A place at the table: Who is worthy of communion?

Fact: I’ve only once eaten at the “kids’” table on Thanksgiving.

I was also a freshman in college.

There’s always something weird about being seated where you feel you don’t belong.  I rarely eat in restaurants alone, but being single occasionally it becomes necessary.  A few years ago I was traveling alone and ended up eating dinner in a relatively nice restaurant.  They proceeded to usher me to the center table.  As in, the table in the middle of the restaurant. As in, the table where passersby could gawk at the peculiar single man eating alone with no one there to tell him that he has food stuck to his face and then wonder if the food stuck to his face was even from the same meal because, hey, maybe he ate lunch alone too and hasn’t been near a mirror.

That sort of table.

A few years ago everyone was talking about the movie The Blind Side, the true story of how Michael Oher came under the care of Leigh Anne Tuohy—played by Sandra Bullock.  I remember being struck at how many scenes took place around a table: the dinner table, the same table while studying, every scene seeming to underscore Oher’s new position not just on the football field, but as a member of the Tuohy family.

That’s what communion does for us.  This is a meal reminding us that we are welcome at the king’s table.  Paul discusses the importance of this meal with the church in the city of Corinth.  Though the meal’s primary purpose is to re-tell the story of salvation, the meal also serves to unite us and remind us who we are and who we are meant to be.

COMMUNION UNITES THE CHURCH

First, Paul emphasizes the unifying element of the Lord’s Table:

16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)

Sharing this common meal together reminds us of our place in a larger community of believers.  I’m told of other people taking communion alone, as part of their devotional life.  There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but the greater blessing is to be a part of the larger church community.  This is why—for the earliest churches—communion was the primary focus of their gatherings.  More than the sermon or music or anything else, the communion table serves as the climax of the service.  We should probably see it as ironic, then, that the one thing Jesus commanded his followers to do is the one thing we’re guilty of treating as optional.  The communion table is meant to be a regular part of our body life.  It unites us to Jesus by uniting us to his body, the Church.

COMMUNION HELPS US TELL GOD’S STORY FROM NOW TO THE SECOND COMING

Second, Paul sees the practice of communion as enduring from the time of Jesus’ death until the time of Jesus’ return.  He even quotes Jesus, saying:

23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when 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.”  25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

Because communion is a means of re-telling the story of the gospel, every time we take this meal together we remind ourselves that yes, we once were deserving of God’s justice, but Christ took our place and now we share a place at the Father’s table.  And one day we will enjoy this table fellowship not merely symbolically, but in some great “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:6).

If you’ve ever been in a wedding, then you know that the night before the wedding party typically gathers to review what’s going to be happening in the official ceremony.  And usually, the party joins together to enjoy a “rehearsal dinner.”  This usually isn’t as special as the meal at the actual wedding, but it’s usually a memorable time full of anticipation.

In one very real sense, the communion table is the rehearsal dinner for the church—a way of rehearsing what our new life will look like when Jesus returns to establish perfect justice in his restored creation.

WHO IS WORTHY?

But Paul now takes a slightly darker turn in his letter:

27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.  31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (1 Corinthians 11:27-32)

Apparently, Paul was dealing with folks who were treating the communion meal as their personal dinner table if not some sort of party.  But it seems to be broader than that.  He cautions against those who take communion in an “unworthy manner,” and even suggests dire consequences for those who fail to heed this warning.

What does it mean to be “unworthy?”  It seems to refer to those who seem totally out of step with the sacrificial death of Jesus.  And I think it really comes down to taking our sin too lightly.  We can do that in two different ways:

  • The first way is to simply ignore our sin. We approach the table without genuinely having repented, brushing aside the darkness of our hearts as inconsequential or simply a “mistake.”  For some, this might even mean ignoring the social dimension of sin.  Jesus commands us to “leave our gift at the altar” and go and be reconciled to one another before entering worship (Matthew 5:24).  To ignore these things or treat them as optional is to take the bread and cup in an unworthy manner.
  • The second way is far more subtle. When I was younger, the “unworthy manner” verse was always trotted out as a prod to get us to really   The motive was good, but it provoked an unhealthy perspective toward sin.  It meant that before you went to the table, you sat there and catalogued all the bad things you did, and you better be really sorry you did that stuff and then you can go to the table.  Right?  The whole thing smacks of an attitude that says that I make myself worthy of the Lord’s Table.  And that’s utter nonsense, but when we think of repentance only as a feeling of being really, really sorry, we have approached the table in an unworthy manner.

So…what’s the alternative?  The opposite of taking communion in an “unworthy manner” is not—repeat, not—that we are ever worthy of coming to the table.  No; we come to the table because Jesus is worthy and we sit at the King’s table only by the grace of his invitation.

This means that this table is for you.  No matter who you are, Jesus invites you to His Father’s table.  No matter if you’re a sinner or saint, this table is for you.  It’s for those who struggle with ongoing sin.  It’s for those who struggle with their own sense of pride.  It’s at this table that Jesus invites us to repent of both our self-indulgence as well as our self-righteousness.  This table is about casting aside our devotion to sin and self and falling face-first on the mercy of God alone.

We need that.  We started this week by suggesting that rituals help define who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going.

There’s a good chance that you look back at your past accomplishments and beam with pride.  You see yourself as put together and accomplished and your future is bright.  This table reminds you—perhaps painfully so—that your identity will not be found in your achievements, but only in the achievement of Jesus.  The table—like the gospel message itself—challenges our sense of superiority and bends our twisted hearts back open to love God and neighbor.

There’s a good chance that you look back at your past experiences and cringe with shame.  For some it’s the wrongs you have done, for others it’s the wrongs committed against you.  You see yourself as broken and worthless, and your future seems dim if you think of it at all.  This table reminds you that your identity will not be found in failure but only in the Savior who took your place on the cross, to pay for your sin as well as to experience the effects of sin, namely pain and humiliation and death.  This table—like the gospel message itself—challenges our sense of inferiority and lifts our gaze from our past to God’s glorious future.

This table is for all of us who place their trust in the accomplishments of Jesus.  It prompts reverence, yes, but also joy.  And it reminds us all that in Jesus, we all find a place at the table.

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Why Gather? The Importance of Remembrance (1 Corinthians 11)

As a child I can clearly recall my parents and grandparents bemoaning the way the world had changed and become more secular. Of course, this was in the time of the hippie generation and anti-war protests, etc. It seemed like a radical time in many ways.

But I have now lived long enough to probably sound like them to my children, and soon to my grandkids I suppose. But times have changed and become more secular, there is no doubt about it. People attend church far less as a total percentage of the population. And those who call a church their home family of faith … they too attend with far, far less frequency than did church folks of my teen and early adult years.

Witness for example the changes in “blue laws.”  Restrictions upon the sale of many items on Sunday, or the disallowance of certain businesses to be open on Sunday, now seem strange even to those of us who grew up in very conservative environs.

Youth sports and travel teams with tournaments, etc. that are so common on Sundays now would have never existed when I was a kid. This is true of a wide range of activities and events.

So, to many people, even many Christians, the notion of prioritizing church attendance above most everything else is an odd values system.

This week our devotionals in this new “Why Church?” series will seek to answer the question, “Why Gather?”  It is a good starting place.

The first of five reasons we’ll talk about is that of Remembrance … speaking of the remembrance of the sacrifice of Christ through the elements of the Lord’s Supper, what we commonly call communion.

In the earliest gatherings of the church of Christ in the decades of the Apostles and the writing of the New Testament, the Sunday gatherings of God’s people appear to have been in the context of a meal shared together. Why was this? It’s a bit complicated, and as I related in the sermon on Sunday, this was actually the topic of my master’s thesis at Dallas Seminary.

The sort of illustration I have used over the years is like this: Imagine if Jesus were to come back to earth, meet with us personally for a couple of weeks, encourage us and give us new instructions for life and a new understanding of God’s master plan. Imagine that he told us that in fact he was again going away, that he would return at a later time and then give us our new eternal heaven and kingdom. And suppose he said that until that time he wanted us to meet and remember his visit and his words by gathering on Tuesday evenings. And beyond that, he said we should remember him by sharing Krumpe’s donuts with each other, knowing how much he loved them in his visit with us.

So, when Tuesday night came, what would happen? Well, we would gather, probably with the room set up the same way. The worship team would play and one or two of us would speak. We’d spend time talking with each other and announcing other activities. And along the way, we’d add in a time for eating Krumpe’s donuts together. We would add the new teachings to our familiar past.

And that is what the early church did, being a group largely composed of Jews who had trusted in Christ as the messianic fulfillment of Scripture. All Jews would be familiar with the gathering of the faithful in their local synagogue, which by the way literally means a “gathering of people” … and later came to be the name of the place where those people gathered (just like the use of the word “church” first reference people, and then the place where the people met). The Christians now met on Sunday rather than Saturday, and they added to the familiar synagogue service the additional element of remembrance through communion.

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians we see him rebuking the readers for their wrongful way of gathering. Meeting on Sunday, the first day of the week, the wealthier people were arriving first and eating and drinking (even in excess) before the poorer people were likely able to attend. The result was that the meeting was not accomplishing anything as it was supposed to in terms of a remembrance.

1 Corinthians 11:17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

Oh my, it sounds like a total mess! Paul is telling them that their purpose was not to eat and drink and party and fellowship. There were other places for that to be a priority. No, their purpose in gathering was to participate in the Lord’s Supper — the time of remembrance. And Paul goes on to relate again the last supper story of Christ with the disciples…

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread … you know the story … skip down to his application in verse 33…

33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.

The remembrance was a focal point of their early church gathering. Though there were other purposes (that we will be covering as the week goes on), it could successfully be argued that the coming together for remembrance — the communion — was the first purpose. The early church would have never met without observing this; they would have probably sooner not had any worship or teaching than to not have the Lord’s Supper.

So, should we observe it every week? It would not be a wrong thing to do, though I don’t think it is a specific command for EVERY week. But some do believe this. At a minimum, it should receive high value and importance. Those of you who have been with us for a longer period of time do know that as of the past couple of years, we have been observing it with greater frequency than the once a month pattern of the past.

So take away from this discussion that, indeed, communion is not a tack-on ritual to observe here and there. It is a major focal point and purpose for gathering as God’s people. His sacrifice for us was HUGE. We appropriately should gathering regularly with joyful gratitude for this great grace — the truth that makes all of the difference for both this world and eternity.