What Spoils the Lord’s Supper?

How Not to Come to the Table

How do you approach the Lord’s Table? What is your attitude when you partake of it?

For many years, I viewed Communion as mainly a time of deep introspection, somberness, heaviness, and self-examination. Somewhere along the way, I picked up that this was the right and proper way to approach. I subtly adopted a number of unwritten rules for receiving the Lord’s Supper:

  1. Bow your head.
  2. Close your eyes (or look at the floor).
  3. Hunch your shoulders so that you feel the heaviness of this time better.
  4. Search your heart for unconfessed sin.
  5. Avoid eye contact with others.
  6. Try not to be distracted by the 6-year-old behind you who wants to know why he can’t have a snack like everyone else (or feel guilty because it’s your 6-year-old doing the distracting).
  7. Check your heart for sin again, just to be sure.
  8. Think deeply about your own wickedness.
  9. Try to think about the cross (but don’t forget your own wickedness).
  10. Seriously, don’t acknowledge, notice, or make eye contact with your neighbor; you don’t want to interrupt what God might be doing next to you.

Now, this somber, grave, introspective attitude had reasons beneath it. Paul says clearly that it’s possible to eat the bread and drink the cup “in an unworthy manner” (1 Corinthians 11:27). To partake in this way is to be guilty of the body and blood of Jesus and to drink judgment on oneself (verse 29). This type of sin is so serious that God brought illness and even death upon some of the Corinthians for their failure to eat and drink in a worthy way (verse 30).

Given these realities, it’s good and right for there to be a kind of gravity and weight to the meal. At the same time, it’s important to recognize just how flagrant the sins of the Corinthians were.

What Was So Unworthy?

The Corinthian church was wracked by factions and divisions. Those divisions clearly manifested themselves when they came to the Lord’s Table. Or more specifically, they forgot whose table it was. Far from being the Lord’s Supper, it became John’s supper and Jane’s supper and Mark’s supper and Carol’s supper. Everyone treated it like it was “his own meal” (1 Corinthians 11:21).

The Johnsons brought a spread that would make Solomon jealous, but they refused to share any with the Smiths, who had nothing. In fact, humiliating the Smiths was the reason they brought so much (verse 22). Some of the deacons were three sheets to the wind in the back of the room. Brother Billy had passed out in the third row (verse 21). The meal was marked by the flaunting of wealth, haughtiness, greed, drunkenness, and overall selfishness.

In a word, the Corinthians were despising the members of the church of God (verse 22). And in despising them, they were despising the Lord who bought them. That was the unworthy manner that brought God’s discipline and judgment down on their heads.

When Gravity Goes Wrong

My unwritten rules distorted the gravity that should mark the meal. I always felt rushed because I was rapidly running through my mind looking for leftover, unconfessed sins.

My goal as the elements were distributed was to make myself feel the weight of my sin and the horror of the cross so that I could receive the elements in a worthy manner (a grave, somber, heavy, introspective one). The result is that the Lord’s Supper became largely about me retreating into my cocoon to “feast” on Jesus with a heavy heart. My whole demeanor communicated this through hunched shoulders and eyes staring at the ground, only looking up to take the plate and pass it on.

What was noticeably lacking from my experience of Communion was a strong sense of awe, wonder, joy, Godwardness, and gratitude. In my zeal for gravity, I had forgotten gladness. What specifically did I miss?

Missing Ingredients

First, I missed that Jesus established the meal with thanksgiving. “The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it” (1 Corinthians 11:23–24). This is why some Christian traditions refer to the Lord’s Table as the Eucharist (from the Greek word for thanksgiving). The first note struck when the meal was given was gratitude to God.

“The first note struck when the meal was given was gratitude to God.”

Second, I missed that the meal was a meal for sinners. “This is my body, which is for you.” Every “you” in that sentence is a sinner, a broken rebel, a child of wrath saved by sovereign grace. Matthew records that Jesus specifically drew attention to the Supper’s connection to our sin. “He took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matthew 26:27–28).

In the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. And the Lord’s death is explicitly a death for sinners. “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). Therefore, sinners belong at the Table. In ourselves, we may be unworthy, but we have been made worthy by the blood of Jesus. We can approach the Table boldly because the patriarch at the head of the table sits on a throne of grace, making it a table of grace.

Meal Preparation

How then should we come to the Table? What should our demeanor and attitude be? Picture the prodigal son after he’s returned home. When the father killed the fattened calf for the celebration of the prodigal’s homecoming, he would not have been pleased or honored if his lost son had sulked in the corner all night, muttering about his unworthiness and trying hard to remember what it was like in the pigsty. Such an attitude in itself would not honor the graciousness of the father.

What would honor the father is if that sense of unworthiness that he felt on the way home from his sinful exploits gave way to a profound sense of amazement that he was actually sitting at his father’s table, fully restored to communion with him. What would honor the father is if, when the music started, the prodigal danced like he never danced before. That is a real gold ring on his finger. Those are shoes on his feet. That is the robe of inheritance on his back. And he can still feel his dad’s kiss on his cheek.

Amazement rises and converges with gratitude and joy and gladness, the kind that makes you want to pinch yourself to make sure that you’re not dreaming. What if we approached the Lord’s Table in that way?

“Self-examination has its place, but it is best done before we get to the Table.”

Of course, like the prodigal, this does assume that we’ve recognized our sin and turned from it. Self-examination has its place, but it is best done before we get to the Table. This is why, at my church, we set aside a time early in every service for the confession of sins and the assurance of pardon. By the time we get to the Table, we want our people ready to gladly eat in the comfort of God’s grace. (If your church’s liturgy doesn’t include a time of confession, you can still take a moment before the service, or during one of the early songs, and confess your sins in preparation for Communion.)

Full Cups and Full Hearts

Finally, as we come to the Lord’s Table, we remember that we are coming to eat together. This is a family meal. As Paul says, we all eat of one bread; therefore, we who are many are one body (1 Corinthians 10:17). This is not about Joe and Jesus in their special clubhouse with crackers and juice. It is not accidental that we eat this meal when the church is assembled. This is a meal of koinonia — of communion and fellowship.

When we are born again, we are born again into a family, the family of God. Baptism pictures this, as Adam’s children are buried and then emerge as sons of God through Jesus Christ, who is the firstborn among many brethren. Baptism depicts entrance; this meal is the regular family dinner. We partake of the one loaf together. We partake of the cup of blessing together. We feast on Christ together.

Practically speaking, this means that it is good and right that we notice and acknowledge each other during the meal. There are other prodigals at this table, each with a story of sovereign grace. Killing one fattened calf for one wayward son is one thing, but slaughtering the herd because a thousand prodigals came out of the pigsty is mind-boggling.

Therefore, it is good and right to look around and notice them, even smile at them. You don’t have to speak; let your eyes tell the story. “Can you believe that we’re here? That he actually invited us?” Take a moment, look around at all the people — young and old, rich and poor, male and female, from many tribes and nations — and say to yourself, “These are my people. This is my family.”

Next time you come to the Lord’s Table, come with gravity and gladness. Marvel that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have enfolded you into the triune life. Rejoice that God has made you worthy to enter his presence. Thank your heavenly Father for his kind provision of daily bread and living bread. Strike up one of the ancient songs and sing and smile and weep and laugh together.

Feast together, in a worthy manner, with a full heart, for the glory of God.