The Communion service and the issue of unworthiness
Partaking of the Communion service can be an intense and emotional experience. Whether footwashing or the Lord’s Supper, the service presents an opportunity to meld the theological and emotional aspects of our faith. Our participation in these occasions can communicate many things: our acceptance of the love of Jesus; the remembrance of His death on the cross—the moment of victory against evil; the anticipation of “that day” when we will do this rite together with the Lord Himself; and, finally, our love for each other.
What, though, do we say by our nonparticipation in the Communion service? Usually, there are various reasons for our self-exclusion, often stemming from the discomfort of unresolved interpersonal conflicts and the sense that we are unworthy before God. After all, 1 Corinthians 11:27 reads, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (RSV). If we truly and sincerely sense our unworthiness, should we abstain from “profaning the body and blood of the Lord”?
No. Excluding oneself from Communion because one feels “unworthy” is, really, to misread Paul’s point in that text.
To be worthy of Communion: A mistaken understanding
First of all, what does the apostle Paul affirm when he uses the word unworthy? The word unworthy comes from (àxios) meaning “balance the two scale pans of the scales,”1 which means that an item put on a scale pan is worthy when it can be balanced or it equals the weight on the other scale pan.
In such a context, when do we appear worthy in comparison with Christ? The answer’s obvious. It’s one thing to “ ‘bear fruit that befits repentance’ ” (Matt. 3:8, RSV), but anyone who follows the Bible sees themselves as unworthy, especially in contrast to Jesus. In fact, this awareness allows him to receive the gift of grace as did the prodigal son, who, though considering himself unworthy, was forgiven by his father (Luke 15:22–24). And the centurion of Capernaum, who, after expressing his lack of merit in receiving Jesus in his home (Luke 7:6), received praise from Jesus for his faith (Luke 7:9).
Only Jesus is worthy: “ ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’ ” (Rev. 5:12, RSV). In Jesus Christ’s virtue—the only worthy One—we receive His grace and forgiveness, and definitely not from anything in ourselves. “I give thanks to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength for my work. I thank him for considering me worthy, and appointing me to serve him” (1 Tim. 1:12, TEV, emphasis added). From this perspective, therefore, Bible authors describe the impossibility of any of us arriving at church on a Saturday morning and being “worthy” of Communion.
To be worthy of Communion: Paul’s message
What did Paul, the apostle, mean, then, by this verse? The answer can be found in the context of the passage and in its grammatical construction.
Like other Christians in the New Testament period, the Corinthians were accustomed to celebrating Communion every time they had supper. Many, though, ended up forgetting the meaning of what they were doing—consuming the emblems as if they were ordinary food.
Paul wrote, “When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is 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” (1 Cor. 11:20–22, RSV).
The apostle Paul needed to re-explain the importance of this ordinance because its real significance had been lost. After Paul clarified the meaning of the service, he warned them not to make the same mistake again. Instead, he tells them to consume these emblems, all the while remembering Jesus’ sacrifice as they do.
The problem he’s dealing with includes just how they are celebrating the service, not the moral quality of those that do. Wrote J. Pöhler, “Unworthiness does not consist in the moral quality, that is, the character of the participants of the Holy Supper, but is the result of the wrong way of considering the Holy meal, with which we contradict the solemnity of the service.”2 Along these lines, we read in the Minister’s Manual: “(Paul) is not speaking of unworthy people who participate, but of an unworthy manner in which they participate.”3
Paul tries to correct their misunderstanding. He’s not dealing with their moral behavior. This point becomes even clearer from what follows: “For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor. 11:29, RSV). Comparing verses 27 and 29, we understand that Paul expresses the idea of unworthiness as he who consumes these emblems without distinguishing the Lord’s body— without understanding what he is doing. Again, the issue isn’t the moral quality of the participants themselves but their immediate attitude regarding the ordinance itself.
The first Lord’s Supper
Look at the first Communion service, the one that was established by Jesus.
The Bible says that after Satan took possession of Judas, Jesus celebrated the Lord’s Supper with His people (Luke 22:3, 14–20), which included Judas, who at that time was already preparing to betray his Lord. Why did Jesus not stop Judas from taking part in the ceremony? Why did He not consider him unworthy? Ellen White wrote, “Though Jesus knew Judas from the beginning, He washed his feet. . . . A long-suffering Saviour held out every inducement for the sinner to receive Him, to repent, and to be cleansed from the defilement of sin. . . .It was because the disciples were erring and faulty that He washed their feet, and all but one of the twelve were thus brought to repentance.”4
Jesus not only received Judas at His Communion, He also invited Peter, who was conceited and not yet fully converted (Luke 22:32). The other disciples weren’t all exactly moral paragons of conversion and virtue either, and yet Jesus celebrated the supper with them, knowing full well that they would all soon abandon Him.
Our theology and understanding of Communion should help us to communicate its significance to our members. The Communion service reminds us that at Calvary we discover and understand Jesus’ love for us: “ ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself’ ” (John 12:32, RSV). No wonder Ellen White wrote that “Christ has instituted this service that it may speak to our senses of the love of God that has been expressed in our behalf. There can be no union between our souls and God except through Christ.. . . And nothing less than the death of Christ could make His love efficacious for us.”5
Before we are served His emblems, our hearts have an extra reason to be won over by His love, such as what happened to the centurion before the cross (Mark 15:39). We do not have to think about ourselves, about our unworthiness, but about Jesus and His righteousness. Our own sense of unworthiness should draw us to the Communion service, not push us away.
“The Communion service was not to be a season of sorrowing. . . . As the Lord’s disciples gather about His table, they are not to remember and lament their shortcomings. They are not to dwell upon their past religious experience, whether that experience has been elevating or depressing. . . . Now they come to meet with Christ.”6
We need to help our congregational participants understand that Communion does not constitute a conclusion but a beginning. The best week should not be the one that precedes Communion but the one that follows. Reconciliation with God, with ourselves, and with others should not be prerequisites in order to participate but should be the result that flows from that participation. Thus, “Communion should always end on a high note. Wrongs have been righted. Sins have been forgiven. Hope has been restored. It’s a time for rejoicing.”7
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1 W. Foerster, “Axios, Anaxios,” in Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, eds. G. Kittel and F. Gerhard, Italian ed. (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1933), 1:1013.
2 Rolf J. Pöhler, “Qui est digne de participer à la cène,” (“Who Is Worthy of Partaking of the Lord’s Supper”), in Cène et ablution des pieds, ed. Comité de Recherche Biblique (Dammarie-lès-Lys, France: Editions Vie et Santé, 1991), 1:251.
3 Seventh-day Adventist Minister’s Manual (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference Ministerial Association, 1992), 212.
4 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1940), 655, 656.
5 Ibid., 660.
6 Ibid., 659.
7 Seventh-day Adventist Minister’s Manual, 216.