The church of Jesus Christ has repeatedly divided over what we did a few minutes ago when we took the Lord’s Supper. In the Fourth Lateran Council, held in 1215, the Church of Rome officially adopted the view known as transubstantiation, which holds that the substance of the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. 350 years later, at the Council of Trent, the church determined that the Eucharist (which is another word for the Lord’s Supper) is propitiatory, which means that one turns away God’s wrath by taking it.
The monk and reformer Martin Lutherrejected those views. He believed in what he called The Real Presence. He taught his followers that Christ’s body and blood are truly present in the bread and the wine, but that the bread and wine do not change substance to become body and blood.
In 1529, he met with another key player in the reform movement, the Swiss pastor Ulrich Zwingli, and they tried to bring the two branches of the newly minted reform movement, the Evangelicals of Germany (later Lutherans) and the Reformed Churches of Switzerland, together. They failed? What tripped them up? The Lord’s Supper.
Protestants divided from Catholics over the Communion Table. Then Protestants divided from Protestants – and continued to divide. Did you know that America’s great theologian, Jonathon Edwards, was removed from his pulpit and fired because of his view that only church members should be allowed to take part in Communion? In the last twenty years, controversy over who has the right to come to the table has erupted again in the Roman Catholic church.
How ironic that this table, which proclaims the unity of Christ’s church, has been the cause of so much division. But that, I think, is not right. It’s not ironic; it’s diabolic. And the table has not been the cause of division but its occasion.
There is a lot of confusion over the Lord’s Supper. Some large American churches have stopped taking it when they gather for worship. The process of serving communion to thousands of people is unwieldy and time-consuming. Besides that, the Lord’s Supper doesn’t fare well in focus groups.
We want it to fare well here. It is important, and it is beautiful. But I’m afraid that many people do not see it that way. I think that because there was a time when I did not see it that way.
After I became a Christian, I was hesitant to take communion. The preacher always warned us to examine ourselves, which is entirely biblical, but he never told us what to look for in that examination. However, he did make the consequences of a slipshod examination perfectly clear: Unless one discerned the Lord’s body – whatever that meant – he would eat and drink (this was the King James Version) “damnation” to himself.
So, I examined myself for sins – which were about as hard to find as a snowflake in a blizzard – and tried to feel sufficiently sorry for them before I took communion. But I never knew if I succeeded, and so I couldn’t be sure whether I was eating and drinking damnation. Whatever else the Lord’s Supper was, it was not encouraging.
There were things that taking the Lord’s Supper should have done that it did not do (at least for me, though I think this was true for others as well): Instead of uniting me to other Christians, it isolated me from them in an introspective bubble. Instead of helping me look to Christ and remember him, it led me to look at my sins and remember them. I was focused on my sins and not my savior. Instead of evoking wonder and worship, the Lord’s Supper evoked discomfort and dread.
I think this happened for a couple of reasons, one having to do with my failure and the other with the church’s. The Lord’s Supper did not bless me because I was often not in a place where I could be blessed. Christ was not my life but only my ticket to the afterlife. I did not love (as St. Paul did) the idea of pleasing him but only feared the trouble that would come from displeasing him. I thought (at least when it was time to take communion) about losing my salvation but not about living my salvation. How could someone like that be blessed at the Communion Table?
But the church failed too. It lifted the Scripture about examining oneself out of its context and repurposed it to evoke guilt with a view to making us to do better next time. I don’t blame the pastor at our church; he didn’t know any better. He was just doing what he had seen done. But this approach to Scripture amounts to biblical malfeasance.
Let’s look at St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 11, and we will find there three things that the Lord’s Supper should do: unite us to other Christians, help us remember Christ, and evoke wonder.
We’ll look first at those cautionary verses that were regularly mentioned in my home church, verses 27-31: “So 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. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgment [damnation in the King James] on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment.”
I do not want to downplay the warning that is present in these verses. It is real. But if we lift these verses out of their context, as I have just done, we are liable to misunderstand what we are being warned against. So, let’s place them back in their context.
Beginning in verse 17, Paul rebukes the Corinthians for the way they eat the Lord’s Supper, and he does so with passion. And notice in verse 18 what is uppermost on his mind: “I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it.” The idea that when they gathered to worship there were divisions (we get our words “schisms” from this Greek word) and that those divisions were intentional, horribly upset Paul.
In verse 19, he adds: “No doubt there have to be differences (the Greek word transliterates into English as “heresies”) among you to show which of you have God’s approval.” I take this to be sarcasm. Some people disagree. They say Paul really believed it was God’s will for there to be differences in order to reveal who is genuine and who is not. I think they are wrong for two reasons: one, this part of the letter drips with rhetorical flourish. One of the Corinthians’ criticisms of Paul was that he lacked the oratorical skills of Corinth’s best public speakers, so Paul was giving them rhetorical flourish with both barrels, and sarcasm was standard ammunition in rhetoric.
Secondly, and more importantly, Paul never uses either the word for divisions nor the one for differences (“schisms” and “heresies”) in a positive way. They are always condemned, and it is highly unlikely that he has made an exception in this case.
Paul hated divisions in the church, which is God’s living advertisement for his reconciling power. In its race, nation, and ethnicity transcending love (think of first century Jews and Gentiles), the church has a foretaste of the age to come. Its unity reflects the eternal unity of the Father and the Son. But the Corinthian church was undermining its own message by allowing, ignoring, and reinforcing divisions.
We need a little background to understand what is happening here. The Christians in Corinth met together in homes (there would not be dedicated church buildings for a couple of centuries). At least on occasion, they all met together in the same home, which seems to be what verse 20 is describing. We don’t know how often that happened. Perhaps they only took the Lord’s Supper at these big gatherings, but they may have done it at their smaller meetings as well.
When they celebrated the Lord’s Supper, they did it differently than we do. It was not part of an hour-long service, but part of a shared meal. We don’t know if they celebrated the Lord’s Supper before the regular meal, after the regular meal, or both. What we do know is they incorporated the Lord’s Supper into a church fellowship meal.
That meal had become an occasion of division. These large gatherings required a large house, which meant the church gathered at the home of one of its wealthier members. The dining room would only seat a small number of people – twelve, at most. The rest of the church would be seated here and there around the atrium.
This was very similar to the other large dinner parties that wealthy people gave. And like those parties, the host’s friends (probably other wealthy people) sat in the triclinium (that’s what the dining room was called) and were served the largest portions, the best cuts of meat, and the finest wine. Those in the atrium got poorer quality and less quantity. At church suppers, some Christians – probably slaves who arrived late because of work – even went without. By the time they arrived the only food left was the bread of the Lord’s Supper, and the only drink the wine of the cup of blessing.
These divisions in the church reflected the same divisions in society. The people in the triclinium were regarded by all, themselves included, as the most important people present, and they expected to get the best. But the church was meant to reflect Christ, not culture: “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11).
The church of Jesus was designed to be different than every other people group on earth. Men are brothers, women are sisters, regardless of their race, their nationality, their language, or their economic status. And the Communion Table proclaims this. Paul had just written, “Because there is one loaf [at the Communion Table], we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” The Corinthians behavior at the Lord’s Supper contradicted this proclamation.
On a Sunday not long after the Civil War ended, people were at church in Richmond, VA, for worship. Unlike us, their practice was to go forward to receive communion. To everyone’s surprise, the first person to go forward was black.
A shockwave ran through the congregation. People gasped and murmured. The Episcopal priest refused to give the man communion. The rest of the people – all white – remained in their pews. Then, Robert E. Lee himself rose and went forward. But instead of acknowledging the black man as a brother, he acted as if the man didn’t exist. The rest of the all-white church followed his example, including the priest. That week, Richmond’s newspaper praised General Lee for his “dignified and self-possessed manner” and called it “a grand exhibition of superiority by a true Christian.” The church mirrored society, no Christ. The Apostle Paul would have rebuked them with both barrels.
This table proclaims our oneness. Those who come to this table not only accept Jesus into their hearts; they accept his people there too. This is the primary meaning – I don’t deny that there are others – behind Paul’s words about “discerning the body.” And it is about this – again, I don’t deny there may be secondary meanings – that we examine ourselves.
This table is also the occasion for our remembering Christ. We do this as a remembrance (verse 25). A remembrance is more than a thought captured in a memory. When the Jews remembered Passover, they didn’t just have a thought about it; they reenacted it. They removed leaven from their homes, made and ate the same meal their ancestors made and ate. When they remembered the Lord’s faithfulness during their wilderness wanderings, they built lean-tos and put up tents and lived outdoors for a week, just as their ancestors had done in the wilderness. They didn’t just remember with their heads, but with their hands and their bodies. When we remember Jesus and what he did for us, we remember not just with words, but with actions, not just with our heads but with our hands and our mouths. We reenact the covenant meal Jesus and his disciples ate.
When the Jews reenacted Passover, they took their place as God’s covenant people. When we take the Lord’s Supper, we take our place as God’s new covenant people. The Lord’s Supper is not just a ritual, it is a reminder. It is not just a custom, it is a commitment – a reaffirmation of the choice we made to be in covenant with God Almighty and, more importantly, the choice and sacrifice he made to be in covenant with us. By taking part in the Lord’s Supper, we self-identify as sharers in Christ’s covenant-making sacrifice.
When we come to this table, we step into the past or, perhaps, bring the past into the present. Here we are, with Christ. We share in his death We affirm our place in the covenant of blood. We say afresh: “Because of God’s grace, I am Christ’s person, and I am all in, so help me God.”
And we say this together with everyone else who takes the Lord’s Supper. Because we are each in covenant with Christ, we are in covenant together. The two aspects of the Lord’s Supper already mentioned, its proclamation of our unity and its function as a remembrance of our Lord, flow together at this Table. We are bound to each other because we are bound to Jesus Christ, and he to us.
I said a moment ago that when we come to the Table, we step into the past or bring the past into the present. But there is more to it than that. The table exists as an eddy in time, a temporal vortex where past and future meet. As such it should evoke wonder. We remember not just with our minds but with our hands and mouths. We reenact that night. We sit, gathered around the Christ who says to us, “This is my body, which is for you. This is my blood of the new covenant.” We meet him by faith at the table. Those without faith who step into the eddy and are flung back out. Those with faith are nourished by grace.
When we step into this temporal vortex, we don’t just remember the past; we taste it in the unleavened bread. We sip it in the juice. We hear it in Christ’s commands, “Take, eat!” and “All of you drink it.”
But we don’t just find the past here; we also find the future. Jesus said, “I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:18). From our vantage point at the table, we can see the kingdom of God coming. We can almost taste that feast for all peoples, prepared by God himself, with its “best of meats and finest of wines” (Isaiah 25:6). At this meal, we can hear the voice from the throne saying, “Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, both small and great!” (Rev. 19:5). We hear the great multitude shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready” (Rev. 19:6-8). We join in the shout: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).
And when we leave here and go back into our time and place, our routines, our hassles, our sicknesses, the threats we face, even the threat of death itself, that shout rings in our ears. We know that “All things are [ours], whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are [ours], and [we] are of Christ, and Christ is of God” (1 Cor. 3:21-23). We know this because we touched the future when we came to this table.
We not only touch the future, we live it. In John Donne’s words, we “tune our instruments at the door and what [w]e must do then, think here before.” We live the future by loving each other and living in unity with each other. That is the channel along which God’s power runs into our lives. We act on faith and step into the future by loving our brothers and sisters now and here as we will love them then and there. And in so doing, we become a sign to the world that the future – the kingdom of God – is coming upon them.
 Quoted by Skye Jenthani in What If Jesus Was Serious About the Church, Moody Publishers, © 2022, p.89