Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Where Did We Ever Get the Notion That the Lord's Supper is a Funeral Procession? (Part 6)

As we saw in our previous installment of this series, one of the main reasons evangelical churches treat the Lord’s Supper as a solemn event is its supposed focus as a memorial of Christ’s death. We looked at the evidence against that view from the Scriptures themselves as well as from the testimony of the early church. The other reason for the solemn mood at the Lord’s Supper comes from an idiosyncratic reading of 1 Cor 11:27-32:

"Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world."

According to the standard reading of this passage, each participant of the Lord’s Supper should be engaged in introspective contemplation before and during the Supper lest he eat the Supper in an “unworthy manner” and thereby “be judged” for failing to “judge the body rightly.” This involves confession of any residual sin, quiet examination of the heart, and somber reflection on the sobriety of the event. Consequently, it seems to make good sense that the mood of the church during this event would mirror that of a wake.

Yet, as we have seen time and again, that kind of mood flies in the face of what we know about the mood of the Supper from Acts 2:46: “Breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart.” So then, what can 1 Cor 11:27-32 mean?

As we noted in an earlier entry to this series, the problem at Corinth was that the “haves” were deviously arranging to come together for the Supper at a time when the “have nots” (likely due to employment constraints) could not join them. By the time the poor were finally able to arrive, there was close to nothing left for them to eat. As a result, “one is hungry and another is drunk” (11:21). To engage in such behavior was tantamount to “despising the church of God and shaming those who have nothing” (v. 22). Paul’s corrective is to restore order to the Supper by establishing the received tradition of the Supper (vv. 23-26) and then by commenting on the theological implications of that tradition (vv. 27-32).

It is in that context that Paul states: “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord” (v. 27). The very first thing to note here is that the Greek word translated “worthy manner” (a very good translation of the word, by the way) is literally “worthily.” This refers to the manner of eating not the state of the eater. In other words, Paul is not saying one comes under judgment for eating the Supper while in an unworthy state. He’s saying rather that one comes under judgment for eating the Supper in an unworthy way; in context, by illegitimately excluding the poor from the Supper—who were, after all, part of the “body” of Christ represented by the “one loaf” (1 Cor 10:16-17). In the words of 11:29, such a person “does not judge the body rightly”; that is to say, he judges the "have nots" in the body of Christ as unimportant. Although the NIV’s “body of the Lord” is without warrant in the Greek text, I’m perfectly willing to concede that Paul may have double entendre in mind with the word “body” (soma) inasmuch as both the bread and the church are referred to as the “body” of Christ in this letter.

The point here is that no one in Corinth died for eating the Supper without first confessing residual sin. No one died for eating the Supper in an unworthy state. Indeed, lest there be any question in the mind of the reader concerning his state of worthiness at the Supper, let me see if I can put that to rest once and for all. You’re NOT worthy to partake of the Supper. I’m not worthy to partake of the Supper. No one is worthy to partake of the Supper. Thank God that Christ has called us to the Supper and accepted us in spite of our unworthy state.

The reason the Corinthians were dying was because they were excluding part of the body of Christ (the poor) from partaking of the body of Christ (the bread) for illegitimate reasons (Peter and the Jews were guilty of a similar offense when they excluded the Gentiles from table fellowship in Galatia, thereby failing to be “straightforward with the truth of the gospel,” Gal 2:11-13). That was the “unworthy manner” by which they partook of the Supper, and for which they were “eating and drinking judgment” to themselves. It had nothing to do with a lack of self-introspection (though, that in itself is not a bad thing). It had nothing to do with the failure to confess residual sin (though, no Christian should ever harbor unconfessed sin, at the Lord’s Supper or elsewhere). It had nothing to do with a lack of personal worthiness at the Table (no one is worthy to partake of the Supper in any case).

Paul’s command that a man “examine himself” when partaking of the Supper is intended to prevent the church from excluding members of Christ’s body from partaking of Christ’s body. It was never meant to eradicate the inherent joy of the Supper as recorded in Acts 2:46. Might there be other applications as well? Of course. But no application of this principle should be construed in such a way as to replace the eschatological “gladness” that prevailed at the Supper in the early church.