Union with Christ and the Communion of Saints

Desiring God 2014 Conference for Pastors

The Pastor, the Vine, and the Branches: The Remarkable Reality of Union with Christ

Isn’t the word of Christ already dwelling in us richly? And further to that point, would you turn with me to 1 Corinthians 10:1–4, then 1 Corinthians 10:14–22, and finally 1 Corinthians 11:17–32:

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:1–4).

Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (1 Corinthians 10:14–22).

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 (1 Corinthians 11:17–22).

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 (1 Corinthians 11:23–26). 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 (1 Corinthians 11:27–32).

The Significance of Meals in the Ancient Near East

Basically in the ancient world you are what you eat. We eat because we’re hungry, or we eat because we want to renew friendships. Those are not unimportant reasons for meals. Sometimes it’s for entertainment. Sometimes it’s a night out in the town, a date night. But in the Ancient Near East it was more sacred than that. It was perhaps even the pinnacle of fellowship in the Ancient Near Eastern context.

Even in the Roman world, you didn’t just have a meal with anyone. You almost had to do a background check on the family and the social echelon of the person you were inviting into your home because you were going to become a patron of that person. You might represent that person in court, so close was the bond between the host and the guest of a meal. And it was particularly significant in the political context of treaty making in the ancient Near East.

There are examples of Hittite treaties where it says this goat is no longer the head of a goat. It is not brought out for a religious festival. It is not brought out for a meal. It is brought out for the cutting of a covenant. This head now is the head of Mati’ilu and his sons. May the same thing happen to Mati’ilu and his sons that happens to this calf, and they would slit its throat. It’s sort of like in the mafia when you find a head in your bed when you get home. It’s basically saying, “I call down the curses, the judgements, from which I’ve been delivered by the great king upon my own head if I refuse to keep the terms of his treaty.”

God Takes the Terms of His Treaty

Now what’s significant is the extent to which the Bible draws on these analogies for God’s relationship with his people. There are similar features in the Bible and the ancient Near Eastern world, but it’s not at the level of religion. It’s at the level of politics, because only in Israel was God, not just the witness to the treaty, but the head of state. God himself was the king of his people. So in Genesis 15, you remember that remarkable scene where God is making all of the promises when it should have been Abraham, the lesser king, making all of the promises. God had delivered him from the kings and given him victory. It should have been Abraham making promises to God, but instead God was making all the promises. And then he put Abraham to sleep, which is when all the great things in redemptive history happen, when he puts the patriarchs to sleep. Abraham has a vision of God passing between the pieces. And anyone who read the newspaper in the ancient Near Eastern world knew what the great king was doing at that point, he was taking the place of the lesser king. He was passing through the pieces saying, “May all of the threats in this covenant fall on my head. May I be torn to pieces like these animal carcasses, each on every side.”

Covenantal meals were very significant in this context, even in that scene before the promise to which I’m referring, immediately prior to that, that strange Christ figure, Melchizedek, blessed Abram with bread and wine. And it’s immediately after that that God made his promises and gave him that theophany. And then in the Upper Room on the night in which he was betrayed, the great king handed himself over to his disciples as their food and drink unto everlasting life, ratifying his last will and testament.

That’s how Hebrews talks about it. First of all, the testator has to die. That’s the law of inheritance works. If you’re in somebody’s will, that’s good news and bad news. The good news is that you’re going to inherit this person’s wealth. The bad news is that the person has to die. And only when the testator (the one making the will) dies, does the inheritance go into effect. What Jesus was saying is it’s about to go into effect. He was saying, “I am ratifying my death as a sacrifice for you, and henceforth, whenever you eat this and drink this, you proclaim my death until I come again.”

Jesus did, as we heard, endure that baptism that we could not endure. Jesus was baptized in the sense of actually being submerged in the wrath of God, not circumcised where part of his flesh was cut off so his whole body could be saved, but the sword went right into his very heart. He was cut off from his people, and cut off from God for our sake and for the sake of his people. That’s why there is a screen here that doesn’t just have one point of connection pointing upward to God. That’s why you look at it and it looks like a circuit board, or it looks like a vine. I came up with that all by myself. There are artists on my mom’s side of the family.

Union with Christ, Communion with His Body

That’s what I want to talk about. I want to talk about that picture because there is no union with Christ without communion with his body. We are inclined to talk about union with Christ even, especially as Americans, as if it were an individualistic thing — me and my personal relationship with Jesus. And what that often means then is that we come together as Christians in the church, not so much to be made part of his body as much as to have a personal relationship with Jesus together, doing things that we do in private, only this time we’re doing it together, but we’re reinforcing each other’s personal relationship with Jesus. What we see in this passage is just the tip of the iceberg of all of the passages that draws to something far richer, something far greater, and that is to be united to Christ is to be united with his body. There is not any cleavage between getting saved and joining the church.

Well now, this is where my grandma says, “You stopped preaching and went on to meddling.” No, actually they are passages. I’m going to be talking about passages for this. I was raised with the evangelists saying, “Now I’m not talking about joining the church, I’m talking about something just between you and the Lord, a personal relationship with Jesus.” If that’s how people begin their Christian life, it’s no surprise that they wander in and out of the church. The body of Christ is of little significance to their “personal relationship with Jesus” that none other has ever known as they walk with him and talk with him in a garden somewhere.

What Paul is saying here is that that was exactly what was happening at Corinth — not in every respect exactly the way it happens (especially) in North America and wherever our unique gospel gets exported. But there are really striking similarities and we’ll see a couple of those.

The Chosen Methods of Creating a Communion of Saints

First of all, positively, God has chosen the methods of uniting us and strengthening that union with Christ which creates a communion of saints. None of the means of grace that God has selected creates personal relationships with Jesus Christ apart from communion with the saints.

First of all, we have the preaching of the word. It’s significant that the Westminster Divines put it this way. They said that God blesses the reading but especially the preaching of the word of God as a means of grace, calling us out of ourselves to cling to Christ. The word calls us out of ourselves to look up to Christ in faith and out to our brothers and sisters in love. That’s something that just reading the Bible can’t do by itself. We have to be called out of it. It’s someone speaking in Christ’s name for Christ.

That’s why Paul says, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). You know what happens when there’s some significant announcement. The president comes on and he’s going to announce something of great moment for the nation, perhaps going to war, declaring the end of war, or declaring a truce. Everybody gathers around the television, or for Dr. Ferguson’s benefit, the queen’s speech at Christmas time. People gather around the TV together, why? There’s an announcement of great significance for everybody there and it binds them together as a community. Brothers and sisters, we have a really long last will and testament from God, our Father in Jesus Christ that his death on Calvary set into effect. It takes a long time to hear this will read, and it has to be preached to us week after week after week because we can’t believe our ears. It forms a communion of saints.

Siblings who bite at each other, who snipe on the phone behind each other’s backs and gossip about each other, who don’t talk to each other because last Christmas they were mistreated, suddenly show up and it’s gifts all around and they cry tears of joy and embrace each other because they were lost but now they’re found. That didn’t happen to them individually by themselves. It happened to them personally, but never privately. It happened to them in that moment when God assembled his people and told them, “This is my body and this is my blood given for you.” He forms his body.

As we also heard, baptism too is a public event. With all of our differences about baptism and the Lord’s supper, we can unite at least on the bedrock conviction that baptism is a public event in which God swears to save us. God names us. He changes our identity from being in Adam to being in Christ. And so just as the word creates a communion of saints, baptism ratifies that communion and the Lord’s supper ratifies that regularly. To be united to Christ is to be united to his body. And it’s not just to be united to his invisible body, but to be united to his visible body, a visible expression of his body on earth. Union with Christ includes communion with his church. Just as we do not have a disembodied Savior but an incarnate Savior, so we have visible churches where we are called to gather and that is the church that Paul is talking about here in 1 Corinthians.

Problems in the Corinthian Church

The abuse is obvious in the background. They were playing with fire with their idol feasts. You can hardly really be a very good neighbor in the Roman world unless you embrace the cult of the emperor to some extent. You just tipped your hat to the cult of the emperor. Maybe one would think, “The boss invited us over for dinner, honey, to the feast at the mason’s hall and well, it’s just a dinner.” She might say, “Well, Mike, have you thought about it? This is pretty serious.” He says, “No, it’s not serious. That’s the whole point. It’s just dinner with the boss.”

There were other people who said you can’t even eat the meat that had been used in that industry. Paul said, “No, be confident in your own mind about that. Follow your own conscience, but that’s not the issue. But you can’t go to the pagan feast.” Paul says, “Look, in the Old Testament, what happened with Passover? They partook of the sacrifice, the passing over of God, preserving them from the wrath that fell on the Egyptians. And with pagan feasts you are joining yourselves to demons that are no gods.”

That’s how close the identification was of the ritual meal. It was a political act. Basically you’re saying with baptism and the Lord’s supper, “I have heard the king’s word and I identify with him or against him. He is the great king to whom alone I give my loyalty.” And that’s what they were saying, whether they went to the idol feast or they went to the Lord’s table and many were trying to have their cake and eat it too.

There were also divisions. That wasn’t the only problem in Corinth, as you well know. I’m always amazed when people say we’re trying to get back to the apostolic church, or the church of the Book of Acts. I say, “Wow, which one? Ephesus, where Paul says basically ‘I’ve been here three years but it’s going to really fall apart when I go’? Corinth? Galatia? Now there’s a good first call. How about the churches in the book of Revelation?” Let’s not have any more nostalgia. The church may sometimes be a harlot, but she’s Christ’s wife. And Jesus said, “I will always have my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” And guess what? We’re part of that. We’re part of the problem. We’re part of the reason why the church is prone to wander.

“There must be factions among you,” Paul says. But factions? Good grief. It’s not just “I’m of Apollos” and so on. You not only have four denominations in the church of Corinth, but he is saying that every time they come together, they turn it into a parody of the Lord’s supper. They profane the Lord’s supper. Some say the resurrection has already occurred. Some people tolerate sexual immorality in ways that not even the world recognizes as normal. They had spiritual pride over spiritual gifts. Communion had become a stage not for God’s sovereign grace, but a stage for virtual performances of American idol. Each guy has to be a star.

Abuses of the Lord’s Supper

In 1 Corinthians 11:17, the apostle says it might be better if they didn’t celebrate the Lord’s supper at all than to celebrate it the way they do. But then by 1 Corinthians 11:20, he’s stronger. He says, “When you come together it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.” First, he was thinking maybe you should suspend the Lord’s supper because you’re so corrupting it. Now he says, “You’re not even celebrating the Lord’s supper. It isn’t even the Lord’s supper anymore.” In fact, the supper is so central in forming and ratifying this covenant that creates a communion of saints that Paul refers four times to the phrase, “when you come together as church” in reference to the supper. He says, “When you come together as church it is not the Lord’s supper that you’re eating. Therefore, by implication, you’re in danger of not being a church.”

See, the gathering isn’t an informal get together called by a host who happens to own a large house, large enough for people to fit. It’s not even the pastor’s personal event. If we look at all of this, we see all of this in the church today. Is the Lord’s supper, for example, as prominent in our churches in defining what we’re all about as the personality of our pastor? We say, “Oh, this is so-and-so’s church. I go to so-and-so’s church. I’m of Apollos, I’m of Paul, I’m of Cephas. This is my flock. This is my ministry.” I hear pastors talk like that. They say, “This is my ministry.” Who told you that? It’s Christ’s ministry and it’s Christ’s flock. He just gives us the privilege of feeding these blessed sheep for a little while and then we die and someone else takes our place. Christ is the shepherd of his church and everyone who is united to him is part of his flock.

Christ himself presides in word and at the table by his Spirit. It’s a covenant assembly. It’s God calling his nation together from every tribe and kindred and tongue and people. He is assembling his holy nation together by his word. We’re not coming together by our own voluntary choice. We are being called. We are being summoned out of the nations to the Lord’s table, not our table, not our family table, not our table of friends and people we like and people who are like us. We’re being summoned to his table to be made into a community that we would never have joined ourselves. It’s not a common meal; it is a holy meal.

The True Place of the Supper

Now, typically the supper would be celebrated after a fellowship meal, the agape feast, but in Corinth, the agape feast was the gift that kept on giving. It just grew and grew and grew until it swallowed the Lord’s supper whole. In a lot of these large homes, you had different sections. The triclinium was the inside part, what we would call the dining room, and that’s where your best friends who were in your same socio-economic caste would sit. You’d have the best wine, the best cheese, and the best meat, and then whatever was left over you would send out to the people sitting at tables in the atrium. So the church was being carved up according to socioe-conomic niche markets. Instead of being the table that brings people together from every echelon, it was just reinforcing the niche demographics of this passing evil age.

Jesus never instituted the agape feast. So Paul says nothing about it. In fact, he treats it as a matter of Christian liberty. He says, “If you want to have meals like that at home, if you want to have the boss and the vice presidents over with their wives, or husbands, fine. You have your own houses, but don’t turn the Lord’s supper into that kind of meal. Don’t you have your own homes? Don’t do it at church. It’s the Lord’s supper, not yours. This is not a time for your tastes. This is not a time for your bully pulpit on politics, forming your church into your own particular demographic. It’s not about your preferences. Fine, you have your own homes.”

You can be Republicans and Democrats and whatever other “crats” there are out there. You can do that at home. You have all sorts of choices that you can make in life that are up to Christian liberty, but don’t turn the church into your own personal project. To underscore the solemnity of the supper, the apostle goes back to its formal institution by Jesus Christ. He says, “Let me remind you what the supper is. On the night on which he was betrayed, this is what Jesus our king said, and I’m not making this up. I’m not creating a new institution, I’m bringing you back to the institution of Christ. It’s what I received.”

Just as the people of Israel who ate the sacrifices were participants of the altar, and pagans are participants in demons by the idol feasts, so believers participate in Christ’s sacrificial death by eating and drinking in faith. “This cup,” Jesus said, “is the New Covenant in my blood.” Now think back to the treaties: “This is not the head any longer of a ram; this is the head of Mati’ilu and his sons.”

A Participation in the Body and Blood of Christ

Now, with all due respect to my Roman Catholic friends, no one beholding this political ratification ceremony would’ve thought for a moment he was saying that this ram’s head was being transformed — essentially trans-substantiated — into the head of Mati’ilu and his sons. They knew what he was saying. It was a covenantal act of saying, “Just as this ram is cut, so too may Mati’ilu and his sons be cut if they fail to keep the terms of this treaty.” And that’s what Jesus says in the Upper Room. He is saying, “I’m about to be cut. This cutting is for you. Eat the sacrificial meal. I am the true Passover.”

It’s his last will and testament that he’s putting into effect in the Upper Room, and that’s why Paul says, “The cup that we bless and the bread that we break are a communion (koinōnia) of the body and blood of Christ. Somehow mysteriously Christ’s flesh and blood are communicated to us in such a way that they are for us the life giving bread and drink of heaven. The church that I’m part of, in a very similar way to the Westminster confession, the Belgian confession puts it this way, “What we receive in the Supper is nothing less than the crucified body and shed blood of Christ our Savior.”

And as Calvin argued, we cannot be united to Christ unless we are united to the whole Christ, not just his soul but his flesh. Jesus said, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54). The communion with Christ that the Holy Spirit conveys through the Supper is as real as the identification and communion with demons that’s experienced through the idol feasts. That’s why Paul can make that comparison. Although Christ’s body and blood are truly presented to everyone in the supper, the reality can only be received through faith, and that’s why Paul calls the people to first of all discern the body and blood of Christ and also to recognize that they’re proclaiming Christ’s death until he comes by doing so.

Unity at the Table

We find our unity there, brothers and sisters, that’s where we find our unity. It’s not by our feverish activity but by Christ’s feverish activity, by his precious death and resurrection. There’s a lot of talk today, even in the church, about contextualizing. I get that some of us need to hear more about contextualizing and talk more about what it means to know where we are and where God has planted us, but sometimes it becomes a way of carving the body of Christ into niche demographics that exactly mirror the world instead of providing to the world an alternative, a community not based on your spending habits, or the movies that you like, or the books that you read, or the clothes that you wear, or where you shop. I hear it all the time. People will come up and say, “You need to speak to me where I am.” And I say, “Well, where are you?”

Here is where you are, at this table. Christ has put you there. And whether you’re white, Black, Latino, Asian, rich, or poor, whether you like the music of Puccini or Pearl Jam, regardless of what you have on your playlist, whatever your preferences are, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, here’s where you are now in Christ.

There are other locations that we have when we’re in our car driving, when we’re at our homes entertaining our friends, but our ultimate citizenship is in heaven and is hidden with God in Christ.

Discerning the Lord’s Body

Therefore he calls us to celebrate it with discernment. What does it mean to discern the Lord’s body? There are three different views. I’ll share them very briefly. One is that he’s calling us to discern the natural body of Christ — the body born of the virgin Mary, which suffered under Pontius Pilate, hung on a cross, and was raised. Well, of course, that’s presupposed here, but there’s more going on, otherwise everything else that Paul is saying rests on a pretty slim foundation.

Some say it’s discerning the ecclesial body of Christ, the church, his mystical body. Some commentators say that’s what Paul is referring to. Well again, I think that that’s there, but it can’t only refer to the church because he’s not saying that when you profane the Lord’s supper, you’re sinning against the church. He’s saying that when you profane the Lord’s supper, you are sinning against the body and blood of Christ.

The third view is that it’s discerning the bread as Christ’s body. Well, notice what Paul doesn’t say. He doesn’t say the bread and wine are changed into Christ’s body and blood. It’s a sacrificial meal, not a re-sacrificing of Christ. But it’s a sacrificial meal of participating in a sacrifice once offered in the past to God. But he also doesn’t say that the bread and the wine remind us of Christ’s body and blood. What he says is that somehow through feeding on the bread and the wine we participate in, we share in union with Christ (koinōnia). We have communion with the body and blood of Christ. And that’s why to profane the Lord’s supper is not just a sin against his memory; it is to sin against the body and blood of Christ.

So actually I think given the way Paul is talking about it here, he has all three in mind — all three senses of the body of Christ. It includes his natural body, the church (the communion of saints), and then thirdly, it includes the fact that we have union with Christ in this meal.

Communion with Christ through the Holy Spirit

Yet precisely because it is first and foremost a participation in his body and blood, it is also a participation in the communion of saints. Real communion of saints, real unity in the body of Christ, is only as real as our participation and our sharing truly in Christ by union because of the work of the Holy Spirit.

As Calvin said, Luther and Zweingli are fighting over how Christ can or cannot be present on altars, when the real question is, “How can Christ who is ascended be our food and drink when he says he will return in exactly the form in which he departed?” And Calvin said that it can only be Pentecost. The ascension was followed by Pentecost. It’s the Holy Spirit who takes what is Christ’s and makes it ours. It’s the Holy Spirit who unites us to Christ. It is because of the work of the Holy Spirit giving us faith that we are seated with Christ in heavenly places and therefore that union that we have with Christ is already the ground of the communion that we have with him in the Lord’s supper.

When We Examine Ourselves

So Paul calls us to examine ourselves. He calls us to discern and judge. These are taken from the same verb. It means to discern, to judge, to analyze, or to critique ourselves. We must discern the body and discern ourselves. In other words, take stock of this situation. It’s kind of odd, Paul says that you can eat and drink judgment. How do you eat and drink judgment? I know how to eat things that I shouldn’t eat and drink things that I shouldn’t drink, and have too much of this or have too much of that. But how do you eat and drink judgment? Well, once again, you have to return to the thinking of covenant. The meal, the sacred meal, is so much a part of the relationship that you eat and drink the curses of the covenant as well as its blessings if you receive it apart from faith, apart from discerning the reality itself.

Notice how easily we turn this focus on Christ back into a focus on ourselves. This is the way we typically talk about examination. It’s almost exclusively that this is a time for us to crawl inside ourselves and to disconnect ourselves from the body of Christ and make this once again just about me and my personal relationship with Christ. That is very often, I think, how we treat communion in a lot of our churches. Instead of being the sacrament that draws us out of ourselves, looking up to Christ and out to our brothers and sisters in love, it becomes another opportunity for us to descend into ourselves and judge our worthiness to take the Lord’s supper as if it were a prize for the victorious.

God will not have his holy things corrupted. That’s the point being made here in the examination. It was a total fiasco. Paul says, “In light of everything that I’ve just described, stop. Examine yourselves. Discern the Lord’s body and blood, or judgment will come upon this church. That’s why some people are dying.” The verb that’s being used there for dying is always used in reference to temporal punishment. People are not dying spiritually, they’re dying physically. It’s a temporal judgment like the judgment of Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit.

First Corinthians 11:33–34 show the specific focus of this unworthiness and how to come together in a worthy manner to eat. It’s to recognize that this is Christ’s meal. It involves the natural body of Christ, to be linked to Jesus Christ. His body and blood bled and was broken for us. It’s to discern that in this communion we participate in that body and blood as a sacrifice for our sins. And it’s also to recognize that we are made into a communion of saints by our union with Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Looking Around, Not Within

The one bread is made of many grains each bringing to the one loaf its distinct flavor, but it’s one loaf. And because we eat of this one loaf, Paul says, we are one body. It’s more difficult in our individualistic and democratic culture to think of the kind of examination Paul’s referring to here as covenantal. When Paul calls us to examination, it has more in common with looking around than looking within. Open your eyes, don’t close them during Communion. Look around at the natural body of Christ, the bread and the cup, and the ecclesial body of Christ. He doesn’t say, “Examine yourself to decide whether you’ll eat, but examine yourselves before you eat, because you cannot excommunicate yourself.”

Calvin offers some helpful commentary on this exhortation when he writes. He says:

I conclude from this passage that Christ’s body is really (that is, truly) given to us in the Supper to be wholesome food for our souls. To eat unworthily, then, is to pervert the pure and right use of it by our abuse of the sacrament. But now if it is asked what sort of examination that ought to be, which Paul exhorts us, papists make it consist in auricular confession. They order all that are to receive the Supper to examine their life carefully and anxiously that they may unburden each and every sin in the ear of the priest.

Now, aside from the ear of the priest, there are a lot of evangelical and Reformed churches that over the centuries have practiced communion that way, so that many people felt like they weren’t worthy throughout their whole Christian life to receive it, instead of realizing it was given to us because of our unworthiness. Calvin adds:

They order all that are to receive the Supper to examine their life carefully and anxiously. Such as their preparation. I maintain however that this holy examination of which Paul speaks is widely different from torture. Those persons, after having tortured themselves with reflection for a few hours, and making the priests, such as he is, privy to their vileness, imagine that they have done their duty. To come worthily is to come with faith and repentance. And yet it is not a perfect faith or repentance that is required as some, by urging beyond due bounds of perfection that can nowhere be found, would shut out forever from the supper every Christian.

If however you aspire after the righteousness of God with the earnest desire of thy mind and humbled under a view of your misery, do holy lean upon Christ and rest upon his grace, know that thou art a worthy guest to approach that holy table. Worthy, I mean in this respect: that the Lord does not exclude thee, though in another point of view, there is something in thee that is not as it ought to be. For faith when it is but begun makes even those worthy who were unworthy.

Saved from Social-Club Religion

A leading church growth expert said that people like going to church with people who are like them. According to that, churches that follow that principle of homogeneous church growth will grow, and churches that don’t, will not. People like to go to church with people who are like them. Of course that’s true, but the gospel saves us from going to hell with people who are like us. The Supper isn’t a drive-through happy meal or a table for one; it’s the coming together feast of the last days.

Beloved, it’s not just that he chose you. He said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (John 15:16). It’s personal, but it’s not private. For that reason he says, “Love the brethren.” Why? Because he not only chose you for Christ, but he chose the person sitting next to you for you. Because we are united to Christ, we’re united to each other. It is not a voluntary association of people we chose because they’re our friends.

What makes us catholic? Not Roman Catholic, but catholic in the sense of being part of Christ’s universal body. It’s not the idols of this fading evil age, but that place where Christ puts us once again on the receiving end of his sacrificial death and resurrection. To put it crudely, we are what we eat. Is it the Lord’s Supper, along with the word, bringing us together? Or is it dividing us into niches like the Church of Corinth? Is it separating socio-economic groups, or perhaps one service with this kind of celebration that the young people like, or that this particular group of young people likes? Is there then another service for the older people? The whole purpose of the Lord’s Supper is to bring together the old and the young, the black and the white — Asian, Latino, republican, democrat, slave, free, Jew, and Gentile. For we are all one in Christ. It’s not because of our action in the Supper, but God’s action that we become a holy nation drawn from every nation on earth.

He’s doing a marvelous thing. And whenever believers gather to receive Christ’s body and blood by faith through eating the bread and drinking the wine with discerning faith, they preach Christ’s sacrificial death to the world and they share in it amongst themselves. And there they find their salvation and unity. And there the kingdom of Christ becomes partially visible in this passing evil age.