Communion: For Better or Worse

Tony Cooke

The church in Corinth had problems—serious problems. Some of these problems were addressed by Paul in the section where he spoke to them about the proper way to observe the Lord’s Supper.

In addressing the Corinthian church, Paul noted:

1 Corinthians 11:17 (NKJV)
Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse.

In the NIV, this reads, “In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good.”

We need to realize that the things of God are holy and sacred and are to be revered and respected. To do otherwise is dangerous, and the Corinthians blundered right into the danger zone.

The conduct of the Corinthians regarding communion was a large part of the “more harm than good” that was taking place.

1 Corinthians 11:27-30 (NIV)
Therefore, 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. 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. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.

The Amplified version of verses 29-30 make the problem even more clear:

For anyone who eats and drinks without discriminating and recognizing with due appreciation that [it is Christ’s] body, eats and drinks a sentence (a verdict of judgment) upon himself. That [careless and unworthy participation] is the reason many of you are weak and sickly, and quite enough of you have fallen into the sleep of death.

The NIV speaks of eating and drinking “in an unworthy manner.” The KJV says “eatheth and drinketh unworthily.” It’s important to realize that this is speaking of the way or manner in which the person partakes. Having sinned does not disqualify a person. If it did, none would qualify.

William Barclay said: “If the table of Christ were only for perfect people none might ever approach it. The way is never closed to the penitent sinner. To the man who loves God and his fellow men the way is ever open, and his sins, though they be as scarlet, shall be white as snow.”

What was it about their manner of partaking then that brought judgment on them?  To discover this, we need to see Paul’s description of their conduct:

1 Corinthians 11:17-22 (NIV)
In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 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. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!

The Amplified Bible renders verses 20-22 this way:

“So when you gather for your meetings, it is not the supper instituted by the Lord that you eat, For in eating each one [hurries] to get his own supper first [not waiting for the poor], and one goes hungry while another gets drunk. What! Do you have no houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and mean to show contempt for it, while you humiliate those who are poor (have no homes and have brought no food)? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, [most certainly] I will not!”

The early church had a custom called an Agape Feast or Love Feast. The believers would all bring what they could, the resources pooled, and a common meal shared. In Corinth, this had deteriorated horribly.

The rich and those of the upper social classes were keeping all of their food to themselves and eating in small cliques. The poor, the servants and slaves, and others who could bring little or no food arrived to find no food left and were humiliated.

By the time they got to the part of the service where they would come to “the Lord’s Table,” the poor had been humiliated and alienated and the rich had sinned against the Body and had isolated themselves as a superior class.

This is why Paul said toward the end of the chapter:

1 Corinthians 11:33-34 (NIV)
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. And when I come I will give further directions.

The Interpreter’s Bible says in its commentary:

“Little wonder that Paul is sick in soul as well as hot with indignation as he ponders over the havoc that such behavior makes. Could paganism be worse? Such a gathering is more remote from the spirit of the Lord’s Supper than the farthest star from earth! What is there to commend in such a travesty of the idea of a common meal? How can the blessing of the bread and wine, which was undoubtedly done hastily by some individuals who were anxious to get on with their own private party or personal meal, be called a sacrament at all? It is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. Far from it. That is where the apostle’s emphasis falls. These people were treating the meal as if it were a strictly private and personal affair.

There can be no real Christian spirit of fellowship in any meeting which makes a humbler brother or sister feel sorry or ashamed; and that is just what happened in Corinth when late arrivals found the provisions exhausted and those in possession replete even to drunkenness. They had turned what was meant to be an expression of Christian fellowship into a private social occasion.”

Paul said:

1. They were eating and drinking in an unworthy manner.

2. They were eating and drinking judgment on themselves.

3. They were not discerning or recognizing the Body.

The result is that many were weak, sick, and that some had even died prematurely. Those are some pretty serious consequences!

The purpose of this message is not to make us afraid of ever taking Communion again. Communion was meant to bless us.

1 Corinthians 10:16-17
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.

It is a cup of blessing!

So how do we avoid the problems they had in Corinth?  Are we safe because we don’t have an “Agape Feast?”

I believe a key fact is in what Paul called, “discerning the Lord’s body.”

That can be done properly with or without a meal before communion, and it can be violated with or without a meal before communion.

Discerning the Lord’s Body can involve a few things:

First, it involves discerning what Jesus accomplished in His Own human body in redeeming us.

Isaiah 53:4-5
Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed.

1 Peter 2:24
who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.

Second, it involves discerning the Body of Christ—The Church.

We must first recognize the Universal Church. This means that we recognize others who have been born-again, not just “our group.”

Then, we must also recognize the local church. Local churches are compromised of individuals, equally valuable and precious in God’s sight.

1 Corinthians 12:27
Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.

If you are going to discern the body, you’ve got to acknowledge the individual parts. You can’t say that you like me and respect me and then come stomp on my little toe. If you stomp on my little toe you hurt me.

Jesus said, “Verily I say unto you, in as much as ye have done it to the least of these my brethren, you’ve done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40)

This wafer is not literally the Body of Christ, but the individuals sitting on your left and right are the Body of Christ. They are members individually.

You would be appalled and aghast if I spoke derogatorily toward/about this wafer; if I threw it to the ground and stepped on it, and it only symbolizes the Body of Christ. But some people think nothing of speaking unkindly to their wife and children, and to brothers and sisters in the Lord, and emotionally trampling them underfoot, and they are the Body of Christ.

You may act pious, sanctimonious, and reverent when you handle the wafer, but how are you when you “handle” the Body of Christ (fellow believers) throughout the week, day-in and day-out?  You should perceive them as more sacred, valuable, and precious, than this wafer.

You can’t honor a piece of bread while dishonoring and mistreating brothers and sisters in the Lord and actually be discerning the Lord’s Body.

This is right in line with what the Apostle John taught:

1 John 4:20
If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?

This is where Corinthians missed it. In taking communion they were claiming to honor the Lord’s Body, but their careless and selfish behavior was actually dishonoring the Body of Christ. The result was sickness, weakness, and even death.

This is why, in Scripture, healing is sometimes connected to damaged relationships being restored.

James 5:16
Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.

Job 42:10
And the LORD restored Job’s losses when he prayed for his friends.

Healing resides where love flows!

We said you need to discern the Body of Christ and we said this involves the Universal Church and the local church and those individuals who are members in particular. There is another factor.

Third, you must discern yourself as a member of the Body of Christ. Remember, you are a member individually.

1 Corinthians 11:28, 31
A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment.

To examine ourselves and to judge ourselves, does not mean:

  • Condemning ourselves
  • Berating ourselves
  • Fault-finding ourselves
  • Criticizing ourselves

He did not say, “After you examine yourself and see what a terrible person you are, you probably won’t eat or drink.”

He did not say, “If we judge ourselves, God will probably agree that we are terrible and will judge us to.”

No! Upon examination, we may see that we’ve missed it in some areas. We may need to adjust, correct, repent, receive forgiveness, etc. But when we do, God’s mercy and grace flow freely and we are cleansed. We rejoice in our son-ship! We rejoice in being a part of the Body! We acknowledge that the same blood which cleansed me cleansed you, and the blood which cleansed you cleansed me also.

We are one in the Body of Christ!

We are one in the family!

Forgiveness flows!

Healing flows!

We’ve seen the danger connected to partaking of communion while disregarding our brothers and sisters in Christ. The good news, though, is that we can partake of Communion the right way. We can honor what Jesus did in His literal body… using the bread to remember what He did in His body, and using the juice to remember His blood. At the same time, we can honor and walk in love toward one another.

If we’ve missed it in our love walk, now is the time to get that right. Let’s judge ourselves, let’s make the adjustments we need to make, let’s receive forgiveness, and if necessary, let’s make amends with people. Then we can celebrate what Jesus did for us and partake of His blessings and benefits.