I wrote this for those who help to distribute communion to those who are sick or housebound, but I realize this will also be a helpful reflection for all who partake in communion.
When people are sick or housebound they are unwillingly absent from the communion table. On such occasions the Communion Stewards will offer to take the consecrated communion to them during the week following the service of Communion on Sunday.
Paul offers stern words for the church at Corinth in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 and makes several important points:
1 Corinthians 11:17-22
17 Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. 19 Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. 20 When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. 21 For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. 22 What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!
At the time of Paul’s writing the communion was combined with a love feast. It was obviously more than the sip of wine and piece of bread which we enjoy today. The beauty of this meal was that the hungry would be fed; Jesus action of blessing and multiplying the loaves and the fish would be celebrated with every great communion feast. But, divisions emerged the rich didn’t seem to want to wait for the poor ‘one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.’ (Verse 21). Communion was a time for unity; yet the communion itself fostered division in the church.
The importance of Unity
It is for this reason that we are ordered in our communion. When we become members of the church we are in fellowship (koinonia) with the church. As members of a church we recognize the authority of ordained clergy to preside over the communion table for the sake of our unity. This unity is not just the unity of our local church, but the unity of the church all over the world and across denominations. Ministers are trained and ordained as ministers of Word and Sacrament in order to ensure the unity and orthodoxy of the church’s message and practice.
If you are not a member of any church then you might as well serve yourself communion. If you are not a member of any church then you might as well baptize yourself. But when you do these things you are separating yourself from a larger community gathered at one table. As church members we submit ourselves to this discipline as we submit ourselves to Christ. We believe Jesus wants the church to be one, we believe the table should be one, and we acknowledge in keeping with the tradition of the church and the scriptures that God, through the Holy Spirit calls people to lead and hold authority in such a way as to maintain the order and unity of the community.
Within the local Methodist Church this unity is maintained by participation in a circuit of churches deliberately located in a variety of socio-economic areas that ensure that the same minister who presides at the table in a wealthy suburb can preside at the table in an impoverished settlement and act prophetically in the interest of unity and table fellowship. The church communion table is symbolically linked to the Temple table for the Bread of the Presence (Exodus 25:23 & Exodus 37:10-16.)
It is important to stress the symbolic unity of the church and the significance of table fellowship when taking communion to people at home. It is also important to make every effort to bring people to church rather than take communion to them at home; but frailty and logistics mean that we should practice the maximum amount of grace in our administration.
At the end of each Communion Service we usually take up an offering for the love fund of the church. This excerpt from the writings of Justin Martyr describes Sunday Worship around AD90 includes a description of what deacons do, which is effectively the task of Communion Stewards in the Methodist Church today:
 On the day which is called Sunday, all who live in the cities or in the countryside gather together in one place.  And the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as there is time.  Then, when the reader has finished, the president, in a discourse, admonishes and invites the people to practice these examples of virtue.  Then we all stand up together and offer prayers.  And, as we mentioned before, when we have finished the prayer, bread is presented, and wine with water;  the president likewise offers up prayers and thanksgivings according to his ability, and the people assent by saying, Amen.  The elements which have been “eucharistized” are distributed and received by each one; and they are sent to the absent by the deacons. Those who are prosperous, if they wish, contribute what each one deems appropriate; and the collection is deposited with the president; and he takes care of the orphans and widows, and those who are needy because of sickness or other cause, and the captives, and the strangers who sojourn amongst us—in brief, he is the curate of all who are in need.
(“Saint Justin Martyr: First Apology”, 90, chap. Weekly Worship of the Christians)
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
The Institution of the Lord’s Supper
(Mt 26:26–29; Mk 14:22–25; Lk 22:14–23)
23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
It is fascinating to follow the debate through the ages over what made the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ. It seems that the earliest church was quite satisfied with understanding it to be symbolic. It was Paschius Radbertus in around the 8th century who first articulated a doctrine of transubstantiation. At the reformation Luther proposed an alternative theology, consubstantiation. Modern understanding is more comfortable with the earlier more symbolic understanding:
1.23 The crucified and risen Christ is present in the Holy Communion in accordance with His promise in the word of Scripture, in the community of the faithful and in the elements of bread and wine. These are the body and blood of Christ not in the sense that they cease to be bread and wine but in that they receive a new meaning as representing the person of Christ who has given Himself on the Cross and now meets with His people. His presence depends upon His own promise; it is discerned and appropriated by the faith of His people.
(Methodist Church of Southern Africa, 2016, para. 1.23)
(Methodist Church of Southern Africa, 2016, para. 1.23)
However we approach this sacrament we respond in faith to Jesus words when he says:
This is my body that is for you. – Verse 24
This cup is the new covenant in my blood. – Verse 25a
This cup is the new covenant in my blood. – Verse 25a
Jesus then gives the command, which Paul is passing on again to the church:
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. – Verse 25b
Jesus seems to be instructing the church to do what he did. Give thanks and break the bread; repeat his words. Lift the cup and repeat his words. In so doing, Paul says “you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
The earliest communion was linked to the celebration of Passover. The bread and the wine spoken of as flesh and blood would remind the participants of the lamb that was slaughtered on the eve of the exodus, of the blood that was painted on door ways. Of God’s power in delivering the people. But the supper is transposed into the time of Jesus. A reminder of how Jesus was slain for us. A reminder of how we are saved by this action.
Communion thus comes to mean so much more than just bread and wine. It is about so much more than just whether this bread is the body and this wine is the blood. It becomes about knowing Christ died for us. And his death offers us life. When we ingest the bread and the wine we partake in his body and blood. We are inextricably connected.
According to Matthew, Jesus words are a little different; he says: “Poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28). Paul’s words are closer to Luke’s record of the last supper. Poured out for many reminds us that Jesus is the host at the table and it is up to Jesus to choose who he invites. Who are we to turn anyone away?
1 Corinthians 11:27-34
Partaking of the Supper Unworthily
27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. 30 For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. 34 If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come.
Unworthy Manner 27-28
Paul has already described what this ‘unworthy manner’ describes. It describes greed and division, insufficient attention to care and love and justice. He uses a strange turn of phrase: “answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.”
A reminder that our greed at this table is unacceptable. The ESV Study Bible offers this comment:
11:27 Unworthy manner probably refers to the incompatibility of the Corinthians’ divisive arrogance as compared to the sacrificial, others-oriented nature of Jesus’ death. A broader application of this principle would encourage believers to examine their own lives (see v. 28) and to repent and ask forgiveness for any unconfessed sin before partaking in the Lord’s Supper. guilty concerning the body and blood. Jesus’ body was broken and his blood shed for others. Thus the selfish behavior of the Corinthians is a sin against others, but it also represents a profaning disrespect for Jesus himself.
(Crossway, 2008: 1 Cor 11:27)
(Crossway, 2008: 1 Cor 11:27)
Togetherness is essential to communion. As we take communion it is important to ask ourselves if we have treated others in a way that makes us unworthy of the meal. It is a reminder, if celebrated weekly or monthly to live in a way that honours the presence of the body of Christ in us. Converted to energy that gives us the power to live. Not by bread alone but sustained by Christ’s love and power within us.
The solution Paul offers: “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink the cup.” (28)
We should follow the Psalmists advice –
19:12 But who can detect their errors?
Clear me from hidden faults.
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you..
Ps 139:23 Search me, O God,
and know my heart
test me and know my thoughts.
24 See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
Paul offers us more comfort: “But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged.” In this, Paul seems to agree with 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
When we take communion we should begin with heartfelt confession and self examination.
Drinking Judgment on Themselves 29-30
Paul’s words here are quite harsh. He attaches sickness, illness and even death to those who have not partaken of the meal in a worthy manner. Without ‘discerning the body’. This ‘discerning the body’ has a double meaning.
First: Recognizing in faith that this bread and wine is truly Christ’s flesh and blood in a deeply real symbolic sense. It reminds us of salvation, Christ’s service love and our dedication to that some way of love in life.
Second: Recognizing, as further raised in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that the gathering of the church is the body of Christ. To eat without really ‘seeing’ the body of Christ around us is to curse ourselves.
There are some practical ways in which this kind of behavior could lead to our illness and death. The first is that by disregarding the body we lose out on the help and healing they might have to offer. In the next chapter Paul will remind the church that some have the gift of healing. The Holy Spirit allots these gifts to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses (1 Cor 12:11). When we miss out on the whole body we miss out on the healing and health that Christ has to offer us.
Healthy participation of the whole body in the whole body of the people of Jesus is a holistically healing and renewing act. James also reminds those who are sick to ask for help:
14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.
- James 5:14-15
- James 5:14-15
First James insists that those who are sick should reach out to the ‘elders’ or responsible leaders in the church. Many who are sick don’t let anyone know but become irate when they weren’t visited. When the elders come they will ‘anoint with oil in the name of the Lord’. In the time of the early church oils and infusions were used as medicines. Community connection facilitated effective healing.
1 Corinthians 11:33-34
Paul closes with a lesson in basic table manners. A lesson we could all learn. And he promises, before he moves on to chapter 12 and 13 where he will emphasise the Spirit giftedness of every believer and the supreme gift of love, that he will give them further instruction the next time he sees them.
Sometimes. As you go and visit the sick. As you share communion; you won’t know exactly what to do – and Paul knows that he is leaving the community with some instructions and the capacity also to figure things out as they go. Figuring it out as you go is a part of the gift that the Holy Spirit has given you in guiding you in your ministry as a disciple of Jesus.
Crossway, E.B. by. 2008. ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway.
Methodist Church of Southern Africa. 2016. The Methodist book of order: the laws and discipline of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.
Saint Justin Martyr: First Apology. 90. [Online], Available: http://earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-firstapology.html [2018, June 05].
 transubstantiation. The theory of the Eucharist officially taught by the Roman Catholic Church. According to this view, during Communion the substance or essence of the bread and wine is miraculously transformed into the body and blood of Christ, even though the “accidents” (outward appearances) of the bread and wine remain the same.
 consubstantiation. The theory of the Lord’s Supper most closely associated with the Lutheran tradition. Martin Luther taught that the body and blood of the Lord is present “in, with and under” the actual bread and wine. This was in contrast to the Roman Catholic teaching of transubstantiation, which taught that the bread and wine were transformed into the real body and blood of Jesus upon their consecration by the presiding priest.