“And now as we turn to the communion table, I would like to invite all those who love Jesus and call Him ‘Lord’ to join with us in partaking of the elements. If you’re visiting with us today and you don’t know Jesus, feel free to spend this time in quiet reflection. Communion is something that Christians do to remember Jesus’ death.”
Aaargh! How I wish I could take those words back! Could I not see the staggering ungraciousness of my comments? Was I blind to the unholy line I was drawing between Us (welcome to take communion) and Them (not welcome)? Jesus died for all people, but not all were being invited to remember his death. How did I get so mixed up?
Like many pastors I was confused about the meaning of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:26-32. I understood that the Corinthians had been making fools of themselves by gorging and getting drunk at communion, so I thought that Paul wrote to warn them of the dire consequences of acting irreverently:
“He that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself…” (1 Cor 11:29 KJV)
I now understand that Paul was saying something completely different and wholly liberating about proclaiming the Lord’s death. He wasn’t condemning the Corinthians for their poor behavior. He was trying to free them from the condemnation of their ignorance and unbelief. This distinction is obvious when you think about it. I mean, how could Paul preach condemnation to the Corinthian Christians in one letter while preaching no condemnation to the Roman Christians in another?
Somehow Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11 have been twisted into a worthiness test for communion. “Examine yourself before you eat the bread and drink of the cup.” Okay, but how do we do that? How do I know if I’m worthy or about to eat and drink damnation to myself? Some denominations helpfully mandate minimum standards of worthiness. They say you must be a believer or a baptized believer or a welcomed member of the church or what-have-you. But the lines are blurry. The standards differ even within denominations as many individual churches have the freedom to set their own worthiness benchmarks.
Perhaps what we need is some kind of Christian caste system. India’s caste system is pretty good at separating the rabble from the rest. Maybe we can learn from them. At the bottom would be sinners because someone who rejects Jesus is obviously not worthy. That’s basically what I was saying in my church. By telling visitors (they might be sinners! who let them in here?) that they were “free” not to partake of communion I was sending the message, “this is not for you – you’re not good enough for Jesus.” I was judging them as unworthy of the body and blood. Of course I didn’t think of it in such terms. I thought I was honoring Jesus and protecting sinners from judgment. Slowly it began to dawn on me that there was something odd about denying communion to sinners. Afterall, didn’t Jesus die for sinners?
Religion draws lines between us and them, but grace tears down dividing walls (Eph 2:14). Nowhere in the Bible will you find any hint of a suggestion that we should exclude people from communion. This is a death-dealing tradition of man. When I said communion was for us but not for them, I was acting religiously and in a manner wholly opposed to the Spirit of grace. Happily, I repented. I changed my tune and began saying, “all are welcome.” I then watched amazed as the Holy Spirit revealed the love and grace of God to those who didn’t know Him.
Who can partake of communion?
Communion is when we remember Jesus’ death on the cross. So who’s it for? Obviously it’s for all those He died for. It’s for everyone. But I want to single out two groups who can especially benefit from communion:
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” ~ Jesus (Mk 2:17)
1. The sick
Sickness and death are part of sin’s curse (Ge 2:17). In Deuteronomy 28:15-68 there is a long list of curses that result from disobedience to God’s commands. These include “severe and lingering illnesses” along with “every kind of sickness not recorded in the Book of Law” (v.59-60). There is no sickness that is not part of the curse. Even modern-day sicknesses (e.g., anorexia, HIV, DVT) are covered.
During His time on earth Jesus healed every sick person who came to Him (Mt 12:15, Mk 6:56). Not one person went away unhealed. Jesus did this to demonstrate His complete and irresistible power over sin and all its effects. So before you eat and drink, examine yourself to see if there are things in your life – sickness, disease, afflictions (Is 53:4, AMP) – that Jesus carried in His body and paid for in His blood. If you are sick, proclaim His death and triumphant victory over sin and death! Identify your illness as a defeated enemy and lift up the Name of Him who is above every sickness. He was wounded that you might be healed, and cursed that you might be blessed (Gal 3:13, 1 Pe 2:24). Take your Jesus’ Medicine and be well!
In the old covenant, sinners and unclean people were kept far away lest they contaminate the righteous. If there had been communion back then, they would not have got it! But Jesus was a friend of sinners. He went into their houses and broke bread with them. He met with thieves, adulterers and murderers and “contaminated” them with His righteousness. Sinners were radically changed by His awesome grace.
By saying “communion is only for the worthy” we have turned a new covenant blessing into an old covenant curse and denied grace to those who need it most. If communion is only for the deserving, who can qualify? Outside of Christ there are no worthy people! If you think you are worthy because of your religious performance, then you disqualify yourself, for Jesus did not come to call the self-righteous.
Here’s the good news: Jesus is still a friend of sinners! He died for us while we were sinners and He reconciled us to God while we were His enemies (Rm 5:8,10). People who hesitate over communion – both saints and sinners – do so because they are distracted by their imperfections. They draw back like Old Testament lepers because they believe that they are unclean. But you have been redeemed by the most precious commodity in the universe – the infinitely precious blood of Jesus (1 Pe 1:19). If God loves you enough to die for you, then in His eyes you must be really something special. And you are!
Communion is not a time for self-examination but Jesus-examination! The only thing that will empower you to overcome sin is the grace of God and it’s not stored in your navel. Look to Jesus! His blood bought your forgiveness and His death triumphed over all your sin. See yourself crucified with Him (Ga 2:20). Reckon yourself dead to sin and alive to Christ (Rm 6:11). He is our perfect high priest, a Lamb without blemish or defect. Don’t draw back but come boldly to the throne of grace for Christ Himself qualifies you.
The next time someone says “communion is only for the worthy,” don’t be distracted by your sin – it’s been done away with by the blood of Jesus and God remembers it no more (He 8:12). Instead, remind yourself that Christ died for the unworthy. Tell yourself, “He died for me, and because of Him I am now the very righteousness of God, holy and blameless (Eph 1:4). Glory to God and thank you Jesus!”