Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. (1 Corinthians 11:28-29)
This passage has been used in so many ways over the centuries. Usually it has been used to scare people and so many people have felt anxious and worried as they have come to receive communion. What if I don’t do this right? What if I don’t believe the right things? Will I be judged by God as unworthy and bring some condemnation to myself?
Within some traditions in the church, including some Lutheran ones, this has been used to support belief in the “real presence” of Christ in the bread and cup. Of course, we believe that when we commune that Jesus is present (Martin Luther said Christ was present “in, with and under” the elements). To eat the bread and drink from the cup is to celebrate that Christ is truly present among us. We trust this promise and celebrate communion weekly when we gather to be sure that each week when we gather, all of us have the chance to recognize that we aren’t just a bunch of people with a common interest in religion. We gather to honor and celebrate the presence of Christ in our lives and in our worship together.
But this probably isn’t Paul’s primary concern in this passage. The people of Corinth were dishonoring this presence by having communion in ways that excluded and cut some people out of the communion. Because they shared communion as part of a dinner, people brought things to share. But the well-to-do got lots of food and drink and some even ended up drunk! The poor among them got little to eat and felt left out. This was not how Jesus hoped communion would be!
Paul tells them that what they share dishonors the body of Christ. In every other place that Paul uses the term “body of Christ” he is referring to the community. We together are the body of Christ. It is the community of faith that is to be the presence of Jesus for the world. When we commune in ways that exclude and leave people out, we dishonor the body, fracturing it rather than uniting it in this meal.
Next time we gather for communion, remember to celebrate that Jesus is here. But equally so, honor the fact that he his here both for us and in us. Together, we represent Christ for the world. When we are divided, we do that poorly. When we are united, it is an amazing thing to see!