1 Corinthians 11:17-22
Now in this that I declare to you I praise you not, that you come together not for the better, but for the worse.…
Those who do, and those who do not, sit at this board, may alike wish to understand what it is to eat the Lord's Supper.
1. First, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper to make it a feast for the satisfaction of outward appetite. Into so low an estate, as we learn from Paul's rebuke, had it degenerated among the Corinthians. They may, indeed, have but imitated an earlier example, set in the depravity of human nature. It was a custom at Athens, in the age of Socrates, for each person coming to a feast to bring his own provision; not that, as in some later social festivals, he might add it to the common stock, but to feed on it by himself alone. No wonder the apostle said this was not to eat the Lord's Supper. It is upon something far different, even upon making a sensual feast of the Lord's Supper, that Paul lays his ban. They fancied, forsooth, they were eating the Lord's Supper because they came together in one place. Without hesitation he explodes the superstition, which, alas! has reached our own day, that any local sacredness of temple or altar made an act holy. The Lord's Supper was a showing forth of the Lord's death. The apostle's admonition is still instructive. Some, in our own age, have complained of the grave and serious manner of observing the Lord's Supper. They would have it more of a social and friendly feast. Surely, there should be no coldness round the Lord's table. Yet this table cannot furnish what is like any other feast, the dinner given to a hero, or even the family thanksgiving of kindred and friends, eating and drinking, in gay, though innocent, hilarity together. In the Lord's Supper is the presence of a spirit peculiar, awful in purity, as it is tender in love.
2. But the apostle's description shows again, that it is not eating the Lord's Supper to make it a mere form. Externally, no doubt, it is a form. But there are two kinds of forms, the dead and the living. The dead are those that have lost, or never had, life. The true form is the tree, that buds and blooms, to show in flower and fruit the hidden meaning which God set in its seed.
3. Once more, the meaning of our text shows that eating the Lord's Supper is not to make a profession of holiness. This is a very common mistake. Many are prevented from coming to the table by their reluctance to make such a profession. Yet, so far from being a profession of holiness, it is, in truth, the very opposite. It is a declaration of our not having attained what we desire, because so anxiously we use this means of attaining it.
4. Still, again, eating the Lord's Supper, as Paul describes it, is not to increase our moral obligations. Infinitely bound are we beforehand to love and serve God. Eating the Lord's Supper reminds us of our obilgations, and may assist us to fulfil them, but does not originally impose them, or add to their essential weight or number.
5. In fine, according to the mind of the apostle, eating the Lord's Supper is not swearing an oath. The Romish dogma, that the communicant eats the real flesh and drinks the real blood of Christ, and thus assumes a vow and performs a sacrament, such as men have sealed with awful ceremonies and signed in their heart's gore, is a fancy no less unscriptural than irrational, and contrary especially to the discourse of Christ. "The words that I speak unto you are spirit, and they are life." As much as to say, "It is no physical or literal meaning I intend by them, but a sense of spiritual, cordial communion with my own feeling and mind." So he stops their murmur at what they were at first inclined to think a hard saying. Let us now consider, more positively, what to eat the Lord's Supper is.
(1) First, as a showing forth of His death, it is the highest manifestation of the Divine love. So, in the Scriptures, the death of Christ, the sinless Son of God, is described. This meaning of the Lord's Supper, as the supreme sign of Divine love, let us now observe, falls in with all that is best in human thought and knowledge. It is a fact of singular and transcendent beauty, that all discovery, through all history, in all the world, has been but the gradual and ever cumulative discovery of the goodness of God. Now, all this scientific discovery of God's goodness is but a ladder to the highest point of that goodness revealed in the gospel, whose crown is in the death of Christ, and whose celebration is in the Lord's Supper. The Lord's Supper, as the great peculiar symbol of the spiritual fact, especially tells us that our Father is pure, essential love, in long-suffering and willingness to forgive. Nothing can refute its witness, that, when He chastens, it is still love, not hatred, that wields the scourge; and that His wrath to the wicked is but His kindness for their case.
(2) But, as eating the Lord's Supper is a recognition of this Divine love, it is, too, a corresponding expression of our own love. It should be regarded and observed in all the largeness and liberality of this idea. It was not meant by Christ, as it has been often made by man, to be a subtle, tormenting test, on minor points, of formal custom or intellectual opinion. But all the troublesome theories, arising or imposed, are, in the light of the new covenant itself, brought down to one which may indeed be sharper and stricter than any, or all beside, and to which those otherwise most rigid may give place. Do we love Jesus Christ?
(3) Furthermore, to eat the Lord's Supper, according to the universal law of exercise, is to increase the love it expresses. This law holds peculiarly of all true affections and right exertions. The waxing love for Christ is its highest illustration. It especially is a magnet whose use enhances its power. It is true our love for Christ is a spiritual love for a now spiritual being, whom our fleshly eye never saw, or mortal ear heard. So the love of the Master and the follower is no antiquarian tradition. Truly, of what worth is love, if not personal? This Christian love passes and repasses, with God's own spirit, the great conveyancer of all good things, like a dove through the air, and knits those who share it together. The feeling below tends to rise to the level of that from which it runs, on high.
(4) Eating the Lord's Supper, thus expressing and increasing our love, furthermore supplies the loftiest and most efficient motive to all duty. All our life, all earnest labour, flows out of our heart. We give all, by natural and inevitable consequence, to Him to whom we have first given our heart. Eating the Lord's Supper, therefore, while it may seem merely formal, is of all things most practical. It does not end as an exhibition or ceremony. It nerves to toil, endurance, and sacrifice, for the sake of God and humanity.
(5) In fine, the Lord's Supper, while thus empowering for earthly duty, prepares us for scenes beyond this passing world. Its shadow falls two ways, back into time, and forth into eternity. It wings the soul to fly in another atmosphere, beyond this grosser air. It is preparation for the world to come. It is making ready for the second coming of Christ. Shall we extend this principle of preparation in all that is palpably useful, no further, but let it stop with the brink of the grave? Taking but a step in our little footing in this world, shall we not receive that staff of the bread of life which helps us to take the next, the second step, beyond the grave? Ah! in its true sense and meaning, both for present support and coming exigencies, we need the Lord's Supper. All the ministrations of this world cannot satisfy our appetite, that immortal hunger and thirst with which God has made our souls to be hungry and thirsty.
(C. A. Bartol.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Now in this that I declare unto you I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better, but for the worse.