This morning was our monthly Communion service, and as members of the congregation came forward to receive the elements symbolising the sacrifice that our Lord Jesus Christ made when His body was broken and His blood was shed as He hung on that cross so that we can be delivered from the penalty for sin, I began to think (as I often do) about those words in 1 Corintians 11: 27-29 (NLT) -
So if anyone eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily, that person is guilty of sinning against the body and the blood of the Lord. That is why you should examine yourself before eating the bread and drinking from the cup. For if you eat the bread or drink the cup unworthily, not honouring the body of Christ, you are eating and drinking God's judgement upon yourself.
What does it mean to "[eat] this bread or [drink] this cup of the Lord unworthily"? Does one have to be a member of the Church? Do you have to be "confirmed"? And in asking these questions, are we not putting ourselves in a position whereby we, rather than God, judges people to be "unworthy"?
Let me share a few of my own thoughts on what it does or does not mean to eat or drink "unworthily". Firstly, I don't believe that one needs to be a member of the Church in order to receive Communion. James Baker, my previous minister, always used to announce at Communion: "This table is not the exclusive preserve of the Methodist Church - it is open to all who love the Lord".
This statement is one of inclusivity, leaving the door open for any visitor or "adherent" (a fancy Methodist term for those who have some affiliation to the Methodist Church, e.g. by being parents of Sunday School children, but have not made formal application for membership) to come forward and receive Communion. Whether or not such person "loves the Lord" is for them - not the minister or stewards - to judge.
Is it "unworthy" for children to receive Communion? While there are many who will disagree with me on this one, I believe that children should be allowed - in fact, encouraged - to receive the Lord's Supper. By excluding children, I believe that the message that we are sending out to them is "you don't belong to God yet. You will only belong once you are confirmed".
My own son James, who turns 10 in April, related to me - with a great deal of concern, I might add - a Communion service that he attended some months back. The minister officiating at this particular service was of the "old school" who didn't believe that children should receive Communion. My tearful son said afterwards, "But 'Big James' (his form of address for our own minister) always said that those who love the Lord can receive. I've loved the Lord for as long as I can remember. Why was I turned away?"
God help us - what could my son's attitude towards church have become if I wasn't able to explain that some ministers follow a different tradition to others, and that it was nothing personal. A difficult task, considering that I disagree with the exclusion of children, coupled with the fact that my son's understanding of why we receive Communion is probably more theologically sound than that of many so-called "grown-up's".
Young Matt Bentley's bedtime prayer (as related on Wessel Bentley's blog a couple of months ago), in which he thanked God "for the bread and juice at church" that evening, is to me a shining example of the child-like faith that our Lord expects from us. Even if young Matt perhaps doesn't know the finer theological points of the Lord's Supper, his thankful heart could not be more "worthy" of celebration at the Lord's table than this!
I also don't believe that it is "unworthy" for a genuine seeker of God to receive Communion. When I was about 16, I had become a "member" of the Methodist Church (by virtue of having been confirmed), but unlike the words written on my confirmation certificate, I had not "made a public confession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ". Sure, I had uttered the words during a service, but the reality of knowing Jesus (as distinct from knowing about Him) only happened nearly two years later.
But in the meantime, I was going up for Communion each month. And every time I knelt at the rail, my prayer was along the lines of "Lord, I don't actually understand what this is all about, but I ask that You reveal Yourself to me through this act of worship". This is perhaps not the type of theological understanding that would have got me through any examinations, but I believe that it is an example of God's "prevenient grace" that prepared my heart to eventually come into a relationship with Jesus as Lord and Saviour of my life.
Receiving Communion in an "unworthy manner" would be when we take it lightly. When we are holding a grudge against another. When we have committed some known sin of which we have not repented. Or, as Paul was pointing out to the Corinthian church, when we seek to share in the Lord's Supper when we are not prepared to share of our own material belongings with others who are in need.
Verse 26 tells us that "every time [we] eat this bread and drink this cup, [we] are announcing the Lord's death until He comes again". We are therefore to examine ourselves to ensure we are right with God and our fellow human beings, so that through the act of Communion, we can "honour the body of Christ".
But that examination, I believe, must come from within. Unless someone's Church membership has been suspended - a drastic action requiring the sanction of the District Bishop - none of us have the right to judge whether or not someone is "worthy" to partake in Communion.
Who knows what might have been if I was "barred" by someone else from receiving Communion? Is it possible that I may not have been serving God today? Heaven help me if I should ever seek to exclude someone else from receiving of God's grace - their blood may well be on my hands when I stand before God's judgment seat one day!