Wednesday, June 07, 2023

Discerning the Body

“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.”

“Let a person examine himself,” intoned the elder, before breaking the bread and handing it out to the congregation. I sat in my pew shaking in my boots.

More than once I passed the plate by, then the cup, fearing the inevitable lightning bolt from above. I was a teenager doing typically teenage things during the week, and I wasn’t quite ready to stop yet. Better to take a pass than risk the judgment of almighty God for coming sinfully into his presence, I reasoned. I wasn’t about to become a modern day cautionary tale in the grand tradition of Nadab and Abihu. No chance of that!

The Smoking Crater

Looking back from many years later, I can say that I have taken the bread and the cup over a thousand times in my life. You know what? There was not a single occasion on which there was not some unconfessed sin lurking in my life as I ate and drank. That is not because I was thumbing my nose at the Lord and deliberately courting his judgment; rather, it is because I had yet to discover the sinfulness of sin, the myriad ways in which I can deceive myself about my own motives, and the endless opportunities that exist to go wrong even when I am trying to do the right thing. You can’t confess things you don’t know are wrong and don’t yet feel guilty for. Years of reading scripture have given me a much better idea how much I owe the Father for sending the Son on my behalf. My judgment would have been great indeed. Thank the Lord he dealt with it at the cross.

Yet remarkably, despite eating and drinking before the Lord oblivious to the extent of my sinfulness on many, many occasions, I sit here today relatively unmarked. So do you. We’re not weak and ill, and we’re definitely not dead. What I’m saying here is also true of thousands, probably millions of other believers. We confess what we know about ourselves as the Holy Spirit reveals to us the need, but we never get to the bottom of our own sinfulness. There is always more to learn. God is infinitely holier than we know.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to conclude that if fellowship with Christ required that every communion participant come into the presence of God with every new sin, active and passive, recognized, recalled and repented, then every gathering of Christians to remember the Lord would end in a smoking crater.

Self-Examination Concerning What?

So was Paul’s warning to examine ourselves just a shot fired in the dark, or have some Christians misunderstood what he is saying here?

I believe it’s the latter. Self-examination is necessarily a subjective exercise, unless that examination is limited in scope and very specific about what we are looking for. I do not believe the Lord or his apostles expected us to do the impossible.

Today, I do not believe Paul was telling the Corinthians they ought to fret about their own immaturity, ignorance, lapses in judgment, teenage stupidity, or the failure to successfully break habits they knew as Christians were wrong. I do not believe he expected them to make an instantaneous leap to spiritual maturity from their degraded state, or else give up sitting at the Lord’s table. Most definitely, I do not believe he was recommending Christians take an exhaustive self-inventory every Sunday morning at peril of being off work sick on Monday. Known sin should always be confessed, of course. But to imagine our loftiest and best-conceived standards of holiness remotely approximate God’s is either hubris or rank naivety.

So what was Paul talking about then? I believe the passage in 1 Corinthians 11 is much clearer and more specific about the type of sin that causes God to judge believers in this lifetime than is sometimes taught. Perhaps you will agree.

Divisions Among You

First, there is the problem plainly stated: “I hear that there are divisions among you.” What sort of divisions? Not doctrinal divisions, surprisingly. There will always be those, I’m sure. It’s certainly not denominational divisions. Denominations had yet to develop, and though the seeds of sectarianism were certainly present in Corinth (he mentions that sort of “division” in chapter 1), splitting off into separate congregations over allegiance to theology and theologians was not the problem Paul was attacking in chapter 11. No, the divisions the apostle is talking about in these verses were between the haves and the have nots: those who had nothing, and those who were sufficiently affluent to drink themselves into a stupor around the Lord’s table; divisions between Christians who thought too highly of themselves and those they did not consider worthy of a passing thought.

Second, when Paul speaks of eating the bread or drinking the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, the “unworthy manner” he has in mind is precisely this insensitive, self-indulgent, uncaring state of mind. We know that because he starts his sentence with a great, fat “Therefore” [hōste]. He ties all this business about divisions directly to the matter of unworthy eating and drinking.

Third, his remedy is also associated with the problem: “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for [or share with] one another.” The alternative is God’s judgment.

Fourth, Paul spells out exactly what the sin is that incurs judgment: eating and drinking “without discerning the body and blood of the Lord”. That’s not a failure to consider the cross. That’s not a failure to meditate on bruises, crowns of thorns, nails and piercing spears. It’s a failure to consider that all Christ’s suffering was in order to unite believers of all races and stations in life into one body of which the risen Christ is now the glorious head. It’s the sin of writing off, looking down upon, humiliating or despising fellow members of the body of Christ for whom our Savior died. Not just our worth, but their eternal value is established once and for all in the bruising of the Lord’s body and the shedding of his blood.

To fail to discern that infinite value is to invite God’s judgment.

Not Discerning the Body

An unrepented grudge. An unforgiven offense. A readiness to dismiss a fellow believer because he is not your kind of person. One look around the room in honesty will tell you who you like and dislike, who you prioritize and who you write off, who you are happy is there with you and who you wish had rather stayed home. To take the bread and drink the cup unworthily is to fail to recognize where the lines are drawn that one day soon will separate humanity into two groups for all eternity: light and darkness, death and life, saved and lost. It is to fail to recognize those for whom our Savior died; our brothers and sisters in the household of God.

Is identifying such a cavalier attitude — and then ruthlessly stomping it out when it rears its ugly little head — a manageable task? Is it a reasonable goal? Could you do that once a week? Could you stop and consider whether you have allowed an unmended division to exist between yourself and another believer seated around the Lord’s table?

I bet you could. I know I can. It’s certainly a whole lot easier than trying to take a comprehensive inventory of something I have yet to comprehend: the extent of my own sinfulness and the comparative righteousness of God.

And So Eat

Paul expected this sort of self-examination from the Corinthians with respect to their relationships with one another. He strongly advised it should become standard practice. As Bernie astutely pointed out the other day when we were discussing this very subject, the apostle doesn’t say, “Let a person examine himself, then, and pass the bread and the cup by because he has judged himself an unworthy member of the body.” No, he says, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat.”

The Lord wants his people to remember him when we gather. He desires our fellowship and our worship. But he wants them on his terms: in spirit and in truth. As the head of his body the church, he has that right, doesn’t he?

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