Preparing for Communion
This coming weekend we will celebrate communion at Faith Church, when we eat of the bread and drink of the fruit of the vine to remember what Christ has done for us in His death, to experience fellowship with Him and each other, and to proclaim the hope that we have in the promise of His return. In our tradition, we typically give notice to the congregation the weekend prior to communion to allow them time to prepare their hearts.
We do this because of these words found in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 about the need to partake of communion in a worthy manner and the consequences of not approaching it properly:
“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.” (ESV)
Here are some helpful pointers on what it might look like to examine ourselves and make sure that we take communion in a rightful manner.
Examine Your Heart
We should examine our hearts as we prepare for communion, searching for areas of sin that we may be clinging to, following our own desires rather than God’s way. This involves taking inventory of our life to see if we have done what God forbids in words, thoughts, or actions or if we have not done what God has told us to do. It is not just confessing, but really searching, perhaps using the words of Psalm 139:25-26 as a prayer, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” While there is a sense in which this should be done on a regular basis (it is good to confess your sins each day), there is also a place for more thorough reflection so that you might uncover deeper places that might not surface on a daily examination.
The goal of this examination is not to feel bad, but rather to be able to see the power of God’s grace in a new way, particularly at the communion table. As the pastor and writer Jack Miller said, “Cheer up! You're a worse sinner than you ever dared imagine, and you're more loved than you ever dared hope.” When we see our sin anew, we experience the power of communion in even deeper ways.
Reconcile with Those You Have Sinned Against
This time of examination and confession may also lead to the need for reconciliation if there is someone against whom you have sinned. This is a time to go to that person, confess your sin and the way you have hurt them, and ask for their forgiveness. This follows the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny” (Matthew 5:23-26). Notice this does not say that if you have something against a brother or sister, you are to go and confront them (though that is also true, as we see in Matthew 18:15-20); Jesus says here that if you have done something against them, you are called to make it right. Have you searched your heart to see how you have sinned against God? Have you searched your heart to see how you have sinned against others?
Forgive Those Who Have Sinned Against You
While we are called to seek reconciliation with those we have sinned against, we are also called to forgive those who have sinned against us. Jesus also teaches this idea in the Sermon on the Mount, as we find these words in the Lord’s Prayer, “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). These words show us that in order to experience God’s forgiveness, we need to forgive others. Jesus makes a similar point when he tells a story in Matthew 19:21-35 about an unmerciful servant who fails to forgives others of their debts even though he has been forgiven. This story is told in response to Peter’s question of how often he must forgive someone who sins against him. In order to experience the promise of forgiveness of sins that is found in communion - as Jesus declared in Matthew 26:28 that the cup “is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” - we must forgive others. Whom do you need to forgive this week?
One of the issues that Paul rebukes the Corinthian church for was the many divisions that existed in the congregation while they had communion; they were not united as one body: “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” (1 Corinthians 11:18-19). Do you see divisions within your church community as you prepare to take communion this week? This is not proper, as communion is to be a time of unity as we partake of one loaf (see 1 Corinthians 10:17), which is why we typically partake of the elements together (see 1 Corinthians 11:33). If you see disunity, how can you rectify it? Perhaps it is through seeking reconciliation or offering forgiveness. This is also a good reminder of how we view other groups of Christians as they also take communion -- do we view other churches as opponents or as relatives and friends who might have some (minor) differences in belief and practice but whom we are united in faith?
Expect To Be Nourished in Christ
In preparing for communion, we also need to remember the bread and cup are not there for our physical needs, but are used by God to nourish us spiritually. The Corinthian church seemed to view the meal as being about physical sustenance, as Paul notes that “in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk” (1 Corinthians 11:21). He later tells them, “if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home” (11:34). It appears the people were coming to communion to have their full of bread and wine, and Paul tells them not to partake because they are hungry, but because they see their need for Christ and know that these elements will nourish them in Christ. The Heidelberg Catechism makes it clear these elements do not literally become the body and blood of Christ (Q and A 78), but that Jesus used this language (and thus we use the language) “to teach us that just as bread and wine nourish the temporal life, so too his crucified body and poured-out blood are the true food and drink of our souls for eternal life. But more important, he wants to assure us, by this visible sign and pledge, that we, through the Holy Spirit’s work, share in his true body and blood as surely as our mouths receive these holy signs in his remembrance, and that all of his suffering and obedience are as definitely ours as if we personally had suffered and made satisfaction for our sins “ (Q and A 79). We are to recognize what is happening, in that we are being nourished by Christ and united to him and to each other.
Communion is much more than just a small piece of bread and a little cup of juice or wine at the end of the service -- it is a powerful sign and seal of God’s love for us (not just me, but us!) shown in the person and work of Jesus. May we be prepared to celebrate this truth this week.
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