The Privilege of Church Membership: Receiving Communion Faithfully
(1 Corinthians 11:17-34)
Whenever I travel abroad I empty my wallet of all my extraneous plastic – there’s my Boots Advantage card, my Tesco Club card, Shell garage card and Nectar ‘you deserve it’ loyalty card, my Starbucks card, Costa Coffee Club card, my Caffe Nero card, my Halifax Ultimate Reward Card, Automobile Association card, Dry Cleaners loyalty card and of course, my Wentworth Club card.
Into my wallet depending on who gave me the best flight deal, goes my British Airways Executive Card, my American Airlines, Delta or United Airline card, and of course my Passport.
We are probably all members of one or more club, trade union, professional association, community group, society or charity. Membership is important. It gives a sense of belonging.
What you may not realise however is that ‘Membership’ is actually a Christian word. In Paul’s letter to the Romans he writes, “in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:5). That means ‘the Church’ is the oldest and largest club in Britain.
What makes membership of the Church unique however, is that it has never been something you could earn, or you could pay for or indeed ever deserve for good deeds or long service. Just the reverse, Jesus has paid the price of membership for you and I. Easter is traditionally the time when we are challenged to respond to all that Jesus has accomplished for us in his death and resurrection. Historically, this is when people were baptised, confirmed and became members of his Church. More than 50 years ago, the Church of England issued a Short Guide to the Duties of Church Membership. Written by the two Archbishops of Canterbury and York and accepted by the Church of England Assembly, they define the core essentials of being fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ.
- To follow the example of Christ
- To be regular in prayer and Bible reading
- To come to church every Sunday
- To give personal service through the Church
- To take communion faithfully
- To give to the Lord’s work at home and abroad
- To uphold the standard of marriage
Our membership scheme is based on this Guide.
We are therefore being faithful to the historic teaching of the Church of England as well as to the Scriptures.
Between now and Easter we invite you to put your name to a simple declaration that, with God’s help, you will seek to be an active member during the year ahead. Specifically, we commit ourselves to protect the unity of our church; share responsibility for our church; serve the ministry of our church; support the testimony of our church; and cooperate with the leaders in fulfilling the Vision of our church. Another way of describing them is to think of them as Seven Habits of Fully Devoted Followers of Jesus. Today I want us to consider the fifth – receiving communion regularly and faithfully.
There have probably more disagreements in Church history over the Lord’s Supper than any other doctrine. In some denominations the congregation share the bread but not the wine. In others, like ours you get to receive both. In some traditions fortified wine is used, in others, you are lucky to get Ribena or grape juice. In some traditions the bread and wine can only be consecrated by an ordained minister. In some churches people cross themselves. In some traditions people hold out their hands. In other’s they stick out their tongues. Some stand to receive, others prefer to kneel. Some dip the bread in the wine. In some the wine is already impregnated in the wafer. In some they share the common cup. In others they each receive an individual cup. Some use glass, some use disposable plastic. Some use packets of bread and wine individually sealed. Some use wafers, some use bread. In some traditions, children may share in the meal if they have been baptised and in others they do not. In some traditions, the clergy are expected to take communion daily and the congregation at least weekly. In some the meal is eaten monthly and in others only seasonally.
In various traditions it is called the Mass, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, a Love Feast, Holy Communion and Agape meal. In some churches it is eaten around a stone altar and in others around a wooden table. Some believe the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus – the Real Presence. Others teach that it is a memorial – a meal of remembrance. With so many variations, they nevertheless have one thing in common. They all trace their roots back to the Last Supper Jesus ate with his disciples. And we tend to think that our tradition is more faithful to Scripture and others have got it wrong in some way or other.
Today we come to the fifth habit of fully devoted followers of Jesus. Please turn with me to 1 Corinthians 11 and lets us consider four reasons why it is important to receive Holy Communion regularly and faithfully. But first note the context:
The Context of the Lord’s Supper in Corinth
“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…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!” (1 Corinthians 11:17-22)
The early church had developed a very lovely tradition in connection with the observance of the Lord’s Supper. They ate a meal together that became known as a Love Feast. Each member brought what they had to share. The resources were pooled. The whole church sat down to a common meal. A beautiful way to express their Christian fellowship. This incidentally is the basis for our own monthly breakfast on the first Sunday of the month and church family lunch which we hold on the fourth Sunday of each month. Please join us next Sunday – our special Mission Sunday. Bring some food to share.
In Corinth, they celebrated the Lord’s Supper as part of this meal. But there were several things that undermined their noble aim. Paul found it necessary to rebuke them strongly. When they met, instead of being one, they separated along social lines – the wealthy separated from the poor and the slaves. Some were also drinking too much and things got out of hand. So Pauls writes, “Your meetings do more harm than good” (1 Corinthians 11:17). They had forgotten the purpose of the Lord’s Supper. Their celebrations had become:
- Divisive (11: 18, 22)
- Exclusive (11:21)
- Excessive (11:21)
So Paul responds, “What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter.” (1 Corinthians 11:22). Paul writes to correct this abuse. He does so by reminding them how the Lord instituted the meal in the first place. Paul gives us 4 principles to ensure we celebrate the Lord’s Supper faithfully.
1. We Remember the Lord Jesus Christ
“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 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.” 25 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.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)
Paul is recalling Jesus’ Last Supper with His disciples. Although he was not present, the Lord personally revealed to Him what happened there. “…I received from the Lord…” (11:23). Notice in these words, Jesus is doing two things:
1.1 Jesus was interpreting something old:
The meal they were eating looked back to the Passover meal. We read about in Exodus 12.
“Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt. Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come…Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants… And when your children ask you, “What does this ceremony mean to you?” then tell them,
“It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.” (Exodus 12:17, 24-27)
This Passover feast included a cooked lamb. It represented the atonement sacrifice. The Passover meal included unleavened bread and it came to include wine. The roots of the Last Supper therefore lie in the annual Jewish Passover meal. What Jesus said about himself and what Jesus was about to do on the cross was therefore based on something old.
1.2 Jesus was instituting something new
The meal is called the Last Supper and the Lord’s Supper. In one sense this is because it was the last time Jesus shared this meal, the Passover meal, with his friends. In another sense, it was the Last Passover meal that the Lord God Almighty would ever accept from his people. Because a day later, His only begotten Son would offer himself as the ransom sacrifice, as the atonement, the Passover Lamb. There would no longer ever be any need for another Passover meal. At best these animal sacrifices could only ever provide a temporary cover for sin, until the next one or until the ultimate one.
That is why John the Baptist could say, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29). From that night, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper took the place of the Passover. Jesus was instituting something new. No longer would they celebrate God’s deliverance of his people from Egypt at this meal. Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11: 25). First and foremost therefore, in the Lord’s Supper, we remember the Lord Jesus Christ.
2. We Rejoice in the Lord Jesus Christ
“For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26)
When we share in the Lord’s Supper, we are, says Paul, proclaiming the Lord’s death. To proclaim means to announce, to declare, to make known, to publish, to praise or glorify openly or publicly. What is it we proclaim?
We exhibit in the bread and the wine, the emblems of his broken body and shed blood, the fact that he died. This shows that the ordinance was to be public . It can be evangelistic.
As we shall see in a moment, only Christ followers should participate and receive the bread and wine, but all may observe and wonder. We not only proclaim the Lord’s death. We also proclaim this in anticipation of his return.
In every generation, therefore, and in every place where Christians gather, it is to be observed, until Jesus returns. In the Lord’s Supper we not only remember, we rejoice.
We are telling the world that the Lord Jesus has died and was risen. We remember the Lord Jesus Christ.
We rejoice in the Lord Jesus Christ.
3. We Repent Before the Lord Jesus Christ
“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 of the cup.” (1 Corinthians 11:27-28)
As we prepare to share in the Lord’s Supper we must carefully examine ourselves. To assist us we say a prayer known as the Prayer of Humble Access. It is a very precious prayer to many.
We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
In the Lord’s Supper we reflect upon three reasons Jesus died – to set us free from the bondage to sin and death, to forgive our sin and give us eternal life. That is why we must repent – that is, turn away from our sin and be made right with God. And we must do this before we take the bread and the wine. Because in taking the bread and the wine, we are saying we understand why Jesus died – why he died in our place. The bread and the wine are indeed for sinners. But only for repentant sinners. So in this meal, we remember the Lord Jesus Christ. We rejoice in the Lord Jesus Christ. And we repent before the Lord Jesus Christ.
4. We are Reconciled Through the Lord Jesus Christ
“For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves… So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together.” (1 Corinthians 11:29, 33)
As we eat and drink the bread and wine we must, says Paul, ‘discern the body of Christ” What does this mean?
It could mean the literal body of Christ, but if so, why does Paul not also refer to the blood of Christ also? His emphasis is upon how, in the Lord’s Supper, we recognise we are united with him and one another. We share in this meal to demonstrate our oneness, our unity. There are no elevated positions at the foot of the cross. Through the Lord Jesus we are reconciled first to God and then to one another. Paul brings these two dimensions beautifully together in the second letter he wrote to this church.
“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20)
This is why in many churches, before sharing in the bread and wine, Christians exchange the sign of the peace. Although this can descend into an artificial formality,
it is deeply symbolic of what is happening in the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is much more than a personal communion with God. It is an incentive to heal broken relationships and demonstrate our in Jesus Christ.
What does it mean then to receive Holy Communion faithfully?
1. It is a time to remember. Remember the Lord Jesus.
2. It is a time to rejoice. Rejoice in the Lord Jesus.
3. It is a time to repent. Repent before the Lord Jesus.
4. It is a time to reconcile. Reconciled by the Lord Jesus.
Today, as we partake in this Communion together…
1. Remember what Jesus went through for you.
2. Rejoice that He died for you and will return that we may be with him forever.
3. Repent of any sin you may have committed this past week.
4. Be reconciled to God and to any brother or sister with whom you have a broken relationship.
Then you can indeed be able to receive this Holy Communion faithfully. Lets pray.
With grateful thanks to Todd Coget and Jason Duncan for much of the inspiration and ideas contained in this sermon. See www.sermoncentral.com