Besides calling attention to Christ’s ongoing life (instead of his death alone), the Lord’s Supper goes beyond baptism by representing comm-union. Protestantism does not believe in celebrating the Lords’ Supper in solitude. The Lord’s Supper, as said before, symbolizes the ongoing nature of that fellowship, plus the ongoing unity of all believers, like the several members of of a human body, in the one Lord Jesus with whom they died and now live. Baptism is administered individually, denoting personal entrance into Christ’s fellowship. And here is where we go wide awry in this whole matter of “preparation” and self-examination, which is kind of a carry-over from the Catholic custom of “going to confession” before taking communion, and even there, the horizontal reference is involved – namely, ones relation to fellow-communicants, rather than between the communicant and God, for I understand that a Catholic may attend mass and not take communion, without going to confession.
The custom of preparation and self-exam also stems from “fundamentalistic” influence, which believes that a Christian can be saved today and lost tomorrow. True, every Christian has his spiritual ups and downs, but that is one of the very reasons for which the Lord’s Supper has been instituted and is intended, namely, to strengthen weak faith, by drawing on the Lord Jesus. Much like prayer, when we need the Lord’s Supper the most we might feel the least worthy of it, which is a good reason why we should participate. Spiritual weakness is a reason for going to communion, not for staying away.
As regards the touchy question of admission to communion on the part of non-members, we are guilty in this regard often of giving greater importance to a picture of God’s truth than the inspired truth itself. Any one who presents himself before the preaching of God’s Word is surely adding to his condemnation if he responds negatively, and yet we encourage such persons to keep coming. Consistency would recommend that if we bar some people from communion we ought to bar them from the two-edged “sword of the Spirit.” In practice this means that groups like the LDS have some clear thinking and principal behavior when they open their “tabernacles” to all who wish to enter, but limit the temples and the worship therein, with the sacraments, to members. We try to worship and do evangelism simultaneously , which is difficult in a normal service, but it is unChristian and discourteous to invite unchurched neighbors to any and all of our public services only to tell them politely that from one of the ceremonies they must abstain. As regards our long-suffering children, who sit through long communion services in the hope that we may provoke them to a holy jealousy, it were better that a separate service be held for non-communcants; no part of a congregation should ever be told, “This part is not for you.”
Apart from that, by what criterion is one to examine himself to see just how sinful and miserable he is or isn’t? Just how much faith should he have in Christ for salvation, and how can that be measured? How strong must be the resolution to live the Christian Life (presumably by one’s own efforts)?
The Bible assumes (and so should we) that every member of Christ’s body is always “worthy” to take part in the Lord’s Supper; readiness is something that should mark him constantly, not just at inspection time. In the classic passage where Paul says we should “examine ourselves” he is not talking at all about the participants worthiness; you and I might have had our doubts about some of them on that score, and think that Paul should have scolded them. To the contrary, he says that they were not celebrating the meal in a proper way, and they should give thought to that. “Either celebrate it with the right attitude toward the meal and others, or stay at home,” he says.
When he says, “You eat and drink judgment upon yourself because you do not discern (see in this meal and its celebration) the Lord’s body” he is certainly not saying that they weren’t thinking about Jesus and his “physical” body; that was part of the problem. They were not thinking about fellow-Christians, that body of Christ. They were thinking only of “Jesus and me.”
Paul is saying nothing more nor less than Christ did when he talked about leaving our sacrifice on the altar (the Lord’s Supper on the table) until we are “one” with our fellow-Christian. On that score we can and do “fall out of grace” between Lord’s Suppers. That was the sin of the prodigal’s older brother, for the likes of whom the parable was told – not a rescue mission story. If the crash programs of family-visits that some churches have prior to the Lord’s Supper lay stress on that aspect of our Christian life, well and good. But let us not let our reconciled state with God be an object of quarterly or even weekly analysis and anxiety; that is not entering into God’s “rest”. A nervous stomach is bad for digestion, either physical or spiritual.
Other weaknesses in the Lord’s Supper celebrations which confuse its participants as to purpose and meaning include:
- Inexact typology in one of the forms says that just as a great many berries are squeezed into a single container of wine, or many kernels of wheat are mixed into one loaf of bread, so are all the members of Christ’s church molded by his Spirit into a unified whole. This is a pretty picture, and we are allowed to make up such illustrations of our own as “types” of spiritual truths. In this case, however, the analogy is not found in Scripture but, in fact, is exactly the reverse of what the Lord’s Supper intends to depict, mainly , that from the one to the many, we who partake of the one Lord Jesus Christ find our unity, despite being as “different and apart” as members of a human body, in Him as our single source, life-giver.
- Similarly, the breaking of the communion loaf (a symbolism to be preferred to the mechanically-cubed pieces) does not, as we said before, depict the fracture of Christ’s body in crucifixion, but, in symbolizing the death of the believers with Christ, may well depict also the fact that they must be “broken” and “poured out” in order to feed others in turn, first of all their own physical “flesh and blood” (relatives, families). We are not simply to be served, but to serve; not only dine, but work; receive life, but to give it (by dying to self, as a mother “dies” to reproduce life). Paul makes the startling statement that he “fills up” the sufferings of Christ by means of his personal sufferings in behalf of the gospel and its dissemination. In Scripture the picture of wheat-kernels is not that they are ground up to make one bread, but that they are buried and die in order to re-create countless others.
- That, in turn, reminds of the un-communionlike controversies that ironically have fractured the fellowship within single congregations over the pictures of truth instead of the truths themselves; bad enough that we create denominations over disputed doctrines; the height of heresy (which basically means “trouble-making”) is to quibble over symbolism. In the case of baptism it has taken the form of immersion vs sprinkling, but that quarrel can be understood because the reality behind the picture is at issue; two or more things are thereby being represented. In the case of the Lord’s Supper, individual congregations (the basic unit of the church) have split over the question of individual versus common cups, and wine vs. grape-juice. Both quarrels arose from failure to understand typology; it’s the common drink, not the container(s). It’s the color and form of that drink, not the material, which is the point of comparison. Would those who insist upon wine be agreeable to the white variety? So, a red soft-drink is acceptable (to say nothing of grape-juice) as in many (overseas) communions. Perhaps not even color is significant; wine (or grape-juice) was the “coffee” of the culture in which Jesus lived and died. It is not without significance that Jesus did not speak of that after-dinner beverage by name, but he and Paul consistently referred to it as “the cup.”
- It is the “cup of blessing” (or “thanksgiving”) which is the term the Israelites had used for 1400 years previously. The pastor’s hand of benediction upon it is harmless enough, but it is we who do the blessing (praising), not God; we bless Him for it! Much better that the cup of celebration be raised (by one or all) in tribute and toast to the host and the King. Let’s let God’s pictures be picturesque!