“Do this in remembrance of me,” said Jesus. The purpose of the Lord’s Supper is to re-member, to reconnect with the body of Christ. This remembering is not simply a matter of memory, but a matter of membership. It is a matter of re-membership-ing, of reinforcing the bonds of membership.
“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.'” (1 Corinthians 11:25). Where the bread represents the body of Christ, the wine represents the life of the Spirit of Christ. Where the bread suggests body life (action), the cup suggests covenant life (promise). As a cup holds liquid together, so the covenant holds life together. The New Covenant is none other than the final covenant of the God of Scripture through the resurrection of Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father.
There are two elements in the Lord’s Supper — bread and wine, body and spirit. And these two elements are Trinitarian in character. “There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6); one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The bread represents the body, and the wine represents Christ’s blood, Christ’s Spirit, Christ’s covenant. As the blood is the life of the individual body (Leviticus 17:11), so the covenant is the life of the corporate body, the church.
Why equate spirit and covenant? Because the Spirit is the glue of God’s promises that holds all things together. God’s promise (His Word enfleshed in Jesus Christ and through regeneration in the lives of His people) “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Christian faith is faith in God’s promises, in the veracity and reliability of God’s Word.
Paul goes on to say that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). Participating in the Lord’s Supper is a kind of proclamation. It is an announcement that Jesus Christ is Lord and that you are His servant. It is a ceremony of covenant renewal, a reaffirmation of our commitment to God, to His truth and to His people. And it is a public proclamation in that it is made publicly in the light of day before a watching world. It is an intensely personal matter, but it is not private.
Paul said that it is a proclamation of the “Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). Why did Paul call it a proclamation of Christ’s death? Why not a proclamation of Christ’s resurrection? In truth it is both, but Christ’s death was the necessary condition for His resurrection. Paul’s phrasing tells us that we currently live between the time of Christ’s death and His return in glory. The phrase is descriptive of the most important element of the time in which we live, the time of “travail until Christ should be formed in you,” as Paul said in Galatians 4:19. “We know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now. And not only so, but ourselves also, who have the firstfruit of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, awaiting adoption, the redemption of our body” (Romans 8:23). The guiding paradigm of the history of this world began with Christ’s death and will culminate in His return in glory.
Having set the markers for all history — Christ’s death and return, Paul sets forth a caution. “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” (1 Corinthians 11:27). The caution applies to whoever, suggesting that it doesn’t matter who you are or who you think you are, the caution is for you.
To suggest that the Lord’s Supper can be engaged improperly means that there is a proper way to participate in it, a correct way to celebrate it. The issue is about worthiness, and Paul has set the caution in the negative — unworthily, irreverently, without respect. It is significant that Paul has told us how not to do it, rather than telling us how to do it. The negative caution provides maximum freedom of expression. If he had told us how to do it, there would only be one way to do it. But by telling us how not to do it, we are free to do it however we choose, as long as we don’t do it that one certain way — unworthily. The Ten Commandments are set negatively in the same way for the same reason — to provide maximum human freedom.
In order to follow Paul’s admonition, we must know the difference between being worthy and being unworthy to receive the sacrament. At first glance it would appear that we must find or provide our own worthiness, that we must do something or accomplish something that will provide our own worthiness, that we must be worthy of the sacrament in ourselves.
But nothing could be farther from the truth. Rather, Paul is pointing to our unworthiness. Paul knows that we are unworthy, that we cannot provide any personal worthiness in and of ourselves. As long as we look to ourselves for worthiness we will be unworthy. Paul has set the bar of communion participation out of human reach, and he has done so intentionally.
If we could reach the bar ourselves, we could take communion. But we cannot take it ourselves. Rather, we must receive it. It must be given. We have no worthiness in and of ourselves, so any worthiness that may accrue to us must come from without. It must come from Christ alone who is alone worthy. It is only the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in us through regeneration that provides our worthiness for participation in the Lord’s Supper. To participate in the Supper apart from personal regeneration is to participate unworthily, and to invite — to call down — the consequences of “profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27). To profane the name of the Lord is a violation of the Third Commandment, and constitutes serious sin with serious consequences.
The simple act of participating in the Lord’s Supper brings about the separation of the saved and the lost by distinguishing the difference between them, that difference being regeneration or Christ-given worthiness. Participating in the Lord’s Supper is not neutral. It is not irrelevant. Rather, it is efficacious. It has the power to bring about an effect.