So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.
1 Corinthians 11:27 (NIV)
On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus and His followers celebrated a ritual meal called the Passover. It is an annual remembrance of the events in the book of Exodus, in which God leads the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. The ritual meal, also called a Seder, is full of metaphors and word pictures that remind participants of key events and spiritual lessons from the Exodus story. At the time of Jesus, the Passover was already an ancient ritual dating back over a thousand years.
On this night, Jesus creates a new ritual and metaphor for His followers. He simply took a loaf of unleavened bread, broke it, and passed it around for His followers to partake. “This is my body, broken for you,” he said. Then he took a cup of wine and passed it, saying, “This is my blood, shed for you.” Jesus then told His followers to share in this very simple ritual when they get together as a ritual remembrance of the sacrifice He was about to make. The fact that it was done after the Passover meal layers the metaphor with even more meaning. Just as God led the people out of slavery in Egypt, Jesus is establishing a “new covenant” in which He is going to lead humanity out of slavery to sin.
Over time, this relatively simple, ritual metaphor came to be known as Communion, the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist. As the organism of the early Jesus Movement became the Institution of the Roman church, the ritual became a much more complex religious act layered with all sorts of rules and regulations. It became the centerpiece of worship surrounded by other rituals for how it was done. Only a priest sanctioned by the church could administer it. Those who don’t belong to your particular group of believers were not welcome to participate. And so on, and so on.
As a young follower of Jesus, I was part of a relatively conservative group of believers. I can remember the verse, pasted above, from today’s chapter being used regularly among my particular tribe of believers as a word of warning to young people. It was a religious variation on the Santa Claus principle: “He’s checking his list to see if you’re naughty. You better be good or Santa won’t bring you any gifts.” When it came to communion, we were warned that we better have our hearts right and our lives free from sin or we were putting ourselves at risk of judgement.
As I’ve progressed in my spiritual journey, I’ve largely abandoned the institutional pomp, circumstance, warnings, and regulatory commands that the institutional church has laid on top of Jesus’ simple act. The warning that Paul gave in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth had a very specific context. Believers met and shared a meal together, and then they ended their evening by repeating Jesus’ ritual word picture. In Corinth, some followers were creating cliques, having private meals, and excluding other believers. Some followers were getting drunk on wine and were intoxicated by the time the ritual of the bread and wine was carried out. In both cases, the metaphor of the bread and wine was profaned; It was emptied of meaning by the actions of those believers who shamelessly behaved in a way that diminished the entire meaning of the ritual.
In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that Jesus’ institution of the ritual of communion happened with no commands, rules, or regulations other than to repeat the word picture regularly when believers got together. Jesus didn’t make caveats about it only being administered by approved followers, being an exclusive ritual for only certain institutionally approved persons, or that those partaking had to approach with a certain level of holiness. In fact, the word picture itself is about Jesus sacrificing Himself because we can’t attain acceptable holiness on our own, so why would we suggest that purity and holiness are required to partake in the bread and cup? That profanes the meaning of the ritual as well.