While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to His disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then He took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father's kingdom.’
When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
1 Corinthians 11:23–32
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night 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, after supper He took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.
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 recognising 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. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.
“Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
These are words we hear regularly in Christian Churches all over the world, but Holy Communion is far more than a quiet, rich, or spiritual experience in which we share from time to time. Behind the dignity of Communion are some stern challenges that we need to be aware of, because for many people, this is not much more than a weekly or monthly ritual, but we can move beyond this. This morning, as we prepare to come to the Table of the Lord, we will be looking at some of the deeper spiritual challenges behind the Sacrament of Holy Communion. There is far more to Holy Communion than meets the eye.
The first challenge is for us to see the true image of ourselves. When we compare ourselves to the holiness of God, we will quickly realise that we are not the fine, upstanding people we like to think we are. In truth, we are the ones who are responsible for the death of Jesus.
Holy Communion challenges us to see ourselves the way that God does. Romans 3:10-18 paints a very bleak, but accurate picture of our true state before we come to Jesus: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away; they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Without the forgiveness of God, that’s what we are. In Isaiah 64 we are told “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” We might not like the sound of that, but at best we are rejects in the sight of God. Sin has warped His original plan for us. We were created perfect in His image, but that similarity is now barely recognisable.
We are guilty of the death of Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:3 says “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” The Bible also tells us in Romans 3 that the wages of sin is death. What this means is that the penalty for your sin can only be paid for by death – either your own spiritual death, or the death of Jesus.
Consequently we are utterly and completely dependent on God’s grace. There is nothing which we can do for ourselves to fix the mess we’re in. Our salvation, our very survival, is absolutely dependent on God’s grace alone.
So the first challenge of Holy Communion is to see ourselves for whom we really are.
Next, we are challenged to live up to the transformation we profess. It’s all very well for us to come to God in repentance and to accept the gift of forgiveness He offers us, but there needs to be some evidence that we have been transformed into these new creations. Jesus warns us about this in Luke 6 when He says “By their fruit you will recognise them. Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognise them.”
There are two things we need to see in these words of Jesus: Firstly, there must be evidence - fruit of the change within us, and secondly, there is a warning for us if we don’t. “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” God forbid that we should ever take the grace of God lightly. His grace is a free gift, but it did not come cheap; the cost of grace cannot be measured in human terms because we are incapable of paying it ourselves. From our perspective, grace is priceless. It took the death of Jesus Himself, and if we treat His sacrifice as cheap grace we are (pun intended) quite literally, playing with fire.
Romans 6:1-2 says “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Holy Communion reminds and challenges us to live our lives in such a way that there is evidence that we believe we have been cleansed by the blood of Christ. This doesn’t mean we are to live perfect lives, but we need to be bearing fruit.
The third challenge of Holy Communion is that we are to remember the central theme of the Christian faith. In other words, this brings back to the Cross of Christ. Arthur Pierson, a Presbyterian minister in New York in the late 1800’s, wrote this in one of his books: “The link between the cross and the crown is the Table of the Lord. Do not forget, when you sit down at the Communion, that the bread and the cup point back to Christ’s accomplished work, and forward to your accomplished salvation.”
“Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.” Society has changed immeasurably over the centuries, and it will continue to do so. One of the biggest challenges facing the Church is being relevant to the societies and communities it finds itself in, but the reality is that the Church has no new message.
The way we bring the message may change, and it needs to in order to get the message out there, but the message itself has always been the same: Human beings are lost sinners and the only way of salvation always has been, and always will be through Jesus Christ.
Holy Communion does many things, and we simply don’t have the time right now to explore them all, but a central theme of this Sacrament is that it points us to the Cross of Jesus. There are countless different ministries and programmes which Churches all over the world are involved in. We are called to get stuck in, and you’ll find that there is at least one ministry which will suit your gifts perfectly. The Church is as diverse as the people within it, but there is one thing which brings it all together – the Cross of Jesus. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:23 “We preach Christ crucified.” If we’re not doing that, then all of our programmes count for nothing.
The Gospel is not just about Jesus. The Gospel is Jesus. He must be the source, the motivation, the power and the cause of everything we do, and Holy Communion challenges us to remember that.
The final challenge we’ll look at today is the challenge to partake in the right attitude. “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.”
Now this verse has caused much confusion and division over the years, so what does it actually mean? The Believers’ Bible Commentary says “We are all unworthy to partake of this solemn Supper. In that sense, we are unworthy of any of the Lord’s mercy or kindness to us. But that is not the subject here. The apostle is not speaking of our own personal unworthiness. Cleansed by the blood of Christ, we can approach God in all the worthiness of His own beloved Son. But Paul is speaking here of the disgraceful conduct which characterised the Corinthians as they gathered together for the Lord’s Supper. They were guilty of careless, irreverent behaviour. To act thus is to be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.”
The point is that none of us are worthy in ourselves to come to the Table, and we need to be aware of that. This goes back to the first point we looked at today: we need to be aware of just how lost we would be without God’s grace. Our true worth though, is found in Christ, and it is through Him and His invitation that we are made worthy.
There is a prayer which is often used before Communion in some Churches which might help us understand how this works: “We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table, but you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink His blood that we may ever more dwell in Him and He in us.”
Partaking in Communion in the right manner starts by acknowledging our sin and our need for forgiveness. You don’t have to be perfect to take Communion. If that was a requirement, we wouldn’t have it in the first place. The right manner acknowledges the wrong committed. As we come to share in Communion we should be willing to confess our sins, knowing that He is faithful and that He will forgive, just as He has promised.
But it goes one step further, and this is the challenge for us: God’s forgiveness of you is dependent on your forgiveness of others. Jesus puts it very simply in Mark 11:26. “If you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
We pray rather glibly at times, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Maybe we should change that to the first person: “Forgive me my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me.”
Just after Jesus taught us that model prayer in Matthew 6 He says “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” The message here is clear. If we want God to forgive us, the very least we should be doing is forgiving others for the wrongs they have done to us, and the Communion Table is a good place to be reminded of that.
“But it’s so hard to forgive.” Of course it is! Forgiving others is a huge challenge, and we are reminded of that each time we come to celebrate Holy Communion. That is why we need the peace of Christ. It is only He who is able to give us the strength to forgive the unforgivable.
Holy Communion should never be taken for granted, because it cost Jesus so much, yet the one thing which challenges us most about this Sacrament is the call to forgive as we have been forgiven.
Are we prepared, by the Grace of God, to accept and face up to that challenge?
There is so much more we could look at when it comes to the deeper meaning and significance of this Sacrament, but I think it’s a good place to end by looking at the one thing we should and could be doing (with the help of God, of course): the challenge to take that grace and forgiveness that He has given to us, and to extend it to others.