Parents shouldn’t let their 16 year old son hit the road before he’s finished driver’s training. They shouldn’t let him fly down 41 going 70mph before he’s driven slow circles around a parking lot, because someone who isn’t properly prepared to drive can seriously injure themselves and others! We don’t just hand a person a rifle and say, “Have fun!” when they want to become a hunter. If they haven’t been trained to safely use that gun, they will hurt or kill someone. It’s common sense to only trust people to handle powerful, potentially harmful things who have been properly prepared to use them. But if it’s common sense about guns and cars, why do so many people, Christians included, think that anyone and everyone should be able to handle the power of the Lord’s Supper? Because they misunderstand the purpose and power of it! On this Maundy Thursday, when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, we’ll ponder Jesus’ words to his disciples at the Last Supper, and Paul’s explanation in 1 Corinthians 11, to show us why the Lord’s Supper is so powerful, and how we can be properly prepared to receive it.
When you come to the communion rail, you see, smell, taste and touch bread and wine. So from a logical perspective that has to be what Lord’s Supper is; bread and wine. If that’s true, and the Lord’s Supper is nothing more than bread and wine, then churches can throw open their communion rails to everyone, because the Lord’s Supper is no different than coffee and cookies in the atrium. Then it would be unloving to deny anyone to share in these snacks. If Lord’s Supper is just a ceremony to remember Jesus, then it’s like a “moment of silence” at a basketball game. It’s not something that the person being honored does for those people, it’s something they do to honor that person. If it’s just bread and wine, then the Lord’s Supper is just something we do to honor Jesus, not anything he does for us.
But according to Jesus’ words and promises, when we receive the Lord’s Supper, we receive his true body and blood with that bread and wine. Breaking the bread, Jesus tells his disciples, “This is my body.” Passing the cup of wine, Jesus tells them, “This is my blood.
With these words, Jesus shows us that Lord’s Supper is not just something we do for him. It’s Jesus pouring out his grace on us! If Jesus’ true body and blood are present, taking communion is touching God! And that’s power you need to be prepared to handle.
Why do we believe Jesus is speaking literally here? Because there’s nothing in Scripture to lead us to a different conclusion. Jesus doesn’t say, “This represents my body” or “this is like my blood.” He says, “This IS my body and blood.”
Remember, Jesus speaks these words on Maundy Thursday, in the last few hours he has with his disciples. There was no more time for speaking in parables as he had before! During that Thursday, Jesus spoke to his disciples in some of the most concise, clear language of his 3 years of teaching them. They needed to know the clear truth!
It makes no sense that Jesus would speak clearly to his disciples all day Thursday, then slip back into symbolism at this critical hour when he says, “This is my body; This is my blood.”
Then why do so many believe that’s what Jesus means? Because literal sounds illogical. “He’s sitting at the table with them. How can he give them his body and blood? That would take a miracle!” Well, yeah! But doing miracles is Jesus’ specialty!
But let’s play devil’s advocate. Although there is no evidence that would lead us to believe Jesus is speaking figuratively here, let’s just say, for the sake of argument that we can’t really tell if Jesus speaks literally or figuratively.
Even if we did concede that, (which we don’t), 1 Corinthians would be the perfect place for Paul to set the record straight. The Gospels are history books. They tell us what happened. But 1 Corinthians is a doctrinal letter, intended to further explain Jesus’ teachings.
But he doesn’t correct them! Instead, he reinforces what Christ himself revealed; in the Lord’s Supper, you receive Jesus’ true body and blood! And that makes Lord’s Supper a big deal; a powerful object to which Paul attaches warnings to use properly.
Paul warns, “Therefore”—because Jesus says you receive his body and blood in the Lord’s Supper— “Therefore, 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.”
If you aren’t properly prepared to receive the Lord’s Supper, you receive spiritual harm rather than good! We need to be prepared, because receiving Communion in an unworthy manner isn’t sinning against the memory of Christ, or against a ceremony. It’s sinning against Jesus’ body and blood!
What exactly does eating and drinking in an unworthy manner mean? Unworthiness doesn’t mean “too sinful.” If you’re here feeling weighed down by your sins; like each sin is a stone that you have to lug around in a bag over your shoulder—from the giant boulders of old sins that you still feel guilty about, to the stone of an unloving thought or word on the way to church today—if you’re lugging around shame and guilt over your sins, then you’re not unworthy. You’re exactly who the Lord’s Supper is intended for!
Jesus wants you to drag your shame and guilt up to these rails, so that you can come into contact with the same body and blood sacrificed on the cross to blast those sins from our Father’s memory.
Unworthy doesn’t mean too sinful. Unworthy means the exact opposite; that you come to the altar without acknowledging your sins or craving the forgiveness of sins offered in it. Unworthy is flippantly coming to receive Jesus’ true body and blood without a second thought. Unworthiness is, “The one who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.”
The Greek word for “recognizing” Jesus’ body is the same word used for identifying the authenticity of Roman money. Merchants examined whether the coins they received were real money, or counterfeit forgeries. In the same way, when you come to the Lord’s Supper, you need to recognize what God’s Word says you are receiving; Jesus true body and blood. If you come to communion thinking that Jesus’ body and blood are a forgery, then you receive God’s judgment rather than God’s grace!
Taking the Lord’s Supper is a weighty thing. We need to be prepared. What does that mean for us practically? As a church, it means embracing close communion. Close communion is the practice of admitting to the Lord’s Supper only those who are prepared to receive it–those who recognize that they’re receiving Jesus’ true body and blood with the bread and wine, and confess to believe all the teachings of Scripture.
Too often, instead of embracing close communion, we’re embarrassed to tell others what our church practices, like it makes us a weird minority. “Yeah, sorry, our church practices close communion because we’re kinda the uptight, strict weirdos.” You might be surprised to know that close communion is actually the practice of the majority of Christian churches—of 1.3 billion Christians worldwide, and the ancient practice of the Christian church.
The minority is the couple million Christians in liberal churches who invite anyone to take the Lord’s Supper with them, regardless of their faith. Which is the more loving practice? Our inclusive-obsessed society says that you must allow everyone to be loving. But close communion is actually the practice motivated by love.
How so? Close communion is not the church saying, “You’re not a member of our club, so you can’t hang out with us.” Close communion is the church saying, “We don’t want to give you something you’re not prepared to use which will bring you spiritual judgment.” You don’t love someone if you hand them a gun they don’t know how to use. You don’t love someone if you give them the keys to a car they can’t drive! Churches that open the Lord’s Table to those who aren’t prepared for it aren’t showing people love! In their attempts to be loving, they’re allowing people to do something that harms them.
As a church that takes God’s Word seriously, we need to be committed to that, and we don’t need to apologize for it. According to God’s Word, close communion is the only loving practice.
What about as individuals? Paul explains, “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.” What does Paul mean by “examine”? Students probably break into a sweat hearing “exam.” Exams are important and weighty, because they make you answer the big questions.
Examining yourself before taking Lord’s Supper means asking yourself the big questions too. Our preparation needs to be more than realizing, “Oh, those gold pans are on the altar again. Better make sure my shirt’s tucked in.” We need to examine our hearts ahead of time, by asking these questions.
Do I crave this meal because I feel the guilt of my sin, and crave the forgiveness that Jesus gives me in it? Do I believe Jesus is telling the truth when he says, “This is my body and blood”? Will I take this spiritual nourishment Jesus gives, and use it to fight against the sins that brought me to this table? Am I united in faith with these Christians I’m sharing this meal with? If you can confidently say yes to those questions, then come! If you can’t answer those questions with “yes,” then you aren’t prepared, and shouldn’t come.
Anyone want to claim that they haven’t sinned against Jesus’ body and blood in the Lord’s Supper? That you’ve never taken it casually without examining yourself, or unrepentant of some sin that you didn’t want to stop? None can, right? If we’re compiling a list of those who have taken the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, then put me at the top of the list. But we need to strive to be prepared. You know Lord’s Supper is 1st and 3rd Sundays, so examine yourself ahead of time!
But brothers and sisters, if you feel guilty over receiving the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner…then bring it forward to the Lord’s altar, and lay it at Jesus feet. Receive the same body sacrificed on the cross, and the blood shed to wash away your sins. Receive Jesus’ promise to strengthen us through this meal, so we can focus on properly preparing to receive it. Hear Jesus’ invitation this Maundy Thursday. Take, eat. This is my body. Take, drink. This is my blood—given for you! Amen.