In a Worthy Manner Back to all sermons

Date: October 2, 2015

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Category: Communion

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 11:17–11:34

Tags: Communion, Lord’s Supper

Synopsis: Every month, we observe the Lord’s Supper (Communion) as a church. In this message, Pastor Cam admits that when he was growing up, he did not enjoy these services. But as a young pastor he discovered two clues in the passage (1 Corinthians 11:17-34) that changed his perspective and set him free. Find out what these two clues are and see if they change the way you participate in the Lord’s Supper.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

This is the second to last opportunity I will have to lead this congregation in the observance of the Lord’s Supper. During my years here as pastor, there is one particular message that I have repeated more than any other. I have made it my practice to repeat it every 2 to 3 years. I have done so for a couple reasons. One is the transient nature of our congregation. Approximately 1/3 of our congregation changes over a 2 or 3 year period. Thus for these new people, this is a new message. The second reason is that of all the messages I have preached, this one typically receives the most consistent response from people; that it has been helpful and cleared up a fundamental misunderstanding they had been carrying.

Well, it’s been 32 months since I last preached this message – and so it is time to preach it one last time.

I was present in communion services from my very earliest childhood and I became a participant in them when I was about 11 years old. And I have a confession to make. I didn’t like Communion services much when I was growing up. One reason, I suppose, was that it usually meant that the church service was going to be longer than usual. But I think there was another, more fundamental reason. That was because many of the typical Communion services of my youth left me feeling guilty, and even a bit depressed.

Usually at some point in the service the pastor or preacher would read very solemnly and rather sternly from I Corinthians 11:27-30 in the King James Version:

27 Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. 28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. 29 For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. 30 For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.

Then we would be admonished to examine our lives for any unconfessed sins, and to confess them so that we would not bring judgment upon ourselves by eating and drinking unworthily. I would try to do that, but usually we weren’t given very long. And of course there was always the dilemma of chronic sins. Did confessing a sin count if I knew that I would probably fall prey to that sin again? Did having such chronic sin struggles make me unworthy?

By then the tray would arrive, and I would be faced with a decision. Should I or shouldn’t I? Was I worthy or wasn’t I? I felt like I lost either way. If I passed the tray without taking any, I was left feeling unworthy. And yet if I took the bread and the cup, I was often left feeling guilty. Was I really worthy? If I wasn’t, had I just added to my condemnation? I felt like I was caught both ways.

Then at the age of 24, going on 25, I became a pastor. Now I faced a real dilemma. I was supposed to lead these services. I began to wonder: was this really the way God intended Communion services to be? So for the first time in my life, I really studied the passage in 1 Corinthians word by word for myself. What I discovered there set me free, and has influenced how I have led and participated in Communion services ever since.

As I studied the passage, I discovered two clues that made a dramatic difference in my understanding of the passage. The first clue was the realization that this section of Scripture actually begins in verse 17. The second clue was in recognizing the difference between an adverb and an adjective. Those two simple, rather obvious discoveries made all the difference in the world.

So, how did those two clues help clear up the passage?

1. This section of Scripture actually begins in verse 17.

How does this clarify things? One of the basic principles of Bible interpretation is that every verse must be interpreted in light of its context. We can never interpret a verse or passage accurately unless we understand the context in which it occurs. In this case, most pastors begin their quotation of this Communion passage in verse 23: “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you that the Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed, took bread…” and so on.

But that is not where this passage on the Lord’s Table begins. It actually begins in verse 17. If we study the whole passage, we find that this section was written by Paul to address a very specific and serious problem in the Corinthian church. And the warnings that Paul gives in the middle of this passage can only be understood if we understand the problem that Paul was addressing in the beginning of the passage.

Let’s look at the passage and see what we can learn about the problem.

Look at v. 17: 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.

The NIV translates that: your meetings do more harm than good. That is a pretty harsh criticism! “It would be better if you didn’t even meet together, because you’re doing more damage than good when you meet!” Why? What was going on?

To understand this, let’s read v. 18-22.

For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, 19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 20 When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. 21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 22 What! Do you not have houses 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 commend you in this? No, I will not.

We need to place these verses back in the customs of the time. The Corinthians came out of a pagan background. Celebratory feasts were part of their pagan worship, and they brought some of those practices with them into the church. The Lord’s Supper was incorporated into a larger event, a kind of love feast. Now there was nothing inherently wrong with that. But here is what would happen. Apparently, people would arrive, bringing food for the feast. The rich people in the congregation had more leisure time, so they came first. They also had more resources, so they brought most of the food. When they arrived they would sit down and start to eat and drink. By the time the poorer members of the church (some of them slaves) arrived, the food was gone, and many in the congregation were drunk. The poorer members (who couldn’t afford to bring anything to the feast) would go hungry.

Now, here’s my point. We will never understand the warnings later in the passage unless we keep this context in mind. So hold that thought.

2. The difference between an adjective and an adverb.

This was the second clue I found. The specific word or phrase I am focusing on is in verse 27: In the KJV it is translated “unworthily”. The NIV and the ESV both translate it “in an unworthy manner.” They are both good translations. The fault was in my understanding, not in the translation. In the original Greek text this is a single word, and it is an adverb. Why is that significant? Well, if you remember your grammar lessons, an adjective modifies a noun or a pronoun. An adverb modifies a verb, adjective or another adverb. (Here you thought you’d come to church, not to a grammar class! But bear with me. This is important.)

So what does this all add up to? Let’s read verses 27-30 again, this time from the ESV:

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.28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.

My problem was that I had always read this or heard this as though it were an adjective, in which case it would be saying this. “Therefore if any unworthy person eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord, he will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats to see if he is worthy…”

So I was left examining myself to see if I was worthy to eat. But there’s the rub. Of course I wasn’t worthy! And I never could be worthy. It wasn’t just a matter of the amount of time they gave me to confess my sins. Even if I had a month to examine myself and confess my sins, I still wouldn’t be worthy. Because frankly, there is stuff wrong with me that I don’t even know is wrong with me! But the passage isn’t asking me if I’m worthy. Remember, the word is an adverb, not an adjective. An adverb modifies a verb.

There are actually two verbs in question: eats…and drinks. The adverb is referring to the way we eat and drink, the way we observe the Lord’s Table. How were the Corinthians observing the Lord’s Supper? Was it in a worthy manner? Absolutely not! There was drunkenness! There was gluttony! There were divisions between rich and poor Christians. No wonder Paul said, “Your meetings are doing more harm than good.”

The fundamental problem is expressed in verse 29. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. Eating, without realizing the significance of what they were doing. That was the real problem. If they really recognized the significance of these symbols (the death of the Son of God for their sins), could they possibly have approached the table drunkenly, selfishly, divisively? So serious was their sin that Paul wrote in v. 30: That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.

To add emphasis to my conclusion that it was the manner of their observance which Paul was concerned about, look at his final instructions on how to correct the matter in verses 33-34.

So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— 34 if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come.

It is really a rather simple solution to a serious and profound problem.

At this point we may feel quite relieved. Certainly, the way we observe the Lord’s Table, with tiny pieces of bread and tiny glasses of non-alcoholic grape juice, no one can accuse us of drunkenness or gluttony. But maybe we need to consider the matter more carefully. Are there other ways that our manner of observance might be unworthy? Might we come to this ceremony carelessly, thoughtlessly, with our mind wandering throughout the service? Do we become impatient, wishing the preacher would hurry up, wondering what’s for lunch?

Since the problem is one of “not discerning the body of the Lord,” let’s remind ourselves of the significance of this ceremony. That is Paul’s approach, at the very heart of this section, in the words that are so familiar to faithful believers.

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,

This ceremony was divinely authorized. It is not from men. It came from the Lord himself. It was given on the night he was betrayed. It was one of his final acts with his disciples before he went to the cross. It is therefore loaded with significance.

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.” 25 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.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

The symbols of bread and wine represent the body and blood of Christ. When we eat and drink, we are doing three things, according to these verses.

It is an act of remembrance. “Do this in remembrance of me.”

It is an act of proclamation. “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death.” This is the central fact of the Gospel. “Christ died for our sins.” When we participate in this service, we are proclaiming, in symbol, the death of Christ.

It is an act of anticipation. Notice the words, “until he comes.” This same Jesus is coming back. That thought should be in our minds as we participate in this simple ceremony.

Do we recognize the significance of what we are observing? Are we fully engaged? Are we remembering the one who died for us? Are we conscious of the message we are proclaiming? Are we living in the hope of his return? Only then can we participate in a worthy manner.

Let me then raise a pertinent question. What about the common emphasis in many Communion services on confession of sin before partaking?

I would point out that there is no mention of confession of sins in this passage. Now of course, if God brings a sin to your attention as you prepare for the service, by all means confess it. But I would hope that if God brings a sin to your mind during the week, while you’re at work, or riding in a taxi or walking on the Corniche, you would confess it immediately then as well. We shouldn’t be waiting for the next Communion to confess our sins. And if you have confessed your sins at the time of their occurrence, then there is no need to bring them back into remembrance here.

While confession of sin is not inappropriate to the service, I do not believe that reviewing our sins and our failures and confessing them should be the focus of the Communion service. When we make it the focus, we change the atmosphere. Instead of spending this time remembering the Lord, we spend the time trying to remember our sins! No wonder we are left feeling guilty and defeated.

Yes, we are commanded to examine ourselves. But what we are to examine is our manner of observing this service. Do we recognize the meaning and significance of the events symbolized in this service? Is our attitude, our approach to the service consistent with its meaning? If it is, then come in worshipful remembrance. If not, don’t walk away. Instead, discipline your mind and heart, focus on the death Christ died on your behalf, and come in worshipful remembrance, recognizing the body and blood of the Lord in these symbols.

There is one particular phrase I read once that I think describes what our attitude should be as we approach the Lord’s Table. You’ve probably heard me use it.

A SOLEMN CELEBRATION.

It should be solemn in the sense of a worshipful, respectful, humble awareness that we are standing on holy ground, and that we don’t deserve to be here. But nonetheless, it should be a celebration that, because Christ died for us, we are forgiven and washed in the blood of Christ, and that we stand here clothed in his righteousness and eagerly awaiting his return.

I used to leave communion services feeling guilty and unworthy. That is not what God intends. He wants us to leave the table feeling loved, feeling forgiven, feeling clean, feeling joyful.
“Do this in remembrance of me.” And then remember that, because of Christ and his death for us, there is therefore now no condemnation for those of us who have put our faith in him.

Discussion Questions

  1. How many communion services do you think you have participated in in your life-time?
  2. Share your general thoughts, impressions and emotions about your memories of those services.
  3. In the message, Pastor Cam shared that he often felt guilty or depressed after a communion service. What made him feel that way? Have you ever had that same experience or shared those feelings? Why or why not?
  4. How does understanding the whole context of the passage (including verses 17 – 22) help us understand the warnings in verses 27-32?
  5. Why does it matter whether the word “unworthily” or “in an unworthy manner” is an adverb and not an adjective?
  6. Discuss the place confession of sins should play in a communion service. Give reasons for your opinion.