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The Transformational Gospel of Jesus #28: How should you examine yourself before taking Communion?

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 of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. -1 Corinthians 11:27-29

I have a dear friend, now in her 90s, who God used to challenge my Communion practices. She recounted an exchange between her and a coworker. Knowing that communion was coming up the next Sunday, my friend was fretting over her inability to live a sin-free life and whether or not she should take Communion this time. Her friend responded, “Oh Mrs. C, none of us would be able to take Communion if it was dependent on us.”

There are years of wisdom in that story. I saw that I had been following a script that I have heard come out of the mouth of many other pastors over the years. Well-meaning pastors who want their congregation to be confessional would say, “Before you take Communion, examine your heart to see if there is sin that you need to confess to God so you don’t eat it in an unworthy manner.”

Perhaps this is a holdover from Catholic influence, where people are directed to go to the confessional before participating in the Mass. Certainly, we want people to be serious about becoming holy and Paul’s words in this passage just begs us to remind believers of their need to ‘examine themselves’ about—what?

Sin seems to be the natural answer. People should not take part in godly stuff if they are not worthy—if they are not up to date on their confessing, with no unfinished business with God hanging over their heads. If this is what Paul means, then that coworker was right. None of us will ever be able to take it. We are just too permeated by sin to even know what remains unacknowledged, unconfessed, and unsurrendered.

But this verse is part of a bigger picture painted by Paul. As mentioned in a previous blog, the wealthier members of the Corinth church were making merry with food and wine, excluding poorer believers and dubbing their experience ‘the Lord’s Supper.’ He rightly rebukes them because they were distorting the covenantal nature of Communion. The Lord’s Supper is a covenant meal, which means that every time they took it, they were remembering that they all belonged to the covenant. Every person in the room with them was family, including the believers whom they invited just to watch.

Paul’s warning about taking Communion in an unworthy manner is not about sin in general. ‘Examining yourself’ is checking to see if you are excluding other believers from your covenant meal—looking down on them for whatever reason—leaving them out of your life for that matter.

To come to the table to eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord while knowingly being okay with a broken relationship with other believers who may even be in the room with us at that moment, is unworthy. Even the most maddening member of God’s family is my family. To prepare myself to eat and drink worthily is to seek to be reconciled. To ask forgiveness for the arrogance of believing I and those in my group are special or superior.

This has implications for all of us who are seeking to be part of the diverse church Jesus is building. I come from a heritage that excluded people of color and never saw this as a problem. It also has implications for the church where people who have money, or belong to the right social group, or to the union, or support the right causes, or vote for the right political party are made at home and their opposites are frozen out.

If there is one reality guiding us in taking this covenantal meal, it is that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Do not lose sight of the fact that we all belong to God because He alone included us—no one got into His kingdom except through the body and blood of Christ.

-Steve Smith