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The Three Tenses of Communion

Funny things sometimes happen in church. Many years ago, I served as the Assistant Pastor in a new church. We met for worship in the auditorium of an elementary school. One Sunday, the senior pastor was introducing Communion toward the end of the service, after the sermon, just like we do in our church here. However, on this Sunday there was someone in the congregation who was a new Christian. Honestly, I don’t even remember her name anymore. But she was an emotional young woman who had faced various problems in her life, and on this one Sunday she must have been feeling a bit distressed. Our pastor had no sooner finished introducing Communion when this young woman got up out of her seat, ran to the Lord’s Table, picked up some of the bread and ate it, downed some of the grape juice, then turned and ran out the door. We were all left speechless. We had never seen anything like it. I have never seen anything like it since. I don’t know if the pastor later gave some helpful instruction to this young woman about how to receive Communion. But I think the rest of us just decided to treat the whole event like it never happened.


While the incident made all of us feel rather uncomfortable, I thought more about it afterwards. It occurred to me that perhaps my life was lacking the intense sense of need for Jesus that woman felt at that moment. I grant you that her need was, perhaps, not expressed in the best way. There was seemingly no awareness on her part that there was anyone else in the room that day. But perhaps we would all do well, at least in our hearts, to run to the table, every now and then.


Today, we are going to examine what the Apostle Paul has to say about the Lord’s Supper from 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. Listen for God’s word to you…


In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night 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, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

So then, 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. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.

So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.

And when I come, I will give further directions.

In this passage there are many things we could talk about, but today I want to focus on what I call The Three Tenses of Communion.


First, there is something in Holy Communion from the Past. Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of me.”


In fact, Jesus says this twice: “Do this in remembrance of me.” He says it of the bread, and he says it of the wine.


When we eat the bread, we remember something from the past. We remember something from 2000 years ago. We remember his body broken for us.


When we drink the wine of Holy Communion, we also remember something from the past. We remember Jesus’ blood shed for us on the cross.


When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians it was just 25 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is the oldest, extant, written account of any of the words of Jesus, and of the Lord’s Supper as Jesus celebrated it with his disciples. But Paul was still looking back on the Last Supper as something in the past, and so are we, almost 2000 years later. Just imagine, if we are together for Good Friday in 2029 or 2030, just 7 or 8 years from now, and we celebrate communion together, we will be doing it on the 2000th anniversary of the death and resurrection of Christ.


So, that’s the first thing I see in this passage. In Holy Communion we look back to the past. We remember the historical Jesus and what he did for us 2000 years ago. We remember how he shared the Passover meal with his first disciples. We also remember the new meaning he gave to Passover at that time when he indicated that it symbolized his body broken and his blood that would be shed on the cross.


But that is not all that there is to Holy Communion. There is also something for us in the Present. Jesus not only said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” He also said: “This is my body.”


Communion is not just about remembering something past. We can truly commune with Christ in the present. Jesus said, “This is my body.” 


For almost 2000 years the Church has been debating: What did Jesus mean when he said of the bread of the Passover: “This is my body”?


The answer of the Roman Catholic Church since the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215 has been summed up in the word transubstantiation. The Catholic Church believes that “At the heart of the Eucharistic celebration are the bread and wine that, by the words of Christ and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, become Christ’s Body and Blood.”[1] The Catholic Church believes that while the outward appearance (accidens) of bread and wine remain the same, the substance of bread and wine are changed into the literal body and blood of Christ when blessed by the priest.


Martin Luther, at the time of the Reformation in the 1500s, could not accept this definition of what happens in Holy Communion. Nonetheless, Luther took Christ’s words, “This is my body,” quite literally. Luther maintained that Christ’s body is present “in, with and under” the elements of bread and wine when consecrated by a priest. This belief is referred to by the term consubstantiation.


Another one of the Reformers, a contemporary of Luther by the name of Ulrich Zwingli, could not accept either the Catholic view or the Lutheran view of the Lord’s Supper. Zwingli emphasized that we are merely remembering what the Lord did in the past when we celebrate Holy Communion. Thus, Zwingli’s view is referred to as the memorial view. It is the view held by many Baptists and nondenominational Christians today.


Finally, along came a third leader of the Protestant Reformation: John Calvin. While denying that Christ is present physically in the Lord’s Supper, Calvin, at the same time, taught that Christ is present spiritually in the consecrated elements of bread and wine. Thus, Calvin’s view, which is also my own, is called the spiritual presence view of the Lord’s Supper.


Though I do hold to one of these views and not the others, I do appreciate what C. S. Lewis once said in his book, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. Lewis wrote… 


I could wish that no definitions had ever been felt to be necessary; and, still more, that none had been allowed to make divisions between churches.


So, enough of theological examination, which can, for some, present an obstacle to communing with Christ. Paul mentions in this passage various other obstacles to communing with Christ in the present.


One obstacle he mentions repeatedly throughout the Corinthian correspondence is divisions.Paul says,


I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.


I believe Paul is being sarcastic. But some Christians take this with deadly seriousness and believe there need to be divisions in the church to show who is right and who is wrong.


Isn’t it interesting that the very sacrament that was meant to bring us together as Christ’s body has become another source of division? Perhaps if we simply allowed ourselves to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together across denominational lines, more often, our divisions would eventually dissolve. Sometimes action does far more to unite people than discussion.

Another obstacle Paul mentions to communing with Christ in the present is selfishness. Apparently, the Corinthian Christians were treating the celebration of the Lord’s Supper like we would treat a Potluck Supper at church. What is worse, they weren’t waiting for one another before partaking of the potluck. Perhaps the wealthy in the church showed up early with their elaborate and tasty provisions, and when the poorer members of the congregation, slaves and such like showed up, the good food was already eaten and there wasn’t much left for the poorer members of the congregation. Paul condemns such divisions between rich and poor and such selfishness in the Corinthian Church.


Another obstacle to communion with Christ in the present that Paul identifies is irreverence. He says,


So then, 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.


It seems to me that whenever we partake of the Lord’s Supper without preparation, without thought or care or reverence, we partake in an unworthy manner.


A fourth obstacle to communion with Christ in the present is lack of discernment. Paul says,


For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 


What does Paul mean when he talks about “discerning the body of Christ”? There are two possibilities. Paul may be referring to discerning the presence of the body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper—discerning that presence which, I believe, is spiritual, not physical.


But a second possibility is that Paul is referring to discerning the body of Christ, which is the Church, God’s people. If this is what Paul means, then he is reminding us that whenever we partake of Holy Communion it isn’t simply a “Me and Jesus” moment. Rather, we always need to have an awareness of others, of the Church, the body of Christ, the family of God surrounding us and partaking with us.


When Becky, Josh and I lived in Falls Church, Virginia, we attended the Falls Church Episcopal. I loved partaking of Holy Communion in Episcopal fashion during our time there… progressing to the Communion Table… kneeling before the Table to receive the elements of bread and wine. At least once during our time in that Church, and perhaps more than once, I found myself kneeling next to a gay couple who had been married in that Church. I don’t know how such an experience would affect you, but it reminded me in a very powerful way that the ground is level at the cross. It gave me a powerful awareness of the diversity in the body of Christ surrounding me as I knelt to receive Holy Communion. 


Paul warns that lack of discernment of the body of Christ can lead to judgment, specifically to weakness, sickness, and death. Wow! Who knew that partaking of Holy Communion could be such a potentially dangerous action?


I love what Annie Dillard once wrote about this. She says…


On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.


Thankfully, Paul does not simply leave us on the sonorous note of judgment. Rather, Paul presents us with solutions to the problems he outlines. 


First, he urges us to examine ourselves. Paul does not spell out that for which we ought to examine ourselves but allow me to suggest a few possibilities. We might examine ourselves regarding our knowledge of what is going on in the Lord’s Supper. We might also examine ourselves for our own sin and confess the same to the Lord. We might examine ourselves for faith and our apprehension of the grace of Christ. 


Might I suggest that we pray something like this when we come to the Lord’s Table? “Father, I don’t fully understand what is going on here, but I trust you, Lord, to feed me spiritually through this Supper. Lord, you know I am a mess, and I need your grace. Thank you for your never-ending love.”


A second thing Paul urges us to do is, besides examining ourselves, is to discern the body of Christ. I think we have said enough on this point for today.


Then, a third thing Paul urges the Corinthians and us to do is to simply to eat together. Eating together means waiting for one another. Now I know that some people today practice home communions where they commune with the Lord individually and privately over the elements of bread and wine. I don’t know if there is anything truly wrong with such a practice, but it certainly isn’t what is envisioned in the New Testament where Holy Communion is always partaken of by a group of two or more.


Fourthly, Paul says: if you are hungry, eat at home! If Holy Communion was ever celebrated as part of a real, full meal in the early church, surely these words of Paul encouraged an end to that practice. I don’t think Paul would see anything wrong with church potluck suppers. But I think he might potentially see a problem with treating a potluck supper and the Lord’s Supper in the same way.


So, we have seen two tenses of Communion, but there is also a third, future tense. Paul says, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”


This reminds me of Jesus’ words to his disciples at the Last Supper as recorded in Matthew 26:29…


I tell you I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.


According to Paul, every time we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we are proclaiming Jesus’ death, and the saving effect of it, until Jesus comes again.


And I think when we combine Paul’s words with Jesus’ words, we can also say that every time we partake of Holy Communion we are also looking forward to that time when we will drink of the cup face to face with Jesus.


“Next year in Jerusalem” is a phrase often sung by the Jewish people at the end of their Passover Seder. The phrase looks forward to the possibility of celebrating the Seder, literally, next year in Jerusalem.


When we partake of the Lord’s Supper together, we should be thinking, if not actually saying or singing aloud, “Next time in the New Jerusalem!” Such is a statement of faith; it is a looking forward. But it is a looking forward to a real possibility, because at any moment the Lord might return and usher in his eternal kingdom where I believe we will, quite literally, drink the cup with him, face to face. 

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church


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