Every once in a while someone asks me about the passage in 1 Corinthians 11 that deals with the Lord's supper. There is that verse that can is very disquieting, 1Cor. 11:27 "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. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself." What does one do with this verse and who can dares to take communion in the light of eating and drinking judgment on yourself, after all, even the most committed and faithful of us never gets the faith completely right. Knowing this I've talked to some from very conservative traditions who have never taken communion for fear that they will eat and drink judgment on themselves.
So how do we take these verses? The first is we have to take them in context. The problem in Corinth is that people are coming to the Lord's Supper and focusing only on themselves while ignoring the needs of the body of Christ (the church). The rich are coming, eating, and getting drunk while the poor, who have to work first, come to the worship service hoping to get their one good meal of the week and find the food gone and their "fellow" Christians fully sated. What this tells us is that the people in Corinth are missing out on the body of Christ in two ways. The first way is they are missing the reality that Christ has sacrificed his body, given his body so that they can be reconciled to God. In the supper they come face-to-face with this wonder and it should floor them in such a way that they desire to imitate the sacrificial heart of Christ. As Christ's heart was broken for their need so their hearts should be broken for the needs of those in their community who are poor. As Paul will say in 2 Corinthians 8 concerning the need to give to the poor, 2Cor. 8:9 "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich." The second way they miss the reality of the body of Christ is that the church is the body of Christ and they are dishonoring this body when the rich ignore the needs of the poor in their community.
The important thing to get here is that "not discerning the body of Christ" is not that these people didn't know who Jesus was or didn't understand that the bread represented his body (that's easy to get, a couple of seconds of instruction and a person can tell you the bread represents the body of Christ and the wine the blood of Christ), no the problem is much deeper than that: these people didn't get that bread in their hand was a call to be like Jesus, to act in a Christ-like, self-sacrificing manner for others in the community. We would say that these people didn't get depth of the second greatest commandment, "love your neighbor as yourself" or as John will says in 1 John 4.19 "We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother."
At one level this levels a lot of people who come with confidence to the table and declare they get that the bread is the body of Christ. These people are not discerning the depth of what Paul is after. He's not looking for some intellectual assent (certainly he wants us to believe rightly, but right belief doesn't get us into the core of his desire), he is looking for a people whose hearts are breaking over the poor, the struggling, and broken in their midst. He is looking for people who really to love their neighbor as themselves and as they take the bread are overwhelmed with a God who loved them, so overwhelmed they can't help but bring his love to others, can't help but be those who though they are rich become poor for the sake of others.
Each of us who have come to the table know that we are basically lousy at this becoming poor deal. We are self-absorbed, watching out for ourselves, we want people to care for us because we deserve it. But it is just here that the table does two things: first it confronts us with the body of Christ and we are laid low with our failure to love others; Second, it reminds us that the table is both a place where we see the grace of God in the bread and the cup and a place where the only way we can come it by God's grace. We come asking his forgiveness for failing to discern the body of Christ. For fail to discern it we do, over and over again. The simple truth is that without grace we can't get to the table for our failure to discern the body plagues us. The failure to act in a Christ-like, sacrificial manner walks with us like an unwanted shadow.
But this raises another question. As I mentioned earlier, it is easy to understand that the bread is the body and the wine is the blood of Christ. This concept of the bread is a call to see the sacrifice of Christ and to act in accord with that sacrifice is a harder thing to grasp. It is harder to think through the implications of whether I am loving my neighbor as myself, if my life really does reflect becoming poor so that others may become rich. Given how difficult this can be who can take part in the supper? Can a 30 year old downs syndrome person take part in the supper? Can an 80 year old who has Alzheimer's? Can a 50 year old who has never been overly self-reflective come to the table? Can a 10 year old who knows they love Jesus but can't wrap their mind around the fullness of what it means to discern the body?
My take is that the supper is open to all of these people. Open not because they get the fullness of what it means to discern the body (after all, which one of us does, which of us really gets the fullness of Christ's sacrifice and then has it so impact our lives that it shapes and molds every move we make?), but because rightly taught and led they, and indeed all of us, can discern the body at the level of understanding that God has given us at any particular moment in our lives. God does not asks that down's syndrome child or the person with Alzheimer's to be more than they are, only to be what he has made them to be. With a child or a 50 year old we want to help them think more deeply, grow more in discerning the body, but we don't withhold the gift and grace of the supper from them until they get it all right. We withhold the supper only if they don't believe or for a child, if the community and particularly the parents discerns the child is not yet ready--so their faith is a mere mimic of the parent's and doesn't yet have a voice of its own or if it's clear the child wants to take part because taking part looks cool or their faith is childish rather than child-like.
But it seems to me that we have less to worry about children failing to discern the body i.e. knowing that because Jesus loves them they need to love others, than we do with adults failing to discern the body since many of us as we have become adults have also put up our guard against loving others and have far less willingness to become poor so that others might become rich.
The bottom line for both children and adults is that we come to the table only by God's grace and each time we hold the bread in our hand we both celebrate that grace and are reminded how much we need it because we look so little like Christ who on the night he was betrayed took bread and said...