are not of less worth because of that. The Lord's Supper signifies the greatest fact in a person's life. It is a symbol of his death that men might live forever. The purpose of this memorial is that you might never forget that this is life's greatest fact.
There are dangers in symbols, however, which we must not overlook. There is the danger of familiarity. The symbol becomes meaningless and just something that you do as a form with no great significance. It is easy to think that since the symbol is not that which is symbolized, what difference does it make how we treat it? This lead the Corinthians to completely abuse the Lord's Supper. An example of what can happen by a thoughtless attitude toward a symbol is the shock W. E. Sangster received at the 150th anniversary of the first Sunday School in England. On the platform a minister sat with a gold cross on his watch chain, and he was absentmindedly cleaning his fingernails.
The second danger is just the opposite. It is that of making the symbol greater than what it symbolizes. The stars and stripes have no more meaning to a pigmy in Africa than a wash towel because he does not know of the history of the nation for which it stands. Likewise, the Lord's Supper has no value for the one who does not know the Christ for whom it stands. There is no inherent merit in partaking of it. All of value comes from understanding the one it represents and what He did. That is why it is only for the saved. The purpose is to remember Christ and His death for you. This is not possible for one who has never accepted that death for themselves.
There is a danger in making too little of it and in making too much of it, and the third danger is in limiting the value and power of it to a particular form or method of partaking. One of the greatest causes for division in the church is the fact that a dozen different groups feel that their form of observing the Lord's Supper is patented in heaven, and all others are invalid. Whenever you have anyone claiming a monopoly on the blessings of God you have trouble because Christians in other groups know you are deceived. Let us not be so concerned about details that we miss the whole purpose.
Mr. Fritz from Southern Rhodesia says that they use cool aid for wine. In some places it is fish and wine. There are numerous different types of cracker and bread used. The point is, the purpose is not in the form or in the elements, but in the mind and heart of those who partake. Jesus said do this in remembrance of me. The purpose is not fulfilled by any outward action, but by the mind which focuses on what Christ has done. Objectively Jesus is always present, but subjectively Christ comes and goes according to the degree of our concentration on Him. Therefore, let us fix our thoughts on Christ in order to remember Him and what He has done for us. Next we look at-
III. THE PERIL OF THE LORD'S SUPPER.
The peril is a matter of conduct more than character, but because it has been misunderstood it has kept many tenderhearted Christians from partaking. It is said that Washington stayed home on communion Sundays because of these words of warning. Fewer words have caused so much distress among Christians, but the clouds in their sky are of their own making. If you read v. 27 carefully you will see that it is dealing with the manner of eating and drinking and not the character of the person. It is the conduct that is unworthy, and not the person. None are worthy, but that is not the issue. It is the way they are acting that is unworthy.
John the Baptist was not worthy to tie the sandals of Christ, and are we worthy to sit at His table? No, we are not worthy of such honor. I would fear the man who says he is worthy to partake. Unworthiness is a qualification for coming. You must recognize that you rely completely on His sacrifice for your salvation, for there is no way you are able to merit it. But this is different from unworthy conduct. Paul refers to their conduct in verses 33-34. They are making a meal out of it and not waiting. They are turning this time of fellowship into a time of insulting others. It is like taking down the flag and wiping your feet on it.
This unworthy conduct is what brought judgment. God will even take the life of one of His children rather than see them become so irreverent that they fall from grace. When the Christian gets involved in sin to the point of danger God may chastise them in a physical manner. We have eliminated this agape feast in our day and so the danger of gluttony and drunkenness is no longer a problem, but there is still the danger of un-confessed sins and un-Christ-like attitudes. We can avoid all peril by turning our minds completely to the thought of Christ so that we fulfill the purpose of the Lord's Supper by doing it in remembrance of Him.