Do you sometimes feel unsure if you should take Communion? Has there ever been a nagging uncertainty in your heart as the bread and the cup come down the pew? I wonder if you have ever abstained from eating and drinking this holy meal with the church because you felt too dirty to touch something so clean.
It’s quite reasonable to have wrestled with questions like this. After all, Paul wrote some sobering words that we must reckon with:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord… For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (1 Corinthians 11:27, 29–30)
There was a point in early American Christianity when this warning was so emphasized, that only a small minority of professing believers dared to approach the sacrament at all. Puritan ministers in colonial America had to admonish and goad their congregants to stop neglecting this practice, which God intended as a means of their growth. Edward Taylor had to issue an opposite warning to Christians in his day, “You sin against your souls, and against your own comfort, for you abstain from that which is your duty wherein spiritual advantage lies.”
Even still, no one wants to “eat and drink judgment on himself.” Since the warning has grabbed our attention, let us lean in closer to see what Paul wants from us. In the middle of the warnings, there is a command:
Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. (1 Corinthians 11:28)
Paul’s goal in this chapter is not to scare you away from the Lord’s Table, but to invite you to participate rightly. The reason for examination is not for self-excommunication. Instead, he wants you to reflect and so eat; to consider and so drink. What should this self-examination look like? What qualifies you to share in Communion without fear of judgment?
I find it helpful to strive for a balance between internal, subjective self-assessment and external, objective reflection. I know that my heart is deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9), and so I never want to put all my hopes on my feelings. At the same time, I could be doing everything right externally, but have a heart that is far from God (Isaiah 29:13), so I don’t want to put all my hope on my actions, either. There’s a ditch on both sides of the road, so we want to walk the narrow middle.
I offer the following list of questions as a guide. This is not exhaustive, but perhaps it can provide a starting place for how we can approach the Lord’s Supper.
1. Am I trusting in Jesus alone for salvation by grace alone through faith alone? That is what you are declaring again at this table.
2. Do I want Christ’s righteousness to be applied to my account? The bread is there to remind you of that. Do I want the Holy Spirit’s enabling power to increase in my life? This cup is the New Covenant, which promises the Holy Spirit to you.
3. Is there unconfessed sin, or patterns of sin, that I am unwilling in this moment to confess before God and receive his grace to repent? If so, confess that right now, and ask God to strengthen you at the table for the hard work of repentance ahead.
4. Am I sinfully striving against another brother or sister in this body with my words, deeds, or attitudes? If so, lay down your arms at the table of fellowship, and share in the bread and cup with them today.
5. Have I publicly declared my allegiance to Jesus Christ as my Lord through baptism? You are publicly qualified to share in his fellowship today.
6. Am I submitted to the godly leadership of a local church who are keeping watch over my soul and holding me accountable to the obedience of faith? They have made a promise to remove you from this Table if you persist in unrepentant sin.
7. Am I recognizing my participation in this family of faith around the table with me? Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body. By eating this bread and drinking this cup, you are committing to love this people, and receiving their love for you as well.
8. Do I see these elements as a sensory sermon to preach the gospel of Jesus to me again? They are here to remind you, to strengthen you, to assure you.
We examine ourselves not so that we would abstain. Paul wants for us to reflect, and participate in this drama. We should not be surprised to realize at the table that we are sinners. Why else would Christ’s body have been broken for us? Why do you think Jesus needed to shed his blood for you? “Take, eat; this is my body… Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26)
 Edward Taylor, Edward Taylor’s Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, Boston: Twain (1988): 186. Cited in Westerholm, “The ‘Cream of Creation,’” 219.