Brothers and sisters, have you ever wondered what the apostle Paul meant when he said: “whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.” 1 Cor 11:27) and “he that eateth and drinketh unworthily eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.” (1 Cor 11:29)

The consequences of partaking unworthily are indeed severe. We would therefore do well to ensure we correctly understand what it means to eat and drink worthily. In the context of the chapter Paul condemned their “coming together” or public assembling as being “not for the better, but for the worse” (v17). Like us, the Corinthians were members of the one body of Christ; the one assembly of saints. Their endeavour should therefore have been “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” recognising that “there is one body…one hope…one faith and one baptism” (Eph 4:4,5). And yet, Paul says they were assembling for the worse not the better. This last expression would be better translated, ‘not for a more excellent purpose but a vastly inferior cause’. What was this inferior cause? Paul explains:

“For first of all, when ye come together in the ecclesia, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it. For there must be also heresies among you that they which are approved may be made manifest among you” (vv18-19)

Paul was aware of their divisions; the word is the Greek word ‘schisma’ which means “splits.” They were supposed to be members of the one body of Christ, but they were divided and torn apart by factional interests. The word ‘heresies’ is more commonly translated “sects.” They came together, not as one, but rather as a loose collection of fractious self-interested groups:

“When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper. For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken. What? Have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the ecclesia of God, and shame them that have not? What shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not.” (vv20-22)

Their spiritual disunity manifested itself physically. While in form they came together into one place to partake of the Lord’s supper, in substance they did not assemble as one at all. It was a case of ‘every man for himself ’; a ‘free-for-all.’ The expression ‘taketh before’ means to anticipate, to surprise or to be caught out. They surged forward to take for themselves what they could before anyone else had a chance and the result was that some indulged to the point of gluttony and drunkenness while others went hungry and were left weak and sickly (vv30,34).

Such behaviour, Paul says, despised the ecclesia of God and shamed “them that have not”. The Greek word rendered “despise” means “to think nothing of ”; while the Greek word rendered “shame” has the idea of being confounded. Their behaviour evidenced that they had no real regard for each other, an attitude which left their fellow brothers and sisters confounded. This was not the behaviour of one who recognised they were part of the one ecclesia of God; the one body of Christ. Nor was it the behaviour of one who endeavoured to follow in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus, who sacrificed his very life that others may have life. Their motivation was one of selfishness and this is the context of verse 23. It is for this reason that Paul takes them back to the Lord’s original supper – to remind them what their attitude should be when they come together around the Lord’s table:

“FOR I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, at the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.” (vv23,24)

Taking or Giving

The Lord Jesus, the very night in which he was betrayed to death, met with his disciples to institute two memorials that would remind them of the Lord’s complete selflessness. Our Lord spent the final moments before his excruciating death with his disciples, giving of himself to the very end. How would we choose to spend our final hours?

And look at Paul’s play on words in verse 21: “every one of you takes before another his own supper” – which stands in sharp contrast to the example of the Lord in the upper room (v23). Paul is emphasising the point, you are all about taking whereas the Lord’s supper should be all about giving. Their behaviour was the complete opposite of the Lord’s example that they should be remembering. And note that the word “betrayed” is the same Greek word rendered “delivered”; the word means to give into the hands of another, to offer up. On the very night in which Jesus would offer himself as the ultimate sacrifice, he was all about giving. He suspended all self-interest and served others to the very end (John 13:1-2).

What does the bread represent? Jesus tells us, “this is my body, which is broken for you” or, as he said in Luke 22:19,“This is my body which is given for you.” The bread is a memorial of the Lord’s sacrifice. When we partake of the bread we remember that sacrifice. The point Paul is making is that this should inspire us to go and do likewise because the command,“This do in remembrance of me”, is more than just eating the bread in remembrance of Jesus; it is a reference to giving one’s self in sacrifice for another in remembrance of him; of imitating his example memorialised in the symbol of the bread. As our Lord himself said in John 13:12-17: “Know ye what I have done to you…I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you…If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.”

With the same intent, he took the cup – a symbol of the confirmation of the new covenant instituted by the pouring out of his blood upon the altar as an offering for sin. Once again, the phrase “this do ye… in remembrance of me” appears. What is the “this” they were to do? Again, was it solely to drink the wine? No! Because, if it was, verse 25 wouldn’t make sense: “as often as you drink the wine in remembrance of me”! So, what is the “this do”? It is to drink and imitate the example of the Lord Jesus as memorialised in the symbol of the wine. He is saying, when you eat the bread and drink the wine, remember the sacrifice they memorialise and do the same… remember me by imitating my example.

Jesus never expected the eating of bread and drinking of wine to become a ceremonial ritual that failed to find any practical expression in the life of the partaker. This memorial is designed to “show the Lord’s death till he come” (v26). The word “show” means to teach or to declare. Our partaking of the emblems is a declaration that we accept the principles of his death and resurrection as a life-force in our walk to the kingdom.

Discerning and Caring for the Lord’s Body

By giving as he gave and sacrificing as he sacrificed they proclaimed their Lord’s death. When we eat and drink unworthily we fail to do as he did. Is this interpretation correct? Paul explains what he means by adding the phrase: “he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.” (v29). Those who eat and drink unworthily condemn themselves by failing to discern the Lord’s body in what they’re doing.

Note the apostle’s play on words: ‘damnation’ is the Greek word ‘krima’ while ‘discerning’ is the word ‘diakrino.’ Both are from the same Greek word ‘krino’ meaning “to judge or discern”. They judged themselves by their failure to judge what it means to be part of the one body of Christ. Paul constantly taught the Corinthians that they needed to be united in one body (cp 1 Cor 10:16-17, 12:12-27). Their actions clearly showed they did not grasp this.

When we eat worthily of the one loaf we understand that those who share the memorials with us are part of the one body of Christ and we ought to have the same care one for another. We need to love our brothers and sisters as ourselves, just as the Lord first loved us, and make sacrifices for them as Christ did for us. This is why the apostle concludes, in verse 29, “let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.” Let a man examine whether his conduct and attitude toward his fellow members of the Lord’s body have been consistent with his Lord’s life of sacrifice memorialised in the loaf and the cup. And then partake!

Are we suitably prepared? Do we love the members of the Lord’s body as our own? Do we have the same love as Christ did for those for whom he died? That is what we should examine ourselves about before we partake of the emblems – our thoughts should be of others more than of ourselves.

It is for this same reason the Apostle concludes with verse 33: “Wherefore, my brethren, when ye come together to eat, tarry one for another.” The word means “to reach out, to lift up and take another into one’s arms”; this is the ‘taking’ the Corinthians should have engaged in! Is that the mindset with which we come to the memorial feast, brothers and sisters? Do we come looking out for one another, to reach out and embrace our brother or sister; to make them feel the warmth of fellowship in the Lord’s body? If so, let us keep the feast, not with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Cor 5:8).