The Last Supper Examination
I have seen in church life the words of Paul misused terribly at the Communion table. “Examine yourselves,” says Paul. “All who eat and drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgment against themselves.” No one wants to bring judgment down his or her own head, but what does it even mean to discern the body? If I don’t know what it means, how can I make sure I do it in such a way that I don’t bring judgment down on myself?
I have known people in church who are certain they know exactly what Paul is saying. These sure-minded believers read 1st Corinthians 11, and they feel they know who can and cannot take the bread and the cup. Oddly, they always point out why others should not take Communion. But they don’t check themselves. They are quick to disqualify others, but they always participate.
Is the Communion table the place for judgment and restriction? The meal Jesus shared with his disciples was the last supper before he was crucified. Why did he die? Because we are all sinners in need of God’s grace.
I am not suggesting we should be flippant about the Lord’s Supper. It is very significant and serious. I am not saying the ceremony in and of itself is enough. Doing a religious rite like taking Communion does not save, but rather it points to our salvation. I am not supposing that we can eat and drink at this table without regarding our behavior when we are away from it. Repentance must accompany our participation in Communion and repentance is only real when it is seen in our relationships in daily life.
I am simply saying that we need to be careful when thinking about putting a restrictive fence around the Communion table. Jesus came inviting the world to come to him. We are invited to the Lord while we are still in our sin. The broken bread, Jesus’ broken body, and the red wine or juice, Jesus’ spilled blood, both show how sinful we are and how much we need Him.
For a deeper understanding of what Paul was saying when he wrote that we have to examine ourselves and discern the body, I think it helps to turn to the Gospel of Luke.
In the phrase, “Kings of the Gentiles,” Jesus refers to those who have not turned to him. People who do not follow Jesus have not acknowledged their need for God and have not accepted God’s grace. They are not in the kingdom but in the world, living by the standards of the world. Those standards include the quest for power and the eagerness to hold power over others. True relationships of trust and love are impossible when we are driven by power. In the world, we are out to advance ourselves at the expense of those around us. It is very Darwinian. Our betterment is directly tied to the regression of our neighbors.
“Not so with you,” Jesus says. “The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves” (v.26). In the Gentile world, the world that is not God’s Kingdom, we strive to be served by those we deem beneath us. But, Jesus turns that hierarchical economy upside down. In His Kingdom, greatness is seen in us serving each other. The Lord, the one we worship and follow, Jesus, says, “I am among you as one who serves.” One way of examining ourselves as we come to the table is to look at our lives and see those places we are serving others.
Along with this we note those areas we are not serving. It becomes a matter of the heart, which is what Jesus was attempting to change in each person. Our hearts, if we are following Him, are to be set to serve others in love and humility seeing absolutely no one as being beneath us.
Next, we hear Jesus say something unexpected. “You are those who have stood by me in my trials.” He knows each of them will flee and hide in cowardice during his greatest trial. He will go to the cross alone. And yet, he declares the faithful witness of the disciples and confers upon them the authority to judge.
How can this be? Will we have the same declaration made of our faith and will we receive the same authority? The disciples did in fact become martyrs, those who declare “Jesus is Lord,” even when threatened with death. They did this after the resurrection. We also live with the knowledge that Jesus who was crucified has defeated death. The key for us as for the 12 is not in aspiring to sit on thrones and judge others. The key is faithfulness.
Living in the United States, it is unlikely we will face imprisonment or death because of our faith in Jesus. But trials come into the lives of believers because the world is rejecting the Kingdom of God. When we are for Jesus, the world is against us. How that looks varies and I don’t know how it will become real in your life. But a way of examining ourselves when we pick up the broken bread and sip from the cup that points to Jesus’ blood is for us to look at our lives and think about when we have and have not been faithful to the ways of God. Have we compromised in speech or integrity? Have we clearly known what God wanted and then we did the exact opposite? Examining our faithfulness is a way of knowing exactly where we stand when we accept Jesus’ invitation to Communion. When we know we have failed to be faithful, the appropriate action is not to run away or skip Communion. No, we take it, but first, with our hearts broken, we confess, repent, and receive forgiveness.
One more word from Jesus on the night of his betrayal as we consider what it means to discern the body. Peter pledges to go to prison and death with Jesus and Jesus knows Peter will indeed do exactly that, but not this night. This night, he will deny knowing Jesus. Later, even after he has shown himself to be faithful Peter will waffle on the issue of whether non-Jews can follow Jesus. He will get caught between Paul and the Jerusalem church. In short, Peter’s amazing, inspiring witness rises and recedes. On one occasion he is the paragon of faithfulness. On the next, he says something so frustratingly stupid it seems he has not heard a thing Jesus has said.
As we go over all that we know about Peter and we hear Jesus say to him, “When once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers,” then we know, we are him. Each one of us is Peter. Each one of us comes to Maundy Thursday and the Lord’s Supper table having at times served Jesus. Maybe we are unaware of God’s great pleasure in us when we are at our best, but we have those moments where we shine.
Likewise, we sin as badly as Peter did the night Jesus was arrested and he claimed he didn’t know him at all. In discerning the body, we give to ourselves and to our neighbors the same measure of grace Jesus gives to us. We strive for excellence in our discipleship, but we give grace when we fall far below that mark.
Paul’s guidelines for coming to the Lord’s Supper table are meant to coat our community with humility not to keep people away. We are a body of broken people who are desperately dependent upon Jesus for life and for love. And he gives both in abundance. That is what Paul wants us to know. The judgment on us is that we are innocent because we are in Christ. The very words of Jesus when he instituted the bread and cup as a memorial to him help us understand Paul’s teaching. We come arm-in-arm, supporting each other and granting grace upon grace throughout life.
The Communion table reveals that all – presidents and peasants alike - are in need of Christ and in His Kingdom. And in him all are one and this unity extends to all areas of life.
After the meal, when the forces of evil gathered in the garden to arrest Jesus and take him to his death, his followers fled in fear. We know how the story turned out. In retelling it, we come together in humility and love. We are brothers and sisters, joined in Christ and inspired to share the love he has shared with us.