1 Corinthians 11:27-34
November 4, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 14:10 in the audio file.
Or, Dangers and Doubts at the Lord’s Supper
Too many times it’s as if when the church comes together for communion, everyone is urged to look at the Table, and then the preacher dumps a pile of leaves that have been in the compost pile for six months on top of the bread and the cup. Or it’s as if he dumps the pile of compost in front of the Table and requires everyone to wade through it. Or it’s as if he tells everyone to bring their own pile from home and examine each leaf remnant looking for what is most grimy, pick it out, and stare at it for an indefinite amount of time, and then, maybe, people will be ready to eat and drink.
Beloved, these things ought not be so. You were not made for the Lord’s Supper, the Lord’s Supper was made for you.
How do you think God wants you to feel when you come to the Lord’s Table? We don’t usually talk that way, but try it out for a moment. What does He want the state of your heart to be? Even more than that, how do you think God feels when you come to the Lord’s Table? What is the state of His attitude toward you?
We’ve been lead to believe, and it is based on the verses we’re going to work through today, that God prefers that we be anxious about our sin. We don’t use the word “anxious,” because that is a sin, so we use other terms: convicted, bothered, grieved, horrified. That is how we should respond to sin we find, and there’s also a second-level worry about whether we found all the sin we’re supposed to feel bad about. As for God’s stance toward us, we envision Him in perfect holiness and perfect omniscience, with a suspicious or even displeased countenance, knowing that we don’t know how truly awful we are. He demands that we do this in remembrance, but threatens to kill us if we eat in an unworthy manner.
There is some truth in what I’ve just described, except that the gospel has been buried. There is a sliver of good news, but it is like a tiny, dry, tasteless cracker. There is a thimble of joy and life, but the joy is like one part grape juice to five parts vinegar of knowing you don’t deserve to taste the one part of joy in the first place.
Not only is this anxious approach not right, at the root of it is the same problem the Corinthians had, even though this attitude is supposedly an attempt to avoid being like the Corinthians. Paul started rebuking the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 11:17 since some of them were indulging themselves and neglecting others while claiming that they were remembering Christ. Their ironic failure is legendary, and Paul reveals that God disciplined some of them with sickness and death because of it. But what was their problem? Their problem was focus on self. And that is the same problem with the predominant sort of introspection urged on believers in our day. Focus on self, even the sinful parts, is not what the death of Christ was for, and it is not what communion is about. We do this in remembrance of Him, not in remembrance of sin. We do not share communion in cultivated unhappiness.
We must take seriously the consequences Paul describes and the counsel he gives to the Corinthians. We would be wise to follow Paul’s instructions and avoid the dangers he identifies. And also, we are wrong if we think the antidote to self-indulgence is to doubt our salvation really hard and chew the bread softly hoping that God won’t punish us.
In the first three sentences of the paragraph Paul speaks in the third person about what happens to any person who eats unworthily, in the last three sentences he addresses them directly in the second person and then includes himself in the first person plural to describe what we must all do.
The absolutely inappropriate happens. 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. The condition is followed by consequence.
The first general consequence is being guilty, meaning that one is responsible for some inappropriate and unlawful behavior. To persist in that behavior is to bring judgment on oneself (verse 29), an authoritative decision which includes the just punishment.
Does God love anyone more than His eternal Son? Will He give a name to anyone that is higher than the name He gives to Christ? Jesus pleased His Father by humbly and obediently and lovingly laying down His life on behalf of His Bride, the church. No human can fully evaluate the infinite worth of Jesus’ body and blood as an atonement for sin. There is a way to eat and drink the guilt offering that makes us more guilty.
So what is an unworthy manner? The adjective unworthy refers to something that doesn’t balance the scales. The context describes that some of the Corinthian Christians were eating to the exclusion of other Christians, even humiliating them. Paul says they were despising the church of God. His final counsel is that they “wait for one another” (verse 33), and so show concern and love for others. That sort of behavior has the same weight as Christ’s.
A flippant remembrance, or a selfish remembrance, does not match the Lord’s death. To act as if you do not need a savior is no good, nor is it good to act as if you can benefit from Christ’s work on the cross without being shaped by the cross.
But neither does it match to act as if the Savior didn’t really mean to save you. A fearful remembrance does not fit. Depressed eating and drinking is not faith. Nervous eating and drinking is not trust. So worthy eating and drinking is in humble and thankful faith. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about trusting in Christ’s perfect work.
Here’s what you do: Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. Obviously this is where we got on the road of introspection, but the devil, who loves to stimulate our our guilt, put up signs to turn us away from humility to a “pietist psychologism” (Thiselton). But again, note what problem this is addressing: those who were distracted by the party atmosphere and getting drunk. The ones who are confessing their sins don’t need to “go deeper” and dredge Wretched Pond. You can find something. But the focus isn’t the examination, the focus is the eating.
There are those who aren’t right. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. What does discerning the body mean? Some have argued that it means realizing that Jesus’ body is in the bread. But Paul isn’t giving a lesson in metaphysics or confronting them for too little sacramentalism. He’s confronting them for not having communion. The body is the church, the others who share the Supper.
Judgment wasn’t theoretical among the Corinthians. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. He provides a reason for this in verse 32, and it is a gracious purpose on God’s part, though it doesn’t change the severity of the consequences. The ESV interprets the word “death” for “sleep.” But in context, weakness and illness are on the trajectory toward death. Sleep as a figure for death in Greek goes all the way back to The Iliad (BAGD).
The bread and the wine satisfy and strengthen us by faith. The bread and the wine have toxic, poisonous effects when taken selfishly. Paul doesn’t name names, though he undoubtedly refers to actual medical or terminal cases among them. That many have physical problems because of unworthy partaking does not imply that all the physical problems are because of unworthy partaking, and diagnosing a cold, or cancer, as a consequence of mediocre confession is not the pastoral role. Even in a time and place when the gift of healing was in effect, some of the Corinthian Christians still died.
What we should do is be attentive. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. If we paid attention to what we’re doing in the Lord’s name, then the Lord wouldn’t pay attention to our lack of attention. The problem is avoidable on our part.
But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. Somehow this softens even the death. It also emphasizes the gravity of our Christian responsibility to embody Christlikeness as we share communion. There are two types of judgment: that for the world and that for those who are not considered the world, the elect and purchased and regenerated. Christians cannot be condemned, and this is because condemnation for sin can only justly be applied once. For Christians, there is no condemnation for us because Christ took our condemnation for us (Romans 8:1).
The world, every person not chosen to believe the word of the cross, stores up wrath for the day of wrath. Any man outside of Christ is “condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18).
At times, God will bring His children home rather than allow them to continue in anti-cross conduct. Note, though, that God shows grace even to unworthy eaters.
Paul returns to the particular problem with counsel for what they should do. So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another–. The phrase come together bookends the section (starting in verse 17). Though they came together for worse, the real option wasn’t to not come together. They were to wait, and in particular, to welcome each other (rather than humiliate others, verses 21-22).
As necessary, if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home–, so that the meal part wouldn’t be taken as an excuse to despise those who had less. Come together, eat together, remember the Lord by observing His Supper. Just do it so that when you come together it will not be for judgement. Reasonable enough.
He finishes the chapter. About the other things I will give directions when I come. What other things? We don’t know. Perhaps it was more particulars about the Supper. Maybe it was about other liturgical parts. Whatever it was, it wasn’t as urgent as this rebuke of their indulgence.
Before we finish, how did the overwhelming attitude toward the Lord’s Supper become one of over-much examination, downheartedness, fearfulness, and feel-bads? Even in churches that teach through the chapter and read the situation into which Paul speaks, why still so little celebration in the celebration?
On an individual level I think there may be a couple answers. One is that some believers are weak in faith, with tender consciences. Another, and more likely answer, is that self-righteousness is easier to display/defend in sorrow than in gladness. Sitting in sackcloth and ashes must be more saintly than dancing like David. “The world wants to be glad, and the world is proud, so we are obviously not like the world when we are not glad because we’re such humble sinners; just look at how not-glad we are.” Of course this is no less pride, it’s just a mask.
On a church level, I think pastors don’t know better, or don’t actually believe the evangel they preach, or in some cases they even deliberately dishearten the flock because it’s harder to control other people when they are joyful. It is much easier to intimidate and manipulate others with guilt, especially by making that guilt seem honoring to God. Ambrose Bierce hits close to many preachers’ hearts:
EXHORT, v.t. In religious affairs, to put the conscience of another upon the spit and roast it to a nut-brown discomfort. (Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, pp. 53-54, Kindle Edition.)
We are afraid of joy. What if it gets out of…control?
If justification by faith is not preached in such a way that men could abuse grace, sinning to get more of it, then justification by faith has not been preached (at least not the way Paul did it in Romans 5-6). If the Lord’s Table is not celebrated in such a way that men could (while obviously they should not) abuse it as a party, then the meaning of Christ’s death for us has not been understood.
Thin, timid communion celebrations are even symbolized by grape juice. I taught about this at the beginning of 2016 in a message titled “The Fruit of the Vine.”
Conviction of sin is not meant to cripple us, it’s meant to make us run toward Christ. We ought to have no slack on our sin, and we also ought to know the sunshine of His grace. Being eaten by the dragon of accusation is not fighting the dragon. Paul is not urging all the Corinthians to doubt their salvation, he’s urging them to live in light of it.
Your heart was vile, hence the cost of your sin: Christ’s body and blood. But He has been tortured for your healing. The question isn’t if you are worthy of judgment. Yes, you are. The question is if you are behaving like one already judged in Christ. God is so glad with each one of you who are His children that He welcomes you to a meal. There is no condemnation for you who are in Christ Jesus, but rather communion with God and the Body.
The good news is that God gave up His own Son for us. This is what gives us hope, this is the centerpiece we share. We’ve remembered the Lord’s death, now we reflect His death with our lives. Remember love and reflect love. Remember sacrifice and reflect sacrifice. Remember grace and reflect grace. Remember and reflect, on repeat.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. (Romans 8:31–34, ESV)