She was frustrated. I could see it clearly. She rolled her eyes almost imperceptibly. But I saw the tell-tale sign of a ministry wife who was ready to go home after worship, as she looked past me at her ministry husband. He was in a deep and lengthy conversation with a man who needed some time and encouragement from him. But she was ready to go. “I just want to go home,” she confided. It seemed that she felt it was a bit of a betrayal even to admit as much. But there she was. Tired. Frustrated. Trying to corral hungry and rambunctious kids. She wanted to go home.
Years before I had been sharing with some brother pastors the challenge I was experiencing in being faithful when administering the Lord’s Supper. That sacrament is such a blessing. It is also something that may be abused. Rigid hard liners make a simple rule: If you’re not a member, don’t come. No exceptions. No ambiguity. Cavalier communers go to the other extreme: Come on down. No need to examine yourself. No need to discern the body. Come on down and eat and drink.
I’m not at home in either group. I was lamenting this conundrum when a wise older pastor said something that really helped.
When St. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth he laid out a number of abuses facing the church there. In fact, I love to point out that if you feel bad about your local church just read 1 Corinthians. They had trouble with factions within the church, marriage and sexual behavior, lawsuits, the gifts and work of the Holy Spirit, proper worship, the role of women, and the Lord’s Supper – to name just a few!
When Paul gets to the issue of the Lord’s Supper he is blunt. “I have no praise for you as I instruct you in the following matter: When you gather, it results in more harm than good” (1 Corinthians 11:17). This is a stunning statement. We might too quickly pass over it. Paul is saying that it would be better if the church had not gathered to celebrate the Lord’s Supper at all rather than abuse it as they were doing. Some were getting drunk. Others were ignoring guests. Still others were feasting in the presence of those who had little or no food at all. He goes on to say, “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1 Corinthians 11:18-19).
Factions. Finger-pointing. Foolishness! I take verse 19 as sarcasm on Paul’s part. I am not joined by many commentators in this reading, but it makes sense to me. Paul is so angry that he is belittling them: You’ve got to point the finger at each other showing that you’re right and your brother is wrong You’re doing it at the same time! It’s like two kids each denying that their petty fighting had overturned the lamp in the living room, each claiming it was the other’s fault. The Corinthians’ finger-pointing and faction-choosing foolishness makes me shake my head.
Thankfully we are not left with this conflict unresolved. Paul points them to what really the Lord’s Supper is all about. Here we participate in the body and blood of Christ. We proclaim his death until he comes. We examine ourselves and come in humble repentance to receive the gift of God and re-member Jesus’ suffering and death. That must be our focus.
A young newly-confirmed girl visited a Mormon Sunday meeting at which they observed what they call the “Sacrament.” In that case it was bread and water passed down the rows of pews. She rightly did not partake. That proved to be the correct decision by what happened when she quietly – and without making a scene – simply passed the trays of bread and water to the person next to her. Someone behind her in a stage whisper said, “Sinner!”
Ugh. So right and so wrong. We’re all sinners, and in need of God’s grace and mercy. But so wrong on the part of that whisperer: the sacrament of Jesus’ body and blood is given and shed for sinners! When we come to the Lord’s table, we are saying we are sinners. We need God’s mercy and forgiveness. That’s who this meal is for: sinners. Repentant sinners to be sure. Sinners who believe Jesus’ words without a doubt.
To be cavalier about this meal is to fail recognize it for what it is. To shut people out for for the sake of easy-answer legalism is no better. This is a meal instituted by Christ for us Christians to eat and to drink. To be faithful in its administration is a task not to be taken lightly.
Back to the wise older pastor’s comment to me. As I was expressing my frustration with trying to be faithful without falling into the ditch on either side of the road – too open, or too restrictive – he said, “Well Dave, that’s the price of bearing the cross.” Those were powerful words for me. I could do that for Jesus’ sake. I realize that it’s nothing compared to the actual cross of Jesus. Don’t get me wrong. There is no moral equivalence here. But there is a taste of what Jesus calls his followers to do. We are to be willing to do the difficult thing for the sake of Jesus and his Gospel message.
That day, as the ministry wife looked past me to her ministry husband and told me she just wanted to go home, I offered this thought to her. The only reason you’re waiting here, not breaking in and saying, ‘It’s time to go,’ is because of Jesus’ love in you and for you, your husband, and that person with whom he’s talking. Think of this as bearing the cross in a small way.
I believe it helped her. I certainly hope so. For there is no other good reason to put ourselves out for others than for the sake of Jesus and his love. We can do it because we don’t want to embarrass ourselves by making a scene. Not a very good reason. We can do it because we’re afraid of the repercussions to ourselves or our loved ones: If I don’t do this I’ll get fired, they’ll make my life miserable, they’ll make fun of me, they’ll call me a wimp… None of those will stand the test of our conscience.
If we do anything for the sake of Jesus, we are fulfilling a calling he gave. Some have gone to their deaths for the sake of Jesus. Most of us will have opportunities to do the smaller things, like being patient, helping someone when it’s not convenient, or suffering unjustly while maintaining a good attitude (cf. 1 Peter 3:13-17). That’s when Jesus’ words come true in our very lives and we discover how precious his promises truly are. Those who take that seriously will not forfeit their souls. They know their souls have been saved by the ransom Jesus gave for them.
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul?” – Mark 8:34-37