Believers dare not come to the table except with a repentant heart.
“Whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner,” as Paul puts it, “drinks judgment to himself.”
That should be a sobering warning, especially when the apostle adds that because of this offense many have fallen ill or died.
Any pastor who takes the Word of God seriously should never administer Communion without adequately warning partakers.
Those who are unrepentant should flee the table rather than trivialize the sacred.
And God does not view this sacred act lightly.
Pat Novak, pastor in a nonsacramental denomination, discovered this when he was serving as a hospital chaplain intern just outside of Boston several years ago.
Pat was making his rounds one summer morning when he was called to visit a patient admitted with an undiagnosed ailment.
John, a man in his sixties, had not responded to any treatment; medical tests showed nothing; psychological tests were inconclusive.
Yet he was wasting away; he had not even been able to swallow for two weeks.
The nurses tried everything.
Finally they called the chaplain’s office.
When Pat walked into the room, John was sitting limply in his bed, strung with IV tubes, staring listlessly at the wall.
He was a tall, grandfatherly man, balding a little, but his sallow skin hung loosely on his face, neck, and arms where the weight had dropped from his frame.
His eyes were hollow.
Pat was terrified; he had no idea what to do.
But John seemed to brighten a bit as soon as he saw Pat’s chaplain badge and invited him to sit down.
As they talked, Pat sensed that God was urging him to do something specific: He knew he was to ask John if he wanted to take Communion.
Chaplain interns were not encouraged to ask this type of thing in this public hospital, but Pat did.
At that John broke down.
“I can’t!” he cried.
“I’ve sinned and can’t be forgiven.”
Pat paused a moment, knowing he was about to break policy again.
Then he told John about 1 Corinthians 11 and Paul’s admonition that whoever takes Communion in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself.
And he asked John if he wanted to confess his sin.
John nodded gratefully.
To this day Pat can’t remember the particular sin John confessed, nor would he say if he did, but he recalls that it did not strike him as particularly egregious.
Yet it had been draining the life from this man.
John wept as he confessed, and Pat laid hands on him, hugged him, and told John his sins were forgiven.
Then Pat got the second urging from the Holy Spirit: Ask him if he wants to take Communion.
Pat gave John a Bible and told him he would be back later.
Already John was sitting up straighter, with a flicker of light in his eyes.
Pat visited a few more patients and then ate some lunch in the hospital cafeteria.
When he left he wrapped an extra piece of bread in a napkin and borrowed a coffee cup from the cafeteria.
He ran out to a shop a few blocks away and bought a container of grape juice.
Then he returned to John’s room with the elements and celebrated Communion with him, again reciting 1 Corinthians 11.
John took the bread and chewed it slowly.
It was the first time in weeks he had been able to take solid food in his mouth.
He took the cup and swallowed.
He had been set free.
Within three days John walked out of that hospital.
The nurses were so amazed they called the newspaper, which later featured the story of John and Pat, appropriately, in its “LIFE” section.
What a story!
It may be worth noting that I don’t think communion should be offered outside the context of the gathered church body, but nonetheless, the story offers us a modern day example of what appeared to be happening to the Corinthian church.
The church had gathered and celebrated the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner and as a result many of them had been sick and some had even died.
This is no archaic anecdote.
This potential danger is not lost to the modern advanced era.
We still have the dangerous potential to draw God’s discipline due to the mishandling of the Lord’s Supper.
Proper observance of the Lord’s Supper protects the church from judgment.
This passage offers for us a problem, the consequences, and a solution to that problem.
The problem was that they had come in an unworthy manner.
The consequences were that they had been guilty of the body and blood of Christ and as a result had drank judgment onto themselves.
The solution was, and continues to be, that they were to first examine themselves and then discern the body.
The Problem: Coming in an unworthy manner
The unworthy manner for the Corinthians.
That which was a symbol of unity and was intended to produce unity was in fact producing disunity within the Corinthian church.
The Corinthians, affected by the Roman culture in which they lived, apparently were practicing the normal dinner hierarchy.
The wealthy and elite were dining on the best food and getting drunk on the best wine.
The lower classes looked on with less.
The poor with nothing.
The death of Christ, symbolized in the bread and wine, forced everyone to stand on equal footing as redeemed sinners.
Yet, in Corinth, not so much.
There was elitism and disunity.
Paul goes so far as to tell them, “it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat” (1 Cor 11:20).
Note the corporate nature of the Corinthians unworthy manner.
As a church, they were approaching the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner.
The examining that Paul speaks of, the eating in an unworthy manner, and being guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, is immediately directed to the community and not just to each person as a private entity.
A discussion on unworthiness must not be limited to a corporate dimension.
If so, it would very well result in a lack of personal repentance and confession.
While the emphasis may be on the corporate failure in the church in Corinth, this ought not lessen the personal examination.
Paul does exhort them “let a person examine himself” (1 Cor 11:28).
The Consequences: Judgment
Guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord (vs.
However one interprets this statement, it is weighty.
The verse is worded awkwardly for us.
The NIV offers a translation that helps a little but still leaves it with some uncertainty as to the meaning.
“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” (1 Cor 11:27 NIV).
The question remains.
What does it mean to sin against the body and blood of Christ?
Would you be offended if someone disregarded or treated disrespectfully the symbol of something you hold precious?
For instance, I can’t imagine if Linda threw her ring down.
Why? It’s just metal.
No, it’s much more than that.
It is a symbol or her commitment to me and her love for me.
To disregard the symbol is to as well disregard what it stands for.
Consider another illustration.
How do you feel when someone burns the flag?
Does that bother you?
Why? It’s just material.
But no, it’s more than that isn’t it?
It is a symbol of something you cherish.
In a similar vein, it is an affront to Christ and his death on the cross when we take lightly or disrespect the symbols of his death, those being the bread and wine received at the Lord’s Supper.
When we come in an unworthy manner, in a disrespectful manner, with no repentance, and causing division, we sin against Christ.
“It’s just bread and wine!” No, it’s much more than that.
It is a symbol and sign of something that we are to hold precious.
Drinks judgment on himself (vs.