SCRIPTURE: 1 Corinthians 11:27-34
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: March 21st, 2014
"27So 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. 28Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world. 33So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment. And when I come I will give further directions." (1 Cor 11:27-34)
Paul reprimands them for divisions (1 Cor 11:18). He points out the factions among them. He blames the church for the lack of unity to share and to care for one another. There are disparate levels of wealth, with the rich feeding only themselves and the poor left with nothing. Worse, some even uses the Lord's Name in vain by eating unworthily at the Lord's table with the haves looking down on the have-nots. Instead of coming to the Holy Meal in the Name of Christ, they come in the name of self! Thus, Paul tells them to examine their own selves, lest they are punished with death (v30).
While we do not want to busy ourselves with the denominational differences, it is appropriate for us to observe the spirit rather than the letter of the Lord's Supper. Let me share five common elements of the Lord's Supper which I believe is common ground. The details may be somewhat different according to your religious persuasion, but the general thrust is the same.
A) A Common Faith
When we take the Holy Communion, whatever the language, whatever the procedures, whatever the sacramental differences, we all believe that it is in the Name of Jesus Christ. We believe that the sacrament of bread and wine is instituted by Jesus himself. The bread has a long history to the way manna has been given to the Israelites as a sign of God's continued providence. It is a recognition that Jesus is the Bread of Life (John 6:35). Jesus is the focus, the Person in which we express our faith. By the actions and rituals, we not only speak out the words of Christ together, we live it out. Thus, it is significant that we eat and drink in the Name of Jesus, the One who had instituted the whole sacrament altogether. Without this common Person, there is no common faith. With this Common Person, we have a common faith.
B) A Common Family
In verse 33, Paul emphasises, "when you come together to eat." This togetherness cannot be undermined through selfishness or individualism. When we gather, we learn to eat together. We learn to come together as a family. We learn to wait for one another. That is why I especially appreciate rituals which invite members of the congregation to take the bread and the wine, and WAIT until everyone has received the elements, and subsequently, at the indication of the officiating minister or leader, everyone takes it together. This is highly meaningful because it is a dramatic living out of verse 33
"So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat - wait for one another -"
In our modern era of efficiency and time-driven efficacy lifestyles, we want to keep to time. We want to get through with the routine so that we can start working on the next. We are so busy that we cannot wait. The recognition of one another as family means learning to wait for one another respectfully. One of the most cherished practices in any Christian family dinner is to wait for one another until a prayer of thanksgiving has been said. My family has learned to wait until all are seated and eat only when grace is said.
C) A Common Feast
Ever thought of why Jesus chose the simplest elements? That is because bread and wine are some of the most readily available food in cultures around the world. Bread is pretty much a staple food in all regions of the world. It is inexpensive and widely available. Wine on the other hand has also been replaced with grape juice. What strikes me is the smallness of the piece of bread (or wafer) and the little cup. Something so small, yet the meaning is so significant. This common feast has several important points. First, it comes out of a main body. The bread had to be broken in order to become little bits to be shared. The wine has to be poured out into various cups. In both circumstances, it is a one-to-many arrangement, reminding us that it is from God to the rest of us. Second, the smallness of the elements suggests to us that the purpose of the Holy Communion is not about filling our stomachs full of food. It will never be sufficient. What is helpful is that the little element we partake allows us not to be distracted by the food per se, but to remember the bigger significance the small element brings us. Third, this common feast is shared. The sharing of food is a powerful example of unity in the faith. Everyone eats from the same source, consumes the same quantity, and savours the same food. This sameness gives us a common sensual touch.
D) A Common Feat
Before the elements are distributed, the set of rituals allow all to participate as one body. The routines are repeated and followed religiously. With our modern fascination over all things new, the latest fads, and the most current news, it is hard to fathom why we continue to observe an age-old tradition weekly and for some, monthly. Here, we note the wise observations from Dr Gordon T Smith, who notes the benefits of simplicity over novelty, which is essentially counter-cultural, something that Jesus is widely known for.
"When it comes to practice, one of the important reminders is that part of the genius of a symbol is its simplicity. There is little if any need for variety or novelty. Indeed, the power and effectiveness of symbolic action come from the fact that we do it again and again in the same way. Therefore, this book will not propose new and novel ways to celebrate the Lord's Supper, as though innovation and variety would help make celebration of the Lord's Supper more meaningful. The opposite is the case. We will see how important it is, if the grace of God is going to permeate all of life deeply and thoroughly, to have consistency rather than variety, continuity rather than novelty, and routine rather than change." (Gordon T Smith, A Holy Meal, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005, p31)
E) A Common Focus
Sometimes, I shudder when I hear of people saying that we must examine our own selves thoroughly before taking Communion. While I am not opposed to the idea of self-examination so that we can check our own selves, I am more concerned about the unwitting over-emphasis on individual selves at the expense of the corporate body. If I happen to expose all known sins before God, does that make me more holy before God? No. If I only manage to highlight a few wrongdoings, does that mean I am unworthy to take the Communion? No. If I focus just on my own self, am I more concerned for myself and my own feelings, forgetting how my actions impact the wider body? Maybe.
Self-examination must have a dual-legged focus. One leg examines the self to propel ourselves into the realm of humility and need for God. The other leg reminds us again that self-examination needs to have the bigger body of Christ in mind. That is to say, we all come, regardless of our individual worthiness, but in a corporate gathering of forgiven sinners saved by grace, not of works, lest any one of us should boast.
When we take the Lord's Supper, remember the commonness more than any one novelty. Note the simplicity of the whole sacrament. Be reminded that we come under a common God in a common faith. We eat a common feast. We belong to the same family of faith. We perform a common feat. We maintain a common focus on Christ. All of these are emblems of unity, symbols of solidarity, and images of what a family of God look like. It is no light matter. Let me close with one reason why we do the Holy Communion. It is simply obeying what Christ has taught us. The Old Testament has taught us. The New Testament does likewise, that obedience is better than sacrifice. Taking the Holy Communion for believers is an act of obedience.
THOUGHT: "Surely a study such as this one, which intends to explicate the meaning of the Lord's Supper, is not meant to explain the mystery but rather to heighten our appreciation of the mystery. Furthermore, our participation in the Lord's Supper is not linked to our level of understanding or our capacity to explain the meaning of the meal. In the end, our participation is not a matter of understanding or rational comprehension but of obedience." (Gordon T. Smith, A Holy Meal, p119)
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