Being Worthy – October 6, 2019
I Corinthians 11:23-26
October 6, 2019
The scripture I read for today has been referred to over the years as “The words of the institution.” In other words, these are the words that speak of the “institution,” the “establishment,” the “beginning of” the sacrament we know as the Lord’s Supper – that which we share today with our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.
These are familiar words to many of us. They can be found in many traditional communion liturgies. “That which I received of the Lord, I deliver unto you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took the bread…” Those words have been read and studied – in order to understand the importance of this sacrament – for the last two thousand years!
Well, as wonderful as those words are, we need to remember the context in which they were written. Paul is troubled about some of the things he’s heard about this congregation in the city of Corinth. And so following these words, he writes, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an ‘unworthy manner’ will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” (Verses 27-28.) People have wondered about the meaning of those words ever since.
And we get a sense of that if we read what came before these “words of the institution.” We can see why Paul is upset as he’s writing this. He’s telling about how they were conducting themselves as they ate this meal together. And yes, this sacrament began as a shared meal, a meal in which the sacrifice of Jesus was commemorated. It’s like I talk about at our Agape celebration. That celebration is a little experience of what it was like in the early church. We share an actual meal in community, and then together we commemorate the time of Jesus and his disciples in the upper room and the sacrifice that followed.
Well, the problem with their “shared meal,” is that there wasn’t a lot of sharing going on. The people were bringing food for the meal, but some were not sharing, and some were going hungry. And that was very troublesome for Paul. He saw it as a mockery of what they were celebrating. And he was fairly harsh in his assessment of things. Hence these words about them “profaning the body and blood of the Lord, and bringing judgment upon themselves. That’s pretty harsh stuff!!
And ever since that time, people have wondered how those words about receiving communion in an “unworthy manner” might possibly apply to them. And I’m sure we’ve wondered that, too. And no, the actual circumstances, the actual details of what was going on in Corinth might not apply to us. The things they were doing might not be a problem for us. But we might consider what kinds of things in our lives might be problematic when it comes to receiving this sacrament. What in our lives might be causing us to receive communion in an unworthy manner? What might cause us to think, “We’re not worthy.” (Do you remember that old catchphrase from Saturday Night Live?)
What might those things be for us? An unforgiving attitude? Ungraciousness? Some criticism or conflict we’re hanging on to? Whatever those things might be, we need to hear clearly the words of Paul, who firmly believed that our spiritual lives cannot be thought of as separate from all those other things in our lives. They go together! If we try to separate those things out, if we receive communion without searching our lives to think of those things we might need to change, we’re missing something! What might be our form of receiving this sacrament in an “unworthy manner?”
Now, having said that, the other thing we need to remember here – and this is the Good News – is that we are really not worthy! In our human, sinful nature, we can not be worthy of God’s kingdom! Let’s not get that confused with what Paul’s saying in this passage. He told us, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” If we were not to receive communion because of our unworthiness in that sense, none of us would be worthy!
Our sinful nature as humans means we are not worthy. And that becomes the great miracle of God’s grace. He forgives us! (Like we talked about last week! “Radical Forgiveness!”) God does not say sin does not matter. Make no mistake! God has always said sin is unacceptable. But God has also said our sin is forgiven! That is Grace! If sin did not matter, then Grace would have no power!
However, that’s not what Paul is talking about here. When he cautions the Corinthians not to receive communion in an “unworthy manner,” he was referring to the behavior they were exhibiting while they were partaking. He was upset that they were acting as though their actions didn’t matter, or as though what they did had no bearing on what they believed, or on how “spiritual” they were!
Paul is cautioning them, and us, against that attitude! We must always give thought to our whole lives as we come to this table. We must take seriously his call to do what we can to avoid taking this sacrament in an “unworthy manner.”
You know, we don’t require any “proof of worthiness” in our communion service. But there was a time! There used to be requirements! I believe there is an old display of the church on the wall in the Sunday School building that has a couple of small, round, coin-like things on it. And I believe they were “Communion Tokens.” That was from the day you had to do certain things in order to take communion. And when you did those things, you got a token. Maybe some of you could enlighten me as to what those requirements were. (Or maybe what some should be in the future! Because I can think of a few good ones!!!)
Now, before you get out the tar and feathers, let me say that I’m not advocating that. But I am asking you to think about it. I’m asking you today – and every time we celebrate communion, for that matter – to take the time to prepare your heart for this sacrament. I know some of you have said that’s very important and I agree. Take some time to think about your life, to think about what you might need to change in order to be receiving this sacrament in a “worthy manner.” Above all, we should never take this sacrament “lightly” or “matter-of-fact-ly.” We should always take a serious look at our selves, and at our hearts.
So, think about the presence of God, with us, right here! Think about the things that may have separated you from God. And I don’t just mean sins that keep you from being with God. I mean attitudes that have caused you to push God away or hold him at arms length. Think about the things you might need to change in your life of faith. Think about your unworthiness – for we are all “unworthy.” And think about the greatness of God’s grace. Come before him today in humbleness, and in meekness, acknowledging before him your need for his grace and mercy. And then, in this sacrament remember his great love for you, love that caused him to want to redeem even you! And rest and rejoice in his grace, his reconciliation, and his joy!
Eternal God, we are amazed by your Grace! Forgive us for the things we have done that trivialize that Grace. Forgive us for thinking everything is up to us, that we have no need of your mercy. Help us as we ponder once again the meaning of this sacrament and the power of your sacrifice for us. Help us to be people of Grace. Help us to strive to live and to love like Jesus. For we pray in his name, Amen.