First Corinthians is a corrective and instructive letter from Paul to the church in Corinth. One of the issues Paul addresses is the manner in which the people were taking communion. Often a “love feast,” or fellowship meal, would accompany communion, meaning communion was more of an “event” than it is in many churches today. First Corinthians 11:17–34 indicates that some were gorging themselves at the feast while others were left hungry. Some were even getting drunk. The people were not waiting for one another, nor were they appropriately sharing provisions—they ate the food they brought themselves, and, if someone couldn’t bring much, he did without. Separation between rich and poor was evident.
As a result of the unfairness and gluttony surrounding communion, Paul says they were not really even eating the Lord’s Supper (verse 20). The people were not treating communion as a sacred ordinance instituted by Jesus. Instead of reminding people of Jesus’ sacrifice, communion became a means of self-gratification, furthering the divisions among the Corinthian Christians. After describing the situation and explaining what communion should be, Paul writes, “So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves” (1 Corinthians 11:27–29).
Paul is essentially asking the people to do a “heart check” before communion. Are their hearts in the right spot? Are they eating the meal to remember Christ’s sacrifice and to engage in community? Are they divided among themselves or unified in Christ? Are they actually having communion, or are they just selfishly satisfying their own appetites?
Many churches today preface the passing of the elements with two warnings: 1) Don’t take communion unless you are a follower of Christ. It is too precious a thing to treat as a meaningless religious ritual; and 2) Be sure you’re up to date with God regarding any unconfessed sins or un-surrendered areas in your life. In other words, perform a “heart check” on yourself. It is important to note here that being “up to date” does not imply perfection. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 11:31–32 that we are to judge ourselves appropriately and allow the Lord to discipline and sanctify us. We should have the psalmist’s attitude when he prayed, “Forgive my hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12).
In essence, when pastors preface communion with instructions to reflect on the meaning of the ordinance and to confess personal sin, they are asking the congregation to examine themselves. Do they know what communion means, and are they taking it for that purpose? Are they actually walking out their faith and living in active relationship with God, allowing Him to do His sanctifying work in their lives? If so, communion is a sobering celebration of Christ and His church. If not, we make a mockery of the ordinance.