The Real Body of Christ
Scripture: I Corinthians 11:17-22, 23-34
I once talked to a church member who told me she never takes communion if she is mad at someone. If she has gotten mad at someone and hasn’t forgiven them, she feels unworthy to take communion.
That might limit the number of us taking communion this morning. Especially given the scripture we just heard. In verse 27 the apostle Paul says, “Whoever, therefore, eat the bread or drinks of the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.” Then he says, “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgment against themselves.” Then to top it off he says, “For this reason many of you are weak and ill and some have died.”
Wow. I am ready to say the benediction and go home. Taking communion is dangerous, especially if you have not considered what you are doing, if you have not examined yourself to see if you are taking communion in a worthy manner.
So what does the Bible mean here? First of all, Paul does not say we must be worthy to take communion; he says we must take communion in a worthy manner. There is a difference. None of us here is worthy to take communion. That is the point of communion. Communion remembers how Jesus gave his life for us on a cross, how Jesus’ body was broken for us, how his blood was shed for us. Jesus did not need to do that if we were already “worthy” of receiving him.
One of the scandalous things about Jesus was his habit of eating with tax collectors and sinners. He seemed to welcome almost anyone to his table, from Pharisees to prostitutes. Think about the people who were with Jesus that night at his last supper. One of them was about to betray him, one was about to deny him, and the rest would end up deserting him. That’s the group of people with whom Jesus shared the first communion.
You don’t have to be worthy of receiving communion this morning. If you were worthy of communion, you wouldn’t need it. Jesus gave his life to forgive you, even if you are mad at someone this morning, even if you can think of all kinds of things you have said and done that you regret, even if you have committed your life to Jesus and keep messing up, which is what I see myself doing, you are still welcome at this table because you need it. We all need it.
The Bible does not say we must be worthy to take communion; it says we must take it in a worthy manner. So what does that mean?
The key is in the phrase: “discerning the body.” Paul says, “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” What does he mean by “discerning the body”?
The context gives us the answer. In the prior chapter, I Corinthians 10, Paul is again talking communion and says, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” He is talking about the church, the body of people gathered to partake of this meal. Then in the next chapter, chapter 12, Paul uses the word “body” 19 times. In every case he is talking about the church, the gathered community of believers. For example in verses 12-13 he says,
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Discerning the body means recognizing that communion is unavoidably communal. You can’t receive the body of Christ broken for you without a new sense of care for the body of Christ around you, the people God has called into fellowship around this table. And that, in turn, leads us to concern about the world for whom Jesus gave his life. Receiving Jesus’ body given for us in communion makes us part of Christ’s body given for the world.
That was the problem for the Corinthian Christians. In our first scripture reading Paul says to them, “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.”
Apparently when the Christians in Corinth had communion, they combined it with a full dinner, a kind of first century potluck. Only it wasn’t really a potluck. The richer Christians brought their own food and drink and consumed it before the poor Christians arrived so they did not have to share it. This explains what Paul says later in verses 33-34:
So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation.
Paul was furious because the Corinthians treated communion as their own private meal, and in the process they forgot about the community, especially the needs of the poor.
Failure to care about the people around us can be destructive. That’s why Paul talks about people getting sick and dying. When we are not paying attention to each other, when we are not caring for each other, especially the poor, then people get sick and suffer and die.
Receiving Jesus’ body given for us necessarily implies becoming part of Christ’s body given for the world.
I have mentioned before a book by Sara Miles called Take This Bread. Sara grew up with parents who were avowed atheists, and she inherited from them their distaste of religion. But one day during a walk on Sunday morning, she decided on impulse to go into a church near her home—St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church. She got there just as the service was starting, and to her surprise she was hooked. Sitting in that church service taking communion, she found something she did not even know she was missing: a sense of being claimed and loved by Someone greater than herself and participating in a mission—a purpose in life—that was bigger than her own self-fulfillment.
She kept going back to the church week after week. But over time she discovered that she had issues dealing with some of the other people in the church. She writes,
Probably because I felt so defensive about my lack of formal education, money, and official Christian formation, I tended to get irritated with the members of St. Gregory’s community. I thought they were clubby and precious; I sneered at their early music concerts. As I ducked out the door at coffee hour, fleeing from one more generous attempt at conversation, I would feel by turns superior, condescending, horribly inadequate.
Yet my own snobbery couldn’t protect me from being drawn, more deeply, into the place. I had to admit that these people, all their specific flaws intact, had opened the door to grace—not because they had good taste, not because they were rich, not because they were exceptionally intelligent or even likeable, …[but] because they—no matter how imperfectly—were committed to letting in clueless and unprepared strangers like me: because they believed in the absolute value of welcoming people who didn’t belong (p. 81).
That’s what it means to discern the body when you are taking communion. It is kind of like marriage. When you marry someone, you also get their family. You may not have chosen them as the kind of family you want to hang out with. But they come with the package. So it is with communion. Receiving Jesus’ body given for us make us part of Christ’s body given for the world. And that, believe it or not, is part of the blessing.