What does it mean to receive the Lord’s Table in a worthy manner?
This question crops up all the time. At Trinity Church, we celebrate the gospel through the Lord’s Table every time we gather together, so I suppose the frequency of our practice helps raise this concern for a lot of folks.
The question is an important one because, at one level, it’s simply an attempt to understand what Scripture tells us about how we’re to approach communion. In 1 Corinthians 11:27-30, Paul writes, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”
Those words ought to get our attention. Paul intends for us to evaluate with utter seriousness how we and the church are practicing the Lord’s Table. But I think most people hear those words in almost entirely individualistic terms—in a way that borders on legalistic works-righteousness:
Have I mustered up enough sorrow over my sin?
Have I sinned intentionally since the last time I took communion?
Is God pleased with me right now, based on my performance?
Have I earned my place at the Table?
We’ve taken very seriously Paul’s call to self-examination, but we’ve lifted his words out of their context so that our self-examination is focused completely on our personal holiness and faithfulness to God. So the Lord’s Table tends to become much less about thanksgiving for the gospel or celebrating God’s steadfast promises or receiving assurance of God’s love toward us, and much more about our own fear and anxiety over our personal moral records.
It doesn’t help that many Christians have grown up taking communion in darkened, silent, somber settings where each person is encouraged to look inward at themselves rather than outward to God and to the family of believers. 1 Corinthians 11:27-30 is repeated, and believers are encouraged to “make sure your heart is in the right place today before sharing the meal.” This practice has trained many of us to dread the Lord’s Table because we’re perpetually unsure of whether we’re worthy to receive it.
This is one of those times when paying attention to what’s going on around a passage really helps us understand what Scripture is teaching. Here’s the larger section, and I’ve underlined some of the key statements. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34,
But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another—if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come.
Paul bookends his whole discussion of the Lord’s Table with statements that clarify the real issues in the Corinthian church. Both at the beginning and at the end of this passage, he notes that they are participating in the Lord’s Table in a way that’s encouraging division rather than embodying fellowship. Some refused to wait for others to arrive. Some ate up all of the food while their brothers and sisters went hungry. Some even took so much of the wine that they were getting drunk.
So what’s Paul’s primary concern here? His primary concern is that the church is practicing the Lord’s Table in such a manner that it’s no longer really the Lord’s Table. They’re failing to receive this meal of fellowship with God and the church in recognition of and honor toward other believers. That’s what Paul has in mind when he instructs these Christians to examine themselves and discern the body—they have to examine their hearts to make sure that they’re considering the church, the body of Christ, and participating in the family meal of Christians in a way that promotes peace and unity.
The Lord’s Table is a meal for Christians, so one of the questions we always need to ask is Am I believing the gospel and repenting of sin? If we’re refusing to repent of sin, if we’re rejecting the gospel in our hearts, if we’re rebelling against the idea of communing with God through faith in his Son, then it makes no sense for us to receive a meal that’s all about communion with God and his people. But if we’re trusting his gospel and have been baptized into his body, then we can be confident that his communion meal is intended for us.
Whenever we approach the Table, Paul’s words encourage us to also ask Am I living in fellowship with other believers? To nurse divisions within the body and yet approach the Table in enacted unity is a falsehood. In order to rightly receive the family meal together, we need to make sure that we’re at peace with one another, honoring one another as members of Christ’s body. In a more general sense, Jesus taught in Matthew 5:23-24 that believers ought to reconcile with a brother or sister they’ve offended before offering a gift in worship to God. Often at Trinity, we’ll take a moment before celebrating the Lord’s Table to urge the church with a statement like this: “If there is unresolved conflict in your relationships with the body, or if you’ve sinned against a brother or sister and haven’t yet confessed that and repented to them, go do that now so that you can come together in genuine fellowship to receive the fellowship meal.” That’s one of the simple ways that, as a church, we seek to obey 1 Corinthians 11.
But when you’re tempted to think that going to the Table in a worthy manner means that you need to have done enough in the past week to earn your spot there, remember this: no one has earned a spot at the Table. Only Jesus is worthy to dine with God, but in his obedient life and sacrificial death and glorious resurrection, he purchased your membership in God’s family. In grace, Jesus reserved a place at the family feast for all who trust him. When we break the bread and drink the wine together, God is proclaiming to us that it’s only through Jesus’ work that we get to approach him, belong to him, and be counted righteous in his sight. To make our coming to the Table about our worthiness, then, is a contradiction if ever there was one.
So take the Lord’s Table in repentance. Receive it in thanksgiving. Participate in this sacrament in fellowship with God’s people. And take the Table in the sweet and comforting knowledge that Jesus left this gospel celebration for sinners and that your seat at the table is grounded in Jesus’ perfection, not your own.