Many are familiar with 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, where Paul lays out how Jesus' instructions for the Lord's Supper. In fact, you may have heard it so many times you could quote it by heart. But how many know the context of those important verses? It's in the context where we see how beautifully God has constructed this sacrament.
In the "words of institution" in v23-26, Paul tells us about a vision he received from Jesus (which makes sense given that the gospels may not have been in written form yet, so these new churches would need direct instruction from their Lord on this important part of their life together). Paul instructs the Corinthians to practice the Lord's Supper simply and as close to the pattern of Jesus as possible. Bread first, then wine. Let the pastor remind the people of Jesus' words. Eat, then drink. It's wonderfully simple.
Paul also gives the Corinthians two reasons to celebrate the Lord's Supper: to remember and proclaim the death of our Lord. In celebrating the Lord's Supper, the church looks regularly to His death, and then proclaims her faith in the power of His crucifixion by receiving the bread and wine. Again, for most Christians, this is familiar territory.
But the context! If we examine v17-34, we'll see the Corinthian church had so messed with the practice of communion that it wasn't even the Lord's Supper anymore (v20). They turned it into a "fellowship meal" (as we might call it) where some of the rich Christians ate their own food while the poorer Christians watched. And others took it as an opportunity to drink enough wine to get drunk. Paul is so beside himself with frustration he exclaims "Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not." (v22)
Paul's frustration comes because he understands God's purposes behind this sacrament. The purpose of communion isn't only to partake of Jesus spiritually, but to be united to His bride, the church (see 1 Cor. 10:16-17). God's genius in the Lord's Supper is that it simultaneously draws us to Jesus and the church, and heightens our love for one by our love for the other. Taking communion unites me to Jesus, which necessarily unites me to His church. Which is just one more way of seeing a great Biblical truth: you can't have Jesus and refuse the church.
So to receive communion well means receiving the body and blood of Jesus, placing our hope in Him alone. But it also means receiving His bride, the church...and not just the church in general, but a church. We can only take communion well when we take it, in part, as a commitment to a local church. And that commitment is one of sacrifice and love. Taking communion well and faithfully unites us to Jesus Christ, who died for the church, providing for us a pattern directing us until the end of this age. Taking communion well and faithfully means we not only receive a Savior but a path. The way of Jesus is dying for the saints.
This may be why Paul doesn't define which "body" we are discern in verse 29. Are we to discern the body of Jesus by trusting in His death and resurrection? Or are we to discern the body of Jesus by knowing and loving His church? The lack of clarity may be the point: to discern one well is necessarily to discern the other.
Next time you take the Lord's Supper, gladly receive the benefits of Jesus' death and resurrection for you. And commit yourself to following His path of giving yourself, even to the point of death, to the people sitting with you at His table.
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