If anything, our cultural moment can be described as “corrosive”, or “divided”. Another commentator has said our nation is “inflamed”. That’s about right.
And though you may be a Christian, we can easily be swept up in that inflamed division. And that inflamed division can then rend the fabric of the church. It’s happening, now, to congregations across the country. What to do?
It’s no coincidence that Paul, just before his famous teaching about communion, in 1 Cor. 11, speaks about divisions in the Corinthian church – see v. 17-19:
17 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. 18 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, 19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.
Note what Paul says, and what he doesn’t say. On the one hand, he does not commend them, because there are divisions among them. They are ugly, and for all the wrong reasons. And yet, at the same time, divisions are necessary. Because they reveal something – who is genuine. By “genuine”, I believe he means who is walking by the Spirit, and who is not.
So then, it is notable that, for all his focus on unity in the church in other passages (like Ephesians 2:11-22 and 4:1-15), he does not here say, “So root out your divisions, and have unity.” He does not tell them to pursue unity.
He tells them to pursue Christ. Enter his instructions on communion.
The Corinthian church can exist with differences, and with divisions – as non-commendable, in our fallenness, as disagreements and divisions may be. Yet the only way is if everyone unites around one thing – Christ, and Christ alone. Thus communion is not just a ceremony, a rite. It’s doing battle, against everything that would rip apart what Christ died for.
That’s because communion is a repetitive reminder of where we find our ultimate identity, and life. But communion is also a repetitive reminder that we are brothers and sisters in Christ. In HIS just, merciful, faithful sacrifice, for us all.
Thus Paul warns, in v. 27, about taking communion in an unworthy fashion:
27 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.
What does it look like to take communion in an unworthy manner? It involves not doing one of two things:
28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.
We look to our own life, and whether we are placing anything else besides Christ at the level of ultimate importance, and we repent. But then Paul mentions something else:
29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.
Notice the change. I thought we were to examine ourselves? But now he says, “discern the body”. Why the change?
The answer is, he hasn’t changed. Here’s the steps I believe we are to follow:
- We examine ourselves, as I said above.
- And then we remember that we are united to Christ, to His body. “Ourselves” now includes Christ. His broken body, dead to sin, means we are now dead to sin too (Rom. 6:1-4). And so then this step reminds us that we are washed, and cleansed of anything we think of in the first step.
- But there’s one more step. To “discern the body” must also include everyone else who is also united to Christ, and therefore to me, especially those in this congregation. We seek to discern any ways that our making something else besides Christ a thing of ultimate importance has ripped the fabric of our relationship, as brothers and sisters. We remember that we are united together in him, and we do whatever we can to sew that up, to keep the unity that we have, in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3).
This does not mean that our disagreements – about mask-wearing, about COVID, about candidates, etc. – instantly goes away. Not at all. But it keeps these issues from becoming issues of ultimate importance, and thus sources of controlling fear and anger.
This is what Paul meant, earlier in 1 Corinthians, when he made this somewhat astonishing command:
29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
32 I want you to be free from anxieties.
He doesn’t mean that to be holy, a husband must neglect his wife. He means that even a spouse must not become a thing of ultimate importance, in relationship to Christ. Because all this world is quickly passing away. And what will remain will remain only in Christ.
Thus we can be free of the anxieties that weigh us down, and that cause divisions with each other, by communion – by “proclaiming the Lord’s death, until he comes” (11:26). We proclaim it to ourselves, to Him, in praise, and to each other.
And by this we avoid the judgment that seems even now to be coming on the world:
11:30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
Our very endurance, depends on our centering on our lives on Christ, and Christ alone. And a practical way we can do that, is through observing communion, the way the Lord intends. And a blessed side-effect is unity. It’s a strange unity to the outsider, because it exists with diversity, differences and even divisions. Because the returning Christ is the only thing that occupies the center. Let’s aim with all we are at that bulls-eye.