“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
Most Lutherans are familiar with this verse which tells us that we should “examine ourselves” before partaking of Holy Communion. However, are we clear on what that means? Some find it a bit scary. Does it mean we must track down and confess every sin we’ve committed? Does it mean we should abstain if we’re not sure our heart is entirely in the right place? It’s actually fairly simple. In our congregation the Pastor reads this exhortation before the words of institution which clarifies the issue.
“Dear friends in Christ! In order that you may receive this holy sacrament in a worthy manner it is necessary that you carefully consider what you must now believe and do. From the words of Christ, ‘This is My body which is given for you’, ‘This is My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins’, you should believe that Jesus Christ is Himself present with His Body and Blood, and the words declare. From Christ’s words, ‘For the forgiveness of sins’, you should in the next place believe that Jesus Christ bestows upon you His Body and Blood to confirm to you the forgiveness of all your sins. And finally, you should do as Christ commands you when He says: ‘Take, eat’, ‘Drink of it all of you’, and ‘This do in remembrance of me.’
If you believe these words of Christ, and do as He has commanded, then you have properly examined yourselves and may rightly eat Christ’s Body and drink His Blood for the forgiveness of your sins.”
In other words, to examine ourselves, we must understand that we are sinners and that Christ has given Himself as a sacrifice for our sins. We must understand that He is truly present in the Sacrament and that it is meant to be a reminder of the great gift we have received. We should accept it thankfully and live accordingly. Are we clear?
For centuries Christians have disputed amongst themselves the meaning of the new sacramental meal. Different theories of what Jesus meant with the words He used that night, those phrases we have come to call the Words of Institution. Some, as far as I know only Roman Catholics, teach transubstantiation. In other words, the bread and wine literally become the Body and Blood of Jesus and they remain that once it has happened. Therefore , unused wafers and wine, once consecrated, can be “adored” by believers for they are now considered to be permanently the true divine Body and the true divine Blood. On the other hand, those who follow the teachings of the Reformer Huldrich Zwingli say that the Communion meal is simply a remembrance of the Lord’s sacrifice for us, a physical reminder of His love displayed. Christ could not be physically present, these folks argue because He ascended bodily and has chosen to be in the Body for eternity and a physical body cannot be in more than one place at a time.
Those we call Calvinists try to split the difference, contending that Christ is truly present in the Sacrament, it is not simply an act of remembrance, but His presence is spiritual and not physical. The Holy Spirit comes into each believer as he or she receives the elements while Christ remains in heaven while non-believers would receive only bread and wine. And then there are Lutherans—don’t you know we’re out there by ourselves. We utterly reject the transubstantiation argument of Catholics because it is obvious that we still have bread and wine no matter what is said over them. But Christ said that the bread was His Body and the wine His blood, without any restrictions attached so we accept what He says as truth and speak of His Body and His Blood as being somehow under the elements. We truly receive what Christ promised and we’re willing to let it go at that. There is an urge in all of us to try to explain everything so it makes sense to us, but we can’t always do that when it comes to things divine. Faithfulness does not require a complete understanding of those mysteries that are understood by God alone. For believers it is enough to simply accept Jesus’ words as Truth and not try to parse them out so our feeble minds can somehow grasp divine meaning. As it has been said, if I could understand God and His ways completely—I would be God.
These disagreements are not going to go away until Jesus comes again. However, what we believe, teach and confess about the Sacrament does not determine our salvation. So we should remember to be generous to those brothers and sisters with whom we disagree, but neither should we ignore something so fundamentally important to our faith as the Holy Supper. Nor should we try to play down what we believe in order to have earthly fellowship, for to go against conscience is ultimately destructive of our faith.
For part one see:
God’s Victory Through the Sacrament of Communion, part 1
More to come …..