During our Sunday Eucharist liturgy walk through this past Sunday at 9:30am, someone asked an important question: “How should we ‘examine ourselves’ when we come to the Lord’s Table?”
The question arises from a direct quote of St. Paul from his correspondence to the Corinthians. Here is the injunction in its entire context (emphasis mine):
Now I don’t praise you as I give the following instruction because when you meet together, it does more harm than good. First of all, when you meet together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and I partly believe it. It’s necessary that there are groups among you, to make it clear who is genuine. So when you get together in one place, it isn’t to eat the Lord’s meal. Each of you goes ahead and eats a private meal. One person goes hungry while another is drunk. Don’t you have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you look down on God’s churches and humiliate those who have nothing? What can I say to you? Will I praise you? No, I don’t praise you in this.1 Corinthians 11:17-22
A few verses later, St. Paul continues, about eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper inappropriately.
This is why those who eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord inappropriately will be guilty of the Lord’s body and blood. Each individual should test himself or herself, and eat from the bread and drink from the cup in that way. Those who eat and drink without correctly understanding the body are eating and drinking their own judgment. Because of this, many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few have died. But if we had judged ourselves, we wouldn’t be judged. However, we are disciplined by the Lord when we are judged so that we won’t be judged and condemned along with the whole world. For these reasons, my brothers and sisters, when you get together to eat, wait for each other. If some of you are hungry, they should eat at home so that getting together doesn’t lead to judgment. I will give directions about the other things when I come.1 Corinthians 11:27-34
Do you see the problem to which Paul is responding?
His command to ‘examine yourself’ is situated in a very specific issue, namely: there are divisions in the church in Corinth. Some (scholars suppose it is the wealthy) are arriving at the gathering before others (presumably the poor, those who had to work during the day) and devouring all the food. Getting drunk, even. This created divisions in the Body of Christ which is why Paul says to ‘understand (or discern)’ the Body… and if we don’t we are flirting with death.
All this to say, the call to examine ourselves at the Lord’s Table is about unity and peace and solidarity among those gathering at the Lord’s Table. This is why our corporate confession, and especially the passing of the peace, is vital to being faithful as we ‘discern the Body.’
To sum up: there is nothing untoward about confessing private, personal sins before coming to Eucharist. But ‘examine yourselves’ is a corporate call to the church in Corinth to actually be the Body of Christ in their everyday, communal lives together.
Let us endeavor, then, to honor each other, weak and strong, outdoing each other in showing honor, respect, and love. Let us seek the betterment of others, renounce our own gain, being united in one heart and one mind in Christ.
Yours in Christ,