Eighteenth in a series
1 Corinthians 11:27-29
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.
Question: Do you have any memories of family reunions? I have some going way back to my earliest childhood memories.
One is a dim recollection of a big, old, white farmhouse with huge elm trees towering overhead. Off to the right is an apple orchard. Out back, a hundred yards or so from the house, is a barn. To the left is a fenced field in which some milking cows are grazing. A big circular dirt drive goes up to the house. Off to the right, by the orchard on the other side of the driveway, are parked at least several dozen late 1930s and early 1940s cars. There on the front lawn, gently sloping down to the county road, are picnic tables and blankets spread out on the ground. Close to the house, there are several big, long tables borrowed from a church. Some are loaded with steaming hot casseroles and meat dishes. Another has salads of all sorts. A couple more couldn’t hold one more pie, cake, bowl of chopped fruit or a big half of watermelon, if you tried to crowd a place for it. Then there’s that table with the beverages – big pitchers of lemonade, iced tea and those pots with coffee.
Picture people, perhaps 150, whose roots were attached to the name Huffman or perhaps Lambert. I can’t remember whether it was my grandmother’s or my grandfather’s side. I do remember it was fun. There was food. There were people of all ages, from the tiniest of squealing babies, to us little kids, to the teenagers (so sophisticated), to the young couples, to the middle-agers, to the grandparents, to the great-grandparents, and even an occasional great-great-grandmother, smelling of lavender. Then my recollections blur. Nothing is left but the warm fuzzies of a youngster’s happy memories of a grand family reunion loaded with cousins, second-cousins and second-cousins-once-removed, uncles and aunts, great-uncles and great-aunts, and fun and food and more fun and more food!
The second recollection places me at age 12 in Elkhart, Indiana, at a city park. Harry Truman was finishing his last months in the White House, and Dwight Eisenhower was in the process of being elected to replace him. The cars were a little bit more sophisticated and the environment a bit more of the city. Some of the people were the same, although this time I know it was the Huffman branch. By this time, I was interested in girls. I can remember that pretty little second- or third-cousin who had my same last name and, for some reasons I couldn’t really figure out, I wasn’t supposed to have a crush on. I periodically cast a furtive glance at her and perhaps only imagined her casting one back at me.
My cousin Jean had married a college football star who had been drafted by the Los Angeles Rams but had chosen instead to go to the mission field. I couldn’t then quite understand that choice, but he was my hero. I can still remember the excitement surging up within me when he took me over to the side and tried to teach me how to throw a spiral pass. And there were those picnic tables again draped with their colorful cloths. There was the food, loads and loads of all varieties, fulfilling a twelve-year-old boy’s fantasies. And there was the fun with my whole family gathered, each of us relating to those closest to our own age, yet knowing that there was something we held in common. We were all Huffmans, all hundred-plus of us, whether we actually bore that name or not.
A third memory goes back to twenty years ago this coming August. It was in the back yard of a lakeside summer house in Northern Indiana. Uncle Paul, my father’s oldest brother, had just died several months before, and Aunt Ella Mae was still reminiscing with an occasional tear. None of Uncle Lambert’s family attended. His wife Burdette had died a few months earlier. Most of Uncle Paul’s family were there. Anne and my daughters couldn’t make it, but my mother and father, my sister Miriam and her husband Dave and their three children were present. We haven’t had one of these for almost three decades.
Some of my cousins’ children I barely knew. We played horseshoe darts together, these young “hunks” against us middle-aged guys. And there were the tables loaded with food. It had been so long since we had done this that we made a two-day event of it. And we ate and laughed and ate and laughed. We reminisced. We somehow knew this would probably be the last one. So we’d better make it good!
And it was the last one. We haven’t had one since, although my in-laws did take their daughters, sons-in-law, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, 36 people in total, on a three-day cruise to Ensenada on a Royal Caribbean trip a year ago last Thanksgiving. And, occasionally, in smaller groupings, we still get together.
Do you have any memories like these? There is nothing like a good old family reunion, is there?
Are you aware that that’s exactly what the Lord’s Supper is intended to be? It’s a family reunion established by Jesus!
We are so used to our beautiful silver communion service, the choir singing softly and the elders elegantly taking the trays of bread and wine through the sanctuary, that we forget that the Lord’s Supper was literally established to be a “love feast.” It was a family reunion in which a local community of believers came in all shapes and sizes, all walks of life, from various backgrounds, various ages, bringing a potluck supper. The rich would bring fancy food. The poor would bring the best they had. A meal was shared in common, as the blankets were spread out on the table or floor. It was held in a home or a catacomb or perhaps under some shade trees alongside a stream.
At an appropriate moment, one of the leaders of the church would take some bread, which had been kept off to the side, break it after giving thanks and hand it out, saying, “This is Christ’s body broken for you.” Then he would take some wine, which had been held back until that moment, bless it and declare, “This is Christ’s blood shed for your sins.” In the leisurely environment of that love feast, that family reunion, that potluck supper, the early church would celebrate the Eucharist. Then having done that, they would linger in leisurely fashion, sharing testimonies of what God was doing in their lives, sharing their prayer requests, praying together and singing songs. Then they would go back to their normal lives.
The early church was the one place in all the ancient world where the barriers that divided the world were broken down. Study secular history and you’ll discover the world rigidly divided. There were free people and slaves. There were Greeks, Romans, Jews and barbarians. There were the educated and ignorant. There were the wealthy and the poor. The church was the one place where all persons of any background could come and did come together. One church historian has written about these early Christian congregations:
Within their own limits they had solved almost by the way the social problem which baffled Rome and baffles Europe still. They had lifted woman to her rightful place, restored the dignity of labour, abolished beggary, and drawn the sting of slavery. The secret of the revolution is that the selfishness of race and class was forgotten in the Supper of the Lord, and a new basis for society found in love of the visible image of God in men for whom Christ died.
Unfortunately, this Christian ideal had broken down at Corinth. Paul had heard about it. Even as he had commended them for having enlisted his counsel on the matter of whether women should wear veils or not in worship, he turns around and refuses to commend them on what he has heard about their practices in regard to the Lord’s Supper. He writes in 1 Corinthians 11:17-22:
Now 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, 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!
Then Paul begins to teach about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper in what may very well be the earliest biblical reference to it. Our inclination is to think that because of the position of 1 Corinthians in the order of the New Testament books, it was written somewhere in the middle of the chronological time frame. That’s not the case. It may have been the first New Testament book written, even before the Gospel according to Mark. Many scholars would date this as AD 54.
Paul was astounded at the way a great custom of the agape feast followed by the Eucharist had broken down. There were divisions. The rich would come early. They would begin to eat and drink prior to the announced time. Those who were slaves or the poor who couldn’t get off work early would come at the announced time with their more modest food and drink, only to find that some of the rich had eaten up all they had brought to the potluck, and some of them were even drunk. Cliques had developed. It was no longer the family reunion at which there was a love feast of fun and food shared together, irrespective of social class and life status, followed by an intimate celebration of the Eucharist, with healthy testimony, singing and prayer, bringing a conclusion to this wonderful happening. Instead, divisions – economic, social, theological and racial – had taken over. Paul declares, “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper” (1 Corinthians 11:20). Then Paul utters three specific warnings geared to the Corinthian church and applicable to us today.
Warning One: Don’t let your differences destroy your worship.
A great custom had broken down. Why? Selfishness!
The same thing happens in the Church of Jesus Christ today. It is inevitable that whenever you bring together into a family, even the family of God, people from various walks of life, various backgrounds, various ways of looking at things, there will be differences. We are warned that we are not to let them destroy our worship. We are privileged to subordinate our own particular opinions and ideas for the welfare of the Christian community. This doesn’t mean that anything goes. It does mean that we come together with a sense that it is Jesus Christ who brings us together. He is the one we love. Our worship is of the crucified and risen Lord.
We worship not our fraternity or our sorority. We worship not the schools we have attended. We worship not the style of dress that is associated with our cultural background. We worship not the American way of life. We worship not the fact that some of us play tennis, some ski, some are golfers and others prefer bridge. We worship not our political ideologies and our economic viewpoints. The poor are not considered inferior to the wealthy. The wealthy are not considered inferior to the poor. The male is not viewed as superior to the female. And the female is not viewed as superior to the male. The church is not the place in which the male chauvinist takes over. Nor is the church the place in which the women’s liberationist takes over.
The church is not the place in which the CEO, who understands power, positions himself or herself as prevailing executive. Nor is the church the place where the passive-aggressive person, who never makes it to the top in business but certainly knows how to slow down the process of human interaction, gets his or her way by throwing their anarchist stink bombs into the middle of the Christian community. No. The church is not the place for the person who is gifted intellectually calls the shots and where the one of more average intelligence is viewed as inferior. The church is no church where sharing is forgotten, and the church is no church where anyone who repents of sin and puts their trust in Jesus Christ alone cannot come equally to the table to eat of the bread and drink of the cup.
I remember back in the late 1950s when I led my first group to the Middle East. It was a Sunday morning at Cairo, and we entered the local Coptic Presbyterian church situated a few blocks from our hotel. The worship service was led by a godly pastor. It was communion Sunday. Immediately following the sermon, we were invited to participate in the Lord’s Supper. I was stunned to see two of my tour members, preachers in a denomination I will not name, walk out. All eyes turned toward them. What was wrong? I tried to engage myself once again in the spirit of the service. After the benediction, I went out in front of the church. There were these two pastors. I asked them why they had left. Their response was, “Our denomination is not in fellowship with Presbyterians. We practice ‘closed communion.'” Their behavior came as a shock to me.
Look around this sanctuary. What variety we have. We’re not all the same. We come together in all kinds of diversity, but in great unity. Let’s never let our differences destroy our oneness in worship.
Warning Two: Don’t forget the meaning of the Lord’s Supper.
Paul takes the time to state specifically the significance of the Lord’s Supper. He states that he received it directly from the Lord, this word he’s about to share. He describes how Jesus, on the night in which He was betrayed, took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them. He took the wine in a similar way and gave it to them. He describes how Jesus gave meaning to those elements, describing their significance.
It’s a vivid picture. This is a family gathering of men who had spent an intense three years together. They knew that trouble was brewing. They knew that the authorities were plotting to kill Jesus. They ate their common meal together. Then Jesus took bread He had set aside, and He broke it and gave it to His disciples saying, “This is my body; this is my blood.” In the midst of all this, Judas slips out of the room to carry out his treacherous act.
The Roman Catholics believe that when Jesus says, “This is my body; this is my blood,” that the bread and the wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. We Presbyterians do not go quite that far. We talk about the “real presence” of Jesus in the sacrament.
It’s as if I’m meeting someone for the first time, and I pull out my wallet and open it to a picture saying, “This is my family.” It isn’t; yet it is.
He declares, “Do this in remembrance of me.” There are memories tucked away inside each of us that some visible tokens can resurrect those long-forgotten thoughts.
The other day, our daughter Carla was in town on business. She was cleaning out some of her files, and she came across a grade school paper she had written. It was a biography of her father. She brought it in, and we read it together. We both had forgotten that she’d ever written such a paper. We laughed and then, as she left the room, I began to cry. The memories flooded back of that bright little grade-school kid interviewing me and others for that paper. When you handle the bread, when you drink the cup, it’s to remind us of what God has done for us individually – the facts of history, His actions on our behalf.
Another phrase reads, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” You know what the old covenant was. It was legalistic covenant law. Certain things happened when you broke those standards. The new covenant is one of grace. There is nothing you’ve ever done that is unforgivable.
Then Paul describes how, when we eat and drink the cup, we “. . .proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” The Lord’s Supper is preaching without words. It’s show-and-tell time. That’s why it’s so moving. I can try to preach thirty or forty minutes, putting together a string of emotional stories. Perhaps an occasional eloquent moment can touch your feelings. But I am coming to increasingly realize that, on those occasions in which we gather as a family of God, sing our hymns, have our prayers, listen to the announcements, present our tithes and offerings, hear the Word of God preached, and then lift up the bread and hold up the cup, something happens. Something happens that is bigger than human words. Something is triggered inside the life of a sinner who has been saved by God’s grace. That bread, that wine proclaims, cries out the very grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. It declares a past, a new beginning, and offers us even today a fresh new start!
Warning Three: Don’t participate unworthily.
There are two kinds of unworthiness.
The first kind of unworthiness is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup if you have not been born again by the Spirit of God. You’re not asked to be perfect. You’re asked to admit that you’re not perfect. You’re not asked to understand all the technical aspects of Christian theology. You’re asked to open your heart and accept Jesus Christ as your Savior, claiming His forgiveness in faith. If you refuse, you are not worthy, not qualified to take the Lord’s Supper. If you have admitted your sin and received Jesus Christ, you are worthy to participate with joy.
The second kind of unworthiness is that of unconfessed sin. This is the unworthiness of one who has been born again by the Spirit of God but who comes to the Lord’s Supper with the conscious awareness that things are not right with God. There is sin being held onto, and you won’t let it go. It may be an unforgiving spirit to someone else. It may be immoral thoughts or actions. It may be someone you’ve wronged in business, and you haven’t had the courage to face up to it. It may be hatred toward someone who simply has been more successful than you are or has gotten something you wanted or has stood in your way, intentionally or unintentionally.
Paul gives strong warning in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32:
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.
This is tough teaching. What it does is emphasize the importance of a vertical relationship with the Lord and a horizontal relationship with each other.
Have you examined yourself? Are you worthy to partake of the Lord’s Supper? Remember, the worthiness is not based on how good or how bad you’ve been. The worthiness is based on whether or not you’ve received God’s grace and whether you are in relationship with Him and with others. Paul warns us that some of the negative experiences of our lives, the fractures, the divisions in the church, the pain and unhappiness that we experience, even some of our physical and emotional and spiritual illnesses come about from taking lightly the things of God. That’s a profound warning, isn’t it?
Every single one of us in this room is potentially worthy, as we now receive His grace and confess our sins.
Welcome to the most wonderful family reunion of all – the Lord’s Supper!
John A. Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.