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4th April, 2011

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Discerning the Lord's body

It goes by various names: Lord's Supper, Eucharist, the sacrament of Communion, Passover. Let's not dicker over nomenclature here; reams and reams of material can be found arguing various positions. Since the author believes that "Passover" is the most appropriate term (based on Luke 22:15), that is the name that will be used here. Of far greater moment than concerning ourselves with technicalities is the warning from Paul to participate in the memorial of Christ's death in the right frame of mind:

For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, "Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me." In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me." But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord's body (1 Cor. 11:23-29).

Sobering words indeed; perhaps as bad as ignoring the call to remember Jesus' atoning work on Calvary is to participate in its remembrance "unworthily". But what was Paul talking about? The internal parallelism of the last verse shows that the yardstick of unworthiness consists of "not discerning the Lord's body". What do these words mean?

The first point to deal with is whether "discerning the Lord's body" refers to what is going on in one's head during the ceremony itself or to one's frame of mind day by day. Let us reason together. Even the most spiritually-blunted minds ought to recognize that God would be highly displeased with anybody dreaming of their next holiday while drinking the symbol of Christ's shed blood. But surely we would be missing the whole point if our remembrance services were to become like those in the Scottish Highlands many years ago:

It was surrounded by an atmosphere of mystery and awe and holy reverence. The emphasis on its solemnity was indeed so extreme and one-sided that only a small minority of the regular church-goers. ever took the step of becoming communicants at all. "lest they should eat and drink judgment on themselves". 1

Surely God's real concern is our daily mental focus, not our capacity for concentration for an hour. To take captive one's thoughts during the wine and bread ceremony and make

oneself picture the Passion of Jesus should be our goal, but if the next day we are conducting ourselves in a manner that makes light of Jesus' work of redemption we undo all the good we did the night before. Casting ourselves in worshipful adoration at the base of the cross while we drink the wine is laudable, but would God deem our attitude "worthy" if we don't give another thought to Jesus' sacrifice until the next Passover service approaches?

That the determination of our worthiness is based on our daily focus is supported by Paul's exhortation to examine oneself. Introspection in the period leading up to Passover surely does not mean trying to remember what went through your mind the last time you celebrated the rite and a determination to do better this time; rather, "self-examination" consists of ensuring you are "discerning the Lord's body" day by day. But again, what does this mean?

A mere handful of words can underlie a treasure trove of ideas, a mastery of which can only be developed over a period of study and reflection. The fundamental concept involved in discerning or not discerning the Lord's body probably goes something like this. Jesus Christ was God in the flesh, of more value than all of mankind (Is. 40:17) and all of creation put together. His "blood" is more precious than all the wealth on earth (1 Peter 1:18-19). His willingness to voluntarily yield His body to be torn to shreds, to be hung on a cross in a humiliating manner and to experience death for our atonement defies all human understanding. Without it we are all doomed to estrangement from God and eternal annihilation; His excruciating suffering and death make reconciliation with God and eternal life possible.

Failure to think about, and thank Him for, His atoning work on a regular basis means we don't value what He did, we lack a proper sense of proportion, we don't "discern His body". Anything less than total, adoring, worshipful commitment to our relationship with Jesus Christ betrays a lack of "discernment". A cavalier attitude towards sin - dealing with sin is what Jesus' atoning work was all about - reveals to our heavenly Father that we don't really care about our sinfulness, about Jesus' infinite faithfulness, and about the Father's infinite love. If we then participate in the Passover remembrance rites we are making light of what they stand for. Not good! If, on the other hand, we remember Jesus' self-sacrifice every day we can, and if we follow up with a sincere attempt to live a godly, Spirit-led life, including keeping the same laws of God that Jesus kept, and which define sin, then our eating His flesh and drinking His blood in sacramental form is a great blessing to us and a cause of intense pleasure to God (Ps. 116:12-13). That is good!

1Donald Baillie, The Theology of the Sacraments, p. 91


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