Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Last Supper and Eucharist: What's the deal with that?

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’
When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
--Matthew 26:26-30

Last Sunday, the pastor of the church that I work for opened the worship service with the announcement that communion was set out on the altar (which was moved to the side of the sanctuary to make room for the band and the sermon illustration), and that anyone was free over the course of the service to come and partake of the elements, per the "open table" policy of the Wesleyan church. He followed up his announcement by warning, "However, we do ask that you be a believing, baptized Christian, because the Bible says that if you're not, you are taking condemnation into yourself."

And the thing that troubled me the most is that he said this during his welcome. While smiling.

What is it about the Eucharist that is so profoundly confusing? Why are there so many crazy practices out there? This is not the first time I've heard this argument, about "taking condemnation into yourself." The first time was when I was a youth pastor. I was teaching the youth one night about the importance of togetherness, and mentioned the last supper Christ ate with his disciples as an example of how important it was for Jesus to eat with his friends. One of our volunteers, a retired lady, interjected suddenly, "Yes, but you have to be a believer, otherwise you're taking condemnation into yourself."

You know, John Wesley himself viewed communion as a form of prevenient grace, which in a nutshell means that the Eucharist is God's way of saying, "Here, I have this gift for you: take it."

Saying "All are welcome--except for you unbaptized unbelievers, and you know who you are" is exclusive and harmful to the spirit of the last supper. And the language of "taking condemnation into yourself" is both overused and judgmental, especially when Paul's words are taken out of context. These words actually come from Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth:

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, 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 and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come.
--1 Corinthians 11:27-34

So it's taking of the bread and the cup "in an unworthy manner" that brings "judgment" upon us. But what is that unworthy manner? Is it not being holy enough or believing enough to approach the table with Jesus? Let's take a look at just a few verses up from this passage, where Paul actually answers this question:

For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you! 
--(vs. 17-22)

Paul is scolding the church--particularly the wealthy folks--for rushing ahead of the poor folks in the supper line! He emphasizes that it is a genuine heart, not particular beliefs or rituals, that make the Lord's supper holy. And when people turn it into a competition to see who can fill their plate and cup with the body and blood of Jesus first, taking advantage of social, political, or economic high-ground, only then are people eating and drinking judgment into themselves.

The table is open. Christ is willing to share his last meal with you. Not just once a month or once a quarter; every single time you sit to share a meal with others, Christ is there, as long as there are genuine hearts and the spirit of hospitality among you.

Open our eyes that they may see the deepest needs of people;
Move our hands that they may feed the hungry;
Touch our hearts that they may bring warmth to the despairing;
Teach us the generosity that welcomes strangers;
Let us share our possessions to clothe the naked;
Give us the care that strengthens the sick;
Make us share in the quest to set the prisoner free.
In sharing our anxieties and our love, our poverty and our prosperity,
we partake of your divine presence, most loving God.


  1. Joshua, you are missing the point. Look at 1 Corinthians 11 again and see what "recognizing the Body and Blood" is all about.

    1. Sorry, Al. Not seeing what you're getting at. Perhaps you could explain it to me instead of just saying 'look again'?