Summary: I got concerned that every time I took communion, I might be risking my life. What would happen if I ate the bread or drank the cup in an "unworthy manner"?
Teddy Roosevelt, the man who would become the 26th President of the United States, was afraid to go to church when he was a child because of a creature he called "The Zeal." His mother eventually realized the reason for Teddy’s fear was a Scripture verse he had heard the pastor read, John 2:17, "It is written, ’The zeal of thine house has eaten me up.’" Teddy did not really know what that verse of Scripture meant. There are other parts of the Bible, however, which can cause some fear even when we do understand what they mean. One frightening Bible passage is our text today, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. I remember reading this portion of Scripture when I was a teenager and getting a little nervous. What disturbed me was verse 11:27 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. And also verse 11:30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. I understood that this passage is about sharing in the Lord’s Supper. I also knew that "a number of you have fallen asleep" was really just a nice way of saying that "some of you have died." I got concerned that every time I took communion, I might be risking my life. What would happen if I ate the bread or drank the cup in an "unworthy manner"? And how was I supposed to know what an "unworthy manner" was? Well, eventually my fears subsided, but it was not until quite a few years later that I really started to understand what the Lord is saying to us through this text. As that has happened, I have also grown to realize what a wonderful privilege we as Christians have in coming to the Lord’s Table together. So, let’s pause and pray that God would use His Word to help us grow in our understanding and appreciation of this important part of our Christian life.
We start with the Lord’s Supper in 1st Century Corinth. 11:17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. Throughout the book, Paul has been addressing problems in this church and now he turns his attention to some more. 11:18 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. He’s mentioned various divisions in the congregation a couple of times already in this letter. 11:19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. That is a God-inspired use of sarcasm on Paul’s part and then he makes a point. 11:20-22 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! Christian congregations in the 1st Century liked to eat together. That is one tradition we’ve kept up real well. Apparently they would gather regularly, maybe once a week, for what they called an Agape Feast, or a Love Feast. To close their meal together, they would share the bread and the wine, the elements of the Lord’s Supper. But, it was not working out in Corinth. I don’t know what type of picture came to your mind as we read these verses, but it sounds pretty chaotic. They are all trying to grab food and drink for themselves, afraid there will not be enough for everybody to get what they want. It reminds me of when I was in college eating at the student cafeteria. One of the workers would bring in a big tray of Rice Krispy bars, and students would jump up and grab them off the tray before that person could even put them on a counter. The result in Corinth is that some gorge themselves on food and get drunk, while others get nothing to eat. Paul finds the whole thing totally disgusting. And so does God.
In verses 23-26, Paul reminds the Corinthians what the Lord’s Supper is really about, and we will come back to that later. 11:27 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. Now, what is the "unworthy manner" of which Paul speaks? That is an important question. The word, "therefore" probably gives us a big clue. Does "therefore" refer back to something Paul said in verses 23-26 where Jesus’ words at the Last Supper are recorded? I don’t think so. I think "therefore" refers back to verses 20-22, where Paul is talking about the conflict and division in Corinth. Thus, I am convinced Paul is saying that those who take part in the Lord’s Supper after they have been grabbing everything they can at the meal; who mistreat others in the fellowship; whose lives are characterized by total selfishness and lack of concern for others, those folks are eating and drinking in a manner which is unworthy of the Lord.