Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Lord's Supper

Last week, I spoke to you about baptism. So, I thought that it would be good to talk a bit about the other sacrament, the Lord's Supper. There are many biblical themes running through the Supper, but I'm only going to deal with three. My goal in this is simple. I want you to be able to enjoy this sacrament more.

Let's start with Paul's familiar description of the Supper (1 Corinthians 11).

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. (verses 23-26)

What were Jesus and His disciples doing when Jesus established this sacrament? They were celebrating Passover. The Lord's Supper is based on Passover. You might even say that it's the continuation of the Passover now that what Passover pointed to has arrived.

So, what was Passover? At the first Passover, back when Israel was enslaved in Egypt, each household was to take a lamb and kill it. Its blood was to be applied to their doors so that the Lord would pass over their houses and not let the destroyer enter to kill their firstborn, something that did happen in the Egyptian houses. This lamb was also to be prepared and eaten at a special meal.

Each year after that the people of God were to remember what God had done. Passover was to be a celebration of their being rescued by God from the slavery in Egypt.

Now, along with pointing back to what God did in Egypt, those Passover celebrations looked forward. They, like all the festivals of the Old Testament, looked forward to what Jesus would do on the Cross. That was to be the ultimate rescue from slavery, the slavery of sin and death.

This explains one important aspect of the Lord's Supper. It is a celebration. It is a celebration of our redemption.  

And that’s why Paul wrote,

… Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival … (1 Corinthians 5.7-8)

This is first thing that I want you to know. The Lord's Supper is not a time to feel sad. It is a solemn time, but it is not a time to mourn. That's what it was in the church I grew up in. It was to be a time to mourn for your sins. But that misses the point. In the Supper we celebrate. We celebrate that Jesus has freed us from our slavery. We remember, with joy and thanksgiving, what He has done for us.

This is why some Christians use the word 'eucharist' when they speak about the Supper. Eucharist is from the Greek word for thanksgiving. The Lord's Supper is a time of thanksgiving for how Jesus has rescued us. So, while the tone might be solemn, it is also to be joyful. It's a time to remember and to give thanks. That's the first thing that I'd like you to know.

Now, for the second thing. This relates to one part of Paul's instructions that has become rather well known though not well understood.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. (verses 27-28)

There is a right way and a wrong way to celebrate the Supper. Doing this in the wrong way, in an unworthy manner, has consequences. It results in God's curse. It's for this reason that Paul wrote,

Let a person examine himself. 

The point of this self-examination is to be sure that you are taking the Supper in a worthy manner. Most Christians know this, but I don't think most Christians understand it. And so, a question. When you examine yourself what are you looking for? The answer that comes to mind for most is that you're looking for anything that would mean that you would be taking the Supper in an unworthy manner. Okay, like what?

I think that there is a kind of thinking that says that you're supposed to root around in your soul to see if there is any nastiness in there, any sin that would disqualify you from taking the Supper. Now, that can't be right. And you know why. If you look into your soul carefully enough you will always find some nastiness, some awful sin. Actually, you don't have to look all that carefully. There are variations on this so that only certain kinds of sin disqualify you. Really? So, God scores on a curve? Some sins are not so bad to Him? They don't disqualify? Is that true? Can't be. Not for a holy God.

What makes this worse is that there have been those who, when they find some sin, decide that they can't take the Supper. They have examined themselves and have determined that they are disqualified. Consider the logic here. I have found some terrible sin in my life. So, what do I do? I refuse a means by which the Spirit will give me what I need to deal with terrible sins in my life. Does that make sense? On top of that, God was quite clear to His people in the Old Testament that if anyone refused to participate in the Passover he was to be cut off from the people of God. (Take a look at Numbers 9.) That says a lot when you remember that the Lord's Supper is the continuation of the Passover. So, no, not taking the bread and the cup, even because of some terrible sin, is not an option. Repent of the sin and then take.

But back to our question. When a person examines himself what is he looking for? Well, look at the text. Paul was writing to a church that had some specific issues. This is how he starts his comments to them about the Supper.

But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. (verses 17-18)

Divisions in the church. Isn't that a major theme of this letter to the Corinthian church? It shows up here in Paul's comments about their celebration of the Supper. This is the context for Paul's instructions about self-examination and eating in a worthy manner.

It's here that Paul writes,

For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. (verse 29)

Discerning the body? Self-examination is about discerning the body. What body? Well, it's in the next chapter that Paul writes a good bit about the church being the body of Christ. Discerning the body is tied to their problems with being a divided church. The unworthy manner that Paul is concerned about has to do with how they are getting along with each other. It's about being a united church, the one body of Christ. And this is why the Lord's Supper is also called Communion. It's about the communion of the saints that we profess in the Apostles’ Creed.

So, back again to our question. When you examine yourself what are you looking for? You're looking for any unresolved sin in your relationships with the rest of the saints. That means any sins that you have committed against another member of the church as well as any sins that another has committed against you. Jesus taught that you need to deal with both situations. (Matthew 5.23ff; 18.15ff.)

Now, let's say that as the elements are being distributed you are reminded that you and another saint have some sin issue that has not been addressed. So, what do you do? Not take Communion? Absolutely not! Instead, you promise God that you will deal with that issue at your soonest opportunity, like right after the benediction. And then, you enjoy Communion.

There are other things that fit into Paul's concerns about taking in an unworthy manner, but we'll leave it at this for now.

So, my first point was about the Lord's Supper as a celebration. The second point was about examining yourself. This leaves the third thing I want you to know.

This comes from the end of Paul's instructions about the Supper.

For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (verse 29-30)

There were those who were not careful about taking the Supper in a worthy manner. And as a result, they were sick and some even died. Jesus judged them, even to the point of killing some.

I think that you can see from this that Jesus is serious about His people being the church, being His Church. There were divisions in the Corinthian church, divisions that were highlighted during Communion. Those involved in these divisions ignored Jesus call for unity. So, there were consequences, serious consequences. And don't assume that those who died just got to heaven sooner than the others. I have my doubts about that.

The unity of the church is a big deal. Jesus will curse those who refuse Him on this. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. So, a wise response to this would be regularly praying to be shown if you are sinning in this way so that you might quickly repent of it.

But there is a flip side to this that is equally important. To the extent that Jesus will curse, He will likewise bless. Every time you take the Supper there will be a blessing. And please bear in mind that this blessings will be as real as the curses that Paul listed. That, after all, is the point of the Supper: to bless the people of God as we remember and celebrate our redemption. Do that, as the communion of the saints, with joy and thanksgiving, and watch as, over time, the blessings of Jesus become more and more obvious.