Love and the Lord's Supper - what does it mean to "discern the body"

"We shall benefit very much from the Sacrament if this thought is impressed and engraved upon our minds: that none of the brethren can be injured, despised, rejected, abused, or in any way offended by us, without at the same time, injuring, despising, and abusing Christ by the wrongs we do; that we cannot disagree with our brethren without at the same time disagreeing with Christ; that we cannot love Christ without loving him in the brethren; that we ought to take the same care of our brethren's bodies as we take of our own; for they are members of our body; and that, as no part of our body is touched by any feeling of pain which is not spread among all the rest, so we ought not to allow a brother to be affected by any evil, without being touched with compassion for him. Accordingly, Augustine with good reason frequently calls this Sacrament 'the bond of love.'" (Calvin's Institutes, 4.17.38)
When I happened upon this passage from the Institutes, I was reminded again of a message I heard a pastor preach regarding communion many years ago. Though I don't remember the church, or the pastor, I've never forgotten his main point. I ponder it almost every time I receive the Sacrament, and wonder a bit if he was right, always suspecting he was at least partly right. The Scripture he referenced was 1 Corinthians 11:29: "For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself." This pastor's contention was that this "discerning the body", in the larger context of 1 Corinthians, had to do with recognizing that the church is the body of Christ. That interpretation was completely novel to me at the time, and his explanation so compelling, that it's remained in my mind all these years.  Certainly the theme of the Church as the body of Christ is introduced and picked up again repeatedly throughout the epistle.  And, indeed, the passage in question is sandwiched between references to Christians and the Church as the body of Christ:

"Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?" (6:14)

"The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread." (10:16-17)

"For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many....God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body....But God has so composed the body giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together ; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it." (12:12-14, 18-19, 24-27)

So, positioned right after the teaching that our bodies are members of Christ, and that each of us Christians, who are partakers in the one Bread, are one body as a result, and right before that famous doctrine that the Church is the body of Christ and each Christian an individual member of it, we find this teaching of the Lord's Supper:
"For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal.  One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?  What shall I say to you?  shall I commend you in this?  No, I will not.
"For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, 'This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."
"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. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drink without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another - if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home - so that when you come together it will not be for judgment..." (11:20-34, emphasis mine)
And so we find instruction square in the midst of all this, on how to properly administer the Lord's Supper. Paul first makes it clear that it is not to be taken as an ordinary meal, which apparently was how it was being taken in Corinth. Every meal Christians share is not the Lord's Supper. This meal is to be set apart as a Sacrament - recognized as a participation in the Body of Christ. Paul then utters grave warnings against those who take it in an unworthy manner: "without discerning the body". So the question remains, in this context, what is the meaning of "discerning the body"? How does an individual partake "in an unworthy manner"?

I've found myself all along vacillating between two possible meanings:  one, that the warning has mainly to do with recognizing and respecting the fact that the Lord's Table is indeed no ordinary meal - but a Sacrament - a participation in Christ's sacrifice; or two, that we are to discern that the Church is the Body of Christ and the Sacrament a participation together as one Body in the Body of Christ; and that remembering this we are to honor one another accordingly, because we are the body of Christ of which we are individually partakers together. For years I've drifted back and forth between these two meanings, thinking that it must mean one or the other. But I've become convinced, finally, that it means both. Verses 33-34 serve as a linchpin for me, "So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another - if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home - so that when you come together it will not be for judgment..." as the judgment is there associated directly with mistreatment of fellow believers. But there is one more consideration I'd like to make, this time from the words of Christ himself in Matthew 5:22-24. Here again our partaking in the sacrifice, while unrepentant of sin committed against a brother, is associated with judgment:
"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool!' will liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift." (emphasis mine)
(If you find my relating "offering your gift at the altar" with the Lord's Table puzzling, please reference 1 Cor. 10:14-21.)

So, upon receiving the Lord's Supper we are called to discern two things: that we are partaking in the body of Christ, and that we are the body of Christ, with each of our brothers and sisters as members.

Before we partake of the Sacrament, if we wish not to fall under the judgment of God, we must examine our hearts. Are we considering of what we are partaking? Are we remembering of Whom we are partaking? Are we remembering the Gospel which we are proclaiming as we partake? Are we remembering that through this partaking we are made one body with those with whom we partake? Are we treating those with whom we are made one body, as we would treat ourselves? If, upon examining ourselves, we find that we are harboring secret hate, jealousy, envy, bitterness, or malice toward one of our fellow members, we must repent before we partake. And if, upon reflection we remember we have outwardly offended or mistreated a brother, in such a way that our secret sin against them has become known to them, we must not partake of the Sacrament until we've gone to them in humble repentance. This is the only proper response to the Gospel which participation in the Lord's Table proclaims.


Betsy Markman said…
Wow, this is an amazing perspective, and one that I've never heard before. But it seems to have a lot of merit. Thanks so much!

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