This essay comes with a text, I Corinthians 11:17-34 (for clarity I will use the RSV).
“But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you assemble as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and I partly believe it, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you meet together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.] Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another --if any one is hungry, let him eat at home -- lest you come together to be condemned. About the other things I will give directions when I come.”
Earlier this week I pointed out that our Book of Common Prayer tradition does not require intellectual assent to a specific theory about how Christ is present in the Sacrament, but instead lays out specific requirements in the Invitation to the General Confession. The General Absolution, spoken only by a priest, lays out conditions, most notably “hearty (sincere) repentance and true faith.” Among the requirements in the Invitation we see that the communicant must be “in love and charity” with his neighbors (Matthew 5:23, 24).
As I look out at the general mindset of our own people, I wonder if we have the right priorities about how we are to receive this sacrament. I even fear that some novice priest somewhere is adding conditions from his own mistaken notion about the “teaching of the Church” from an imagined Canon of something he calls the Tradition. Perhaps he embraces a theory, like Roman Transubstantiation, or Lutheran Consubstantiation, or something less defined except in his own understanding. Perhaps he thinks that he should not communicate any person who fails to share his own understanding of the Sacrament.
I would challenge such a novice priest (perhaps such a perpetually novice priest) to show me in Scripture a clear definition of his theory set forth as revelation, or to demonstrate that any of the Ecumenical Councils ever laid down any definition. Sacraments are Mysteries (from the word Mysterion), and no one actually knows how the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. Whatever devotions you direct to the Sacrament, remember that it is a mystery beyond your comprehension. But, never forget that it is no “bare sign,” and therefore is not effectual, in terms of grace, until you eat and drink it with faith (John 6:54).
Nonetheless, I must challenge the whole idea that St. Paul’s concern in the above text is about any theory of Real Presence. It is obvious that St. Paul regards the elements to be both bread and wine, and Christ’s Body and Blood at the same time. But, when he speaks of discerning the Lord’s Body, or rather of failure to do so, look at the context. The context is more about being “in love and charity” with your neighbors than it is about your theological understanding of the Sacrament. A person may have the best humanly possible understanding of the Sacrament, but fail to discern the Lord’s Body by harboring resentment or by mistreating members of the Body of Christ. Another may have no proper understanding of Christ’s Real Presence in the Sacrament, may even confuse it with a “bare sign” through honest ignorance, and yet receive it with “hearty repentance and true faith” walking in love and charity. It is that ignorant man who better discerns the Lord’s Body than the other.
Look at the context. What immediately follows this text about unworthy reception of the Lord’s Body and Blood? What immediately follows it is the twelfth chapter, about the Church as the Body of Christ, and gifts of the Spirit in the various members of Christ’s Body. And, the context of that must include the famous chapter thirteen that follows. The great chapter on Charity (the love of God) was a stinging prophetic style rebuke to selfish Corinthian Christians, however much we may try to make sweet, sweet music of its words.
I do not fear that our people are receiving the Sacrament without some appreciation for Christ’s Real Presence at the altar. I do fear that some of our people do, even with that appreciation, fail to discern the Lord’s Body. If you cannot love Christ in your brothers and sisters, if you do not see Him in His Body the Church, it doesn’t matter at all if you appreciate His presence in the Sacramental elements.
Why did St. Paul begin by reminding them of the Lord’s betrayal? We even use those words in our service straight from this very text: “The night in which He was betrayed…” What is it, but betrayal of Christ Himself, to mistreat the members of His Body the Church? Be it by selfishness, by gossip, by sinful and willful alienation, the lack of charity makes one unworthy to receive. Such a person may have the soundest and best understanding, but it profits him nothing. He is not in love and charity with his neighbors, and therefore not ready to receive the Sacrament he may so deeply understand – he may even understand all mysteries; it profits him nothing.