Communion is an extremely important event for Christians, or at least it should be. Jesus tells us that it’s something we ought to do in remembrance of him, and many faith traditions believe that there is a very real, but mystical means of grace which is manifested in the meal. Our church, and many other churches in our denomination, partake of communion weekly, as we strongly value the mystical bond of communion, not only in its binding of us to Christ, but in the way it binds the community together.
The New Testament takes communion very seriously as well. In fact, it is so serious that Paul viewed it as a life and death matter. In I Corinthians 11 Paul declares that some people have “fallen asleep,” (i.e. died) because they participated unworthily in communion. While most pastors don’t go around scaring people away from taking communion with the threat of death, most churches do remind partakers that the matter is considered a very serious one. In light of this, participants are often reminded and encouraged to examine themselves before God and repent of sins prior to taking communion. I think this is a great practice and a somber reminder to reflect on our lives and the work of God. However, it seems quite apparent that this concept of general reflection and general repentance misses much of the weight of Paul’s admonishment.
New Testament Judgment
I could only think of two instances in the New Testament where God judges Christians through death. The first instance, from Acts, was when Ananias and Sapphira are killed. The only other Christ followers I can think of which die as a result of judgment are the believer(s) who died as the result of improperly taking communion.
When God judges Ananias and Sapphira, it seems to many of us like God is just having a bad day. I mean, what they do doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, right? They just deceive in regard to how much money they are giving to the church. Surely the man who continues having sex with his step mom in I Corinthians 5 is more worthy of death than Ananias and Sapphira who just tell a little white lie once. Now, the Bible doesn’t fill in a ton of details in regard to this situation, but we do know that the early church in Acts was pooling resources on a voluntary basis in order to provide for the community. In fact, Acts notes that “there were no needy among them,” a seeming fulfillment to Deuteronomy’s observation that there should be no poor among God’s people. Taking care of one another – especially the poor – was central to the church. So why was God so upset with Ananias and Sapphira? I don’t know exactly, but lying in regard to their care and concern for fellow brothers and sisters seems to at least be a significant part of the issue. God takes justice towards the poor and oppressed very seriously.
What’s interesting about the I Corinthians 11 passage is that we see a similar theme. Paul declares that some have been judged in death because of improperly taking communion, but he also explicitly declares what the sin was which brought on judgment. He tells us that the wealthy/privileged were creating divisions in which they would party on at the feast while they had brothers and sisters who were going hungry and being separated from the revelry of the well-to-do. Paul declares this as the sin in view, and even emphasizes his point at the end of the chapter by reminding everyone that when they eat, they are to do so together. Paul is not declaring that there is some kind of general repentance we ought to do prior to taking communion, though that is a good and wise thing to do. Rather, Paul is declaring that some sins, specifically factionalization and favoritism (also seen in James and elsewhere) is an anathema to God.
Please don’t misunderstand me here. I am not at all saying that we shouldn’t reflect and repent prior to taking communion. My point is rather to say that the issue which seems to bring about the most judgment in the New Testament is the rending apart of the body. False teachers are severely condemned as well as the Judaizers who create factions with their teaching. But when we talk about favoritism and class divisions, God shows us that he will release the floodgates of judgment like we don’t see him do for any other sin in the New Testament. And really, this isn’t just a New Testament thing. If you start looking for issues of justice, division, and favoritism in the Old Testament, you will find it to be one of God’s most hated sins. God hates injustice, especially towards the disadvantaged by the advantaged.
The American Table
Upon reading this, we may feel very comfortable in that these divisions likely don’t happen in our churches. Everyone is welcome at our tables, in theory. We don’t prevent any professing Christian in good standing from partaking with us on Sunday morning. We don’t feign generosity or show favoritism when the table is served. All are simultaneously served, and all simultaneously eat together. But is that openness and simultaneity really because our table is truly open and available, or because we have divided the church and hindered access Monday through Saturday? Have we hindered unity and fostered class distinction by choosing where we live, by choosing to value our preferences over sacrifice, and by choosing to structure our staff or build our churches where we did and in the fashion we did? Why does the homogeneous faction at my table look completely different than the homogeneous faction at a table in the city ten minutes down the road, and why do many in each of those churches commute past each other to a farther place of worship? Why do many of us travel to churches twenty minutes away when we have gospel preaching churches only five minutes away and more connected to the community in which we live? Is really true that my church doesn’t have factions, or is my church devoid of factions simply because it is itself one large faction?
As I have listened to the stories and the cries of minority brothers and sisters throughout the past several years, I have come to struggle more and more with Paul’s warning in regard to communion. When my brother has something against me, ought I not to go to him and resolve the problem before bringing my sacrifices to the altar of God, or before partaking in the sacrifice of the perfect One? But that’s not what I, nor most of the churches I know of have done. Instead, we have denied our factionalism. Indeed, we have justified factions as mere preferences. As American individualists it’s hard not to imagine living out one’s preferences as freedom, and unity in diversity as constraint. In our idolization of “freedom,” we have refused repentance leading to godly action. We have taken the body of Christ which was broken for us in order to make us whole, and have ourselves broken his body again through the fracturing of his people. We have taken the blood of Christ poured out for us as a sacrifice of reconciliation, and have made it instead an oblation unto self-centeredness and comfort, widening the gap of alienation. And with each drop of blood we unworthily consume, our cups fill up unto judgment – a judgment which, without repentance, is assured.
God’s Word provides us with some serious considerations in regard to communion and community. The Word Himself provides us with some serious considerations as to what it means to be reconciled through the laying down of our lives. God wants us to partake of his body and blood, but only if we are being his body, broken for others, and shedding our blood for the reconciliation of the factions our world tempts us to embody. Unity in diversity is not a social justice issue, it’s an issue core to soteriology, ecclesiology, and missiology. What are we saved unto? Sanctification and unity in the body. Who is the church? A borderless Kingdom composed of the nations of the world from every tribe, tongue, and nation. What is our mission? To be ambassadors and conquerors for a God who is making the nations his footstool.
God takes unity and justice seriously and we should too, because if we say we love God and are not loving our brothers and sisters – all of them – we are liars, like Ananias and Sapphira. That definition of love cannot merely be conceptual, but as James says about faith, so also our love must be proven through our works and actions. Actions are inseparable from love, as Jesus himself acknowledges. If we love God, we will keep his commandments. God is love and God is truth. He does not like it when we are imposters, especially when we imposters transgress both of these traits, lying to others and ourselves that we are love.