As I digested the words of 1 Corinthians 11:27–30, I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was aware of a weight hanging over the crowd gathered to receive communion. I looked to the person on either side of me, and it seemed we were all reckoning with the fearful reality of what would happen if we drank the cup in an unworthy manner.
The problem was I couldn’t quite figure out what an “unworthy manner” might be. So I decided – just to be safe – I’d confess every sin I could think of. I’m sure I even made up some sins just in case I forgot one. I’ve had numerous similar experiences when the verses from 1 Corinthians have been used to frame the communion experience.
At first glance, Paul’s exhortation to “examine yourselves” seems to be a catch-all command that leaves no wiggle room: every sin must be confessed, under threat of illness. But in the broader context of chapter 11, there’s a more specific narrative at work. Divisions (v. 18) are the source of Paul’s criticism. The chief offence was turning communion – which is supposed to be a celebration of hospitality and inclusion within the church body – into an experience of hostility, disunity and exclusion.
Paul’s reprimand is based on a situation in which people came to the table for their own benefit, the well off gorging themselves even though they had food at home, and getting drunk, thereby “humiliating those who have nothing” (v. 22). Paul’s concern is that we “be reverent and courteous with one another. If you’re so hungry that you can’t wait to be served, go home and get a sandwich. But by no means risk turning this Meal into an eating and drinking binge or a family squabble. It is a spiritual meal – a love feast” (v. 33–34, The Message).
Perfection not required
Despite my apprehension, I’ve always dared to take communion. However, I’ve had whispered conversations with people following the service who, heads hung low, said they refrained from partaking because they didn’t want to risk drinking and eating in an unworthy manner. In their minds, the communion leader had unintentionally set a standard for participation based on people’s behaviour – that we need to be good and worthy and repentant enough to partake.
This distresses me because it turns the meaning of communion on its head. If we misunderstand Paul’s command, communion becomes a nerve-inducing experience based on fear of not measuring up rather than a celebration of Jesus living the perfect life on our behalf.
Jesus invites us to come to him in spite of our myriad imperfections (known and unknown) for he always creates a place at his table for those who genuinely seek him. Christ bids us come with glad and sincere hearts for the forgiveness he has won for a people who could never have secured it for themselves.
As we approach the communion table, the question is not whether we’re free from sin (who is?) but whether we accept the forgiveness of Jesus as represented in the elements. If so, let us partake gratefully.
And as we do, let’s give thanks for our declaration of spiritual kinship with others in the room. Let’s give thanks for the times we have witnessed unity, hospitality and inclusion at work within our faith community. And may that spirit of gratitude remind us each time we celebrate communion to work for the unity of his church, to give to others as they have need and to value others as members of Jesus’ body – his church – for whom he died.
—Kevin O’Coin is pastor of community life at The Meeting Place in Winnipeg, where he worships with his wife Breanne and son Jacob.