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Carson-Communion

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The chuch has squabbled over many things regarding the Lord's Table, but there are six vital principles we can agree on.
An article by Don Carson ----

Someone has said that the four most disputed words in the entire history of the church are "This is my body." Historically that little clip of four words has engendered massive disputations and arguments. I want to outline six elements in the Lord's Supper that are mandated by 1 Corinthians 10 and 11. Regardless of your background, we must agree on these points.

First, the Lord's Supper serves as a center and symbol of Christian unity.

It's important to catch the flow of the argument here. From 1 Corinthians 7:1 on, the apostle Paul often resorts to what is sometimes called a yes-but argument. He not only has to deal with certain kinds of pastoral problems in the church — that have been addressed to him in a letter — but the church is divided over most of them. He discovers he must not only give them the answer to their questions, but he must do so in a pastorally sensitive way that doesn't further polarize an already polarized people. So he tends to say to one faction, " Yes, yes, but..." And then he says to the other faction " Yes, yes, but..."

Yes, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. Celibacy has its strengths. But, one man has this gift; one man has another, and marriage is honorable in all, to use the language of Hebrews. He comes to the matter of tongues, for example. Yes, I speak in tongues more than all of you, but in the church I'd rather speak five words in a known tongue than 10,000 words in an unknown tongue.

This yes-but argument percolates through many of his arguments precisely because he's a wise pastor. So it is startling when you come to chapter 1 Corinthians 11:17 and find no yes. It's all but, as it were. He says, "In the following directive, I have no praise for you." There's no yes, only condemnation. And the particular area in which he has only condemnation is, of all things, the Lord's Supper.

It's important to remember that in the ancient Roman world they ran on a ten-day week. In the Jewish world, of course, they ran on a seven-day week. That meant that Christians who met on the first day of the week on a Jewish cycle were necessarily competing with the off days of the ten-day cycle for most of their Lord's Day celebrations. Which is one of the reasons why the early church tended to meet very early in the morning and very late at night. If they were meeting late at night, you can guess what happened.

Those who were independently wealthy could show up at any old time. They could show up at two in the afternoon, and bring along their sandwiches, their prawn cocktails, caviar, and bottle of Beaujolais, and have some fellowship together.

Then a little farther on you'd get the independent business people who could knock off a little early. And then the freemen, ex-slaves and workers and citizens who were not slaves or bound in any way. Maybe they could get there at seven.

Then of course there were the slaves. When could they get there? It depends on what kind of slave. In the ancient world slaves could be almost anything. They could be learned, private tutors who could presumably knock off a little earlier. But some slaves were manual workers, or maybe they were the slaves that had to put out the cat before going to bed, and they could only get there right at the very end. Whereas others had brought their chicken sandwiches and stale crusts and so on, the lowest of the slaves when they showed up couldn't bring anything.

By this time the fellowship's in pretty good heart. They decided to meet for a whole meal together before they actually got to what the Lord himself had commanded, a small rite with bread and wine. But now there's a whole meal together, at least for those who get there early.

Verse 20, "When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat." No sirree. You're enjoying your caviar. "As you eat, each one of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry [the people who get there last], and another gets drunk." Now you come to the part of the service where you actually have the Lord's Supper. Where is the unity in all of this? "Don't you have homes to eat and drink in?" The Lord's Supper isn't primarily about satisfying your physical needs. "You despise the church of God and humiliate those people who have nothing." Paul is blistering. "What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not."

He comes to this again in verse 33, "So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment." In other words, he gets rid of all this "table fellowship" if all it's going to do is generate more animosity and resentment and bitterness and feelings of superiority and inferiority and inclusion and exclusion. This rite that is supposed to be a center point of Christian unity has become the focal point for division.

This is the only enduring rite that Jesus himself commissioned in the entire church. Shall it become a point, therefore, where we mask our resentments and nurture our bitternesses and so forth? God help us if that's what it becomes.

Chapter 10 and verse 17 is clear enough. There is a sense in which the bread we eat represents Christ's body. "This is my body," the body that was broken. But in one metaphorical usage the church is the body of Christ. So then by extension, this bread that symbolizes Christ's body broken on the cross may also represent Christ's body, which is the church. We all partake of this one loaf, and benefit from Christ's body, and we are the body. There is a sense in which the one loaf from which we partake is to signal our unity. But there's more than that.

"Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ?" (10:16) The word participation is almost everywhere else rendered fellowship in the NIV. And there's no little preposition in there. This should really be rendered "Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a fellowship of the blood of Christ?" You see if you render it a participation in the blood of Christ and then a participation in the body of Christ, it gives the feeling that somehow by ingesting you participate in something. But what is meant in the context — as becomes very clear in the next paragraph — is that the cup of thanksgiving, the rite itself, signals, circumscribes, constitutes a fellowship of Christ, a fellowship of the blood of Christ, a fellowship of the body of Christ.

It is not suggesting that we somehow ingest Christ or ingest Christ's blood and thereby participate in him. That is the problem of English translation. It is simply not what the text says. We are the fellowship of the blood of Christ. We are the fellowship of the body of Christ. It is a rite that serves as a center and symbol of Christian unity.

Second, the Lord's Supper is a time to remember.

"For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 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.' 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,' for whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes," (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

The view that emphasizes remembering, with respect to the Lord's Table, is often dismissed as the minimalist view. It is thought to be too cerebral. There's nothing of grace in it. You sit around and remember. But there's more to it than that. Don't forget that the institution of the Lord's Supper was built off the Passover rite. The Israelites gathered once a year to remember the Passover. By remembering, it was a kind of covenantal renewal. They remembered when the Lord had passed over the people of Israel in Egypt who had put blood on the doorposts and on the lintel so that the angel of destruction passed over the people. And the people were spared, while the firstborn of all those not protected by the blood were killed. Then the people of God exited from Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, and became a fledgling nation in the wilderness on their way toward the Promised Land. Year by year they celebrated the Passover and remembered.

In one sense, this is one of the most shocking paragraphs in all of the New Testament. There is Jesus, the night of his betrayal, the day before he goes to the cross, and he has to tell his followers — as he is about to die for them and suffer the most horrible shame and the curse of his Father — "Don't forget me." But if we've been Christians for a while and know ourselves at all, we know how easy it is to forget. "Do this in remembrance of me."

In fact, it does fit into a larger structure. The old Passover remembered the old covenant. It was linked to the old covenant. But now Jesus says this cup is the new covenant in my blood. This is a rite like the old rite that remembers the inauguration of the new covenant the way the Passover remembered the inauguration of the old covenant. From on, six centuries before Christ, the prophets had looked forward to the dawning of a new covenant in which there would be ample forgiveness of sins for all the people of God, the pouring out of his Spirit upon men and women so they would all know him within that covenant from the least to the greatest, no longer any mediating priests or mediating kings or mediating prophets. A new covenant in which God stamps his law in their hearts. All secured finally by Christ's death.

Within that framework, if you put yourself in the disciples' place, they don't really know what's going on.

And then he dies. Three days later he rises again. He talks with them for weeks before he finally ascends and leaves them behind. Many of the pieces come together, and they reflect on that night. It was to point to Christ's broken body. It was to point to his shed blood. It was to force them in a simple rite, endlessly repeated, to remember.

Third, the Lord's Supper is a proclamation of Christ's death.

The verb that is used for proclaim is one of three commonly used for the articulation and proclamation of the gospel. So often what some churches do with the Lord's Supper is invite everybody who is not a member, anybody who is not a Christian, to leave now. This is now a purely in-house matter. It is for Christians only. But apparently in the ancient church it was also an opportunity to proclaim Christ. It became a kind of visible word. I can introduce you to churches where in mixed assemblies with Christians and non-Christians present, whoever is leading takes a few moments to say something like this:

{{{"

If you've never seen a Christian communion service, you're going to think this is a little bizarre. So let me explain what's going on here. We believe that Jesus gave his body to bear our sin, that he shed his blood, giving his life, that we might be forgiven. And he gave us a simple rite like this by which to recall what he gave that we might be forgiven. If you're not a Christian, don't take the elements. It's a contradiction in terms for you say "I remember" when you don't remember. But you ought to watch how Christians think about the death of Christ, on which they fasten all their hopes for reconciliation to God, for the removal of their sins, for forgiveness, for their hope of eternal life. Watch now as the people of God remember his death.}}}

That becomes a visible proclamation to unbelievers who are present. It can be a very powerful proclaiming.

Fourth, the Lord's Supper is a temporary ordinance.

We are to do this "until he comes." In the new heaven and the new earth we're not going to be celebrating the Lord's Supper anymore. Will we then have to be reminded of the wounds of the Lord? Will we then have to remember his death when we have been so transformed that we are no longer tempted by sin or defection, when we will no longer sing, "Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love?" We will no longer have some rite that will call us to remember, for we will remember forever. Because of that, this is a temporary rite that itself anticipates the Lord's return.

Fifth, it provides regular opportunity for spiritual and moral self-examination.

It is very important to recognize that "in an unworthy manner" describes the approach. It's an adverb describing how you approach. It is not an adjective describing the person. This does not say, "Therefore, who ever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord and is unworthy..." It doesn't say that. It says, "Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner." What is "an unworthy manner?"

For a start, it's saying, "I remember the death of the Lord," while I am nurturing all kinds of sin within. It's essentially deceit and lie. It's an unworthy approach. I can never be worthy of the body and blood of Christ. But a worthy manner of approach is full of contrition and self-examination. If you come to this table where you're supposed to remember and you say, "I remember the body and blood of the Lord," when deep down inside you are nurturing resentments and sin and arrogance and prayerlessness and lust and hatred and nurtured gossip, and you say, "I remember," you're sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. You're sinning against Christ's body. You're sinning against the cross. You're sinning against his sacrifice. You say you remember, and you spit in his face by nurturing your sin.

A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself, " (1 Corinthians 11:28). This rite is meant to be a call to self-examination and repentance.

This does not mean we are to approach the table sinlessly perfect. That would be a question of making us worthy. The question is the manner of our approach. The manner of approach must be self-examination and confession of sin. Otherwise the rite itself becomes not only a farce but a blasphemous farce. We are claiming to remember that by which we are saved while in fact, deep in our lives, we prefer our sin.

Christ has died for us. Yet that freedom does not warrant the kind of carelessness with which we sometimes approach the Lord, as if this table were a bit of magic to bless us for the week.

Sixth, the Lord's Table can be dangerous.

Paul holds that at least some of the ailments in the congregation at Corinth are bound up with their nurturing sin while still approaching the Lord's Table.

Nowhere does the Bible teach that all illness is the direct result of an immediate sin. We should not be so foolish to think that every illness is the direct result of a particular sin. But we should not be so foolish as to think either that it may not be.

In this day of philosophical naturalism, we are not always prepared to recognize that spiritual failure may be met by God by actual illness and even death. I hesitate to tell you this next story because it's almost too spectacular. Moreover, I wasn't there. It was told me by a man who was there, a godly man who taught me systematic theology in seminary. He tells the time when 30 years earlier he was just a young man pastoring a church in the outback of Australia. He was assigned to a small Baptist church in a rural community where it was the only church in town. He went there and tried preaching the gospel. He tried to be faithful to the Lord. He soon discovered that this was a wild frontier town where the elders in the church participated in all kinds of moral turpitude and financial shenanigans, and the whole place was an outback Peyton Place. It just was not a happy situation. When he tried to exercise discipline, it was impossible. All the leaders in the church were on the other side in any case.

After about three years, he was lonely and discouraged. He finally started praying, sometimes prostrate on his face, "Lord God, you put me in the wrong place. I can't handle this. I'm not doing any good. I'm not seeing anybody converted. I wish you'd just take me out of here. Put me into someplace within the domain of my capacity. Bring in someone here who is a real man of God with unction and fire and power. Or you clean up the church. There's nothing I can do with this." He prayed along those lines daily, often in tears.

After three months he started having funerals. He had 34 of them in this small village, mostly leading people in the church, and the next year baptized 200.

Now don't misunderstand me. I don't want this to turn into a bit of magic. Nor am I suggesting this is the first procedure. You go and pray this too quickly, you might be the first to go. Yet at the same time, it is important to remember that we serve a God who is holy. The worst thing that can happen to us is that he should not discipline us at all. That's what this text says: "When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world." It is a good thing to face some of the judgment of God. God help the church where he just lets them go on their own way, and there is no judgment anywhere, no discipline. Pretty soon you've got a dead church.

That means the Lord's Table, then, is a place that can be dangerous, because we serve One who says, "I am the Lord. My glory I will not give to another. To this man will I look, he who is of a contrite spirit and who trembles at my Word."

The flipside is, this is a place for remembering the boldness of access we have in Christ. Christ did die, and we remember. Our sins are forgiven, and we remember. We are called to be children of the living God, and we remember. We are heirs of the new covenant, and we remember. We remember.
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