Self Examination, Discernment, and the Whole Lot of It!

December 5th, 2012 Post by

In answer to an Ask the Pastor on our sidebar:

Can we say that receiving communion in an unworthy manner (1 Cor 11:27, 29) is simply failure to discern the real presence of Christ’s body and blood (1 Cor 11:29)? If it is that alone, what is the examination of self (1 Cor. 11:28) that should precede or coincide with receiving communion? Does the saying, “let a man examine himself” mean simply to slow down, stop, and see whether I am discerning the real presence of Christ’s body and blood?

The short answer to this Ask the Pastor is a simple “no”. If you like short answers, then there you have it and you may go on to the next topic. My guess is, though, that this question of self examination is on the hearts and thoughts of many of us. It is a question, seemingly, of the Law (a “thou shalt”) and so our law-oriented DNA forces us to ponder whether we have kept this law or have transgressed it. To this we admit that surely at one point or another we have transgressed it, but that we are quite sure that we normally and usually keep it if for no other reason that we know that it is good to keep the law and we generally think of ourselves as good. We desire to know the height, depth, and width of this law so that we may in confidence say that we have indeed kept the law; we have examined ourselves as we ought.

This is how we approach all law questions. It is the question of the rich young man who asked the Lord, “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” (Mark 10:17) and the question of the scribe who asked the same (Luke 10:25). Whenever the Law presents itself we ask, “How do we keep it?” At first it is not a question of hopelessness. We do not first ask – as the rich young man and scribe did not – wringing our hands and shouting into the heavens at this impossible task. We first ask how we might keep the law by thinking – as did the rich young man and the scribe – that we have all things in order and are only needing verification or modification. It is when we realize that we cannot keep the law that we despair and either beg for mercy or turn from the lawgiver (James 4:12) in despair and hopelessness.

But that is not to say that asking such questions is bad. It’s not. It’s good, in fact. It is good because it allows the law to do its work. By asking questions of fulfilling the law we are, in fact, examining ourselves. It is good because by continuing to peer into the law is to continually be told why we need a Savior. The demands of the law cause us to beg mercy. It is only when we think that there will be an end to the examination, a final destination of the questioning that we begin to leave off examining and become confident and sure that we are doing as the law requires. Then we are not seeking to be right with God but rather to be right with the Law, which is to make the Law our God.

Okay. So what of St. Paul’s words about a person examining himself? Do they refer only to making sure we believe that Christ is truly present in the bread and wine, or is there more? Again with a short answer: there is always more.

Consider to whom the apostle is speaking. The Corinthian congregation was a congregation in turmoil, to say the least. Lots of gossiping, back stabbing, private meetings, vying for power, immorality, idolatry, and everything that goes with being a congregation of sinners pretending to be saints. It is a real wonder that St. Paul’s letter isn’t twice or even thrice as long as it is. But for our purposes we will zero in on chapter 11. St. Paul is writing to a congregation that is divided on worship. Can you believe it!? A congregation divided on worship! Unbelievable. At any rate, chapter 11 opens with the apostle commending the Corinthian congregation (finally, a commendation!) because they maintain the traditions as he had delivered them. (As a side, though not unimportant note, the physicality of worship must be considered as much our adherence to Scripture as our Sunday school lessons.) But in the instructions concerning the Lord’s Supper, the apostle refuses to commend them. They are asunder.

So what is the big divide concerning the Lord’s Supper? The apostle makes it clear what he sees is the abuse and desecration of this sacred meal: when the congregation comes together there are divisions (v. 18). But they are not the divisions of the first several chapters, the divisions of supremacy, what they can and cannot eat, rules with respect marriage, and so forth. The division is singular: some among them despise the church of God (v. 22).

The division is spelled out in verses 21-22: some refuse to share what they have and go on with their own meal, eating all the food and drinking all the wine so that they become drunk, while others who do not have (presumably the working class and poorer Christians) have nothing to eat or drink. This division, the rich hording what they have at the expense of the poor, Paul says is despising the church of God (v. 22). Those who eat and drink without sharing humiliate and despise their brothers and sisters who have nothing. St. Paul says that such divisions are necessary so that those who are genuine may be proved true. Those who are genuine share with those who have nothing, or they are those who have nothing who wait upon and depend upon their brothers who have to share with them. One is reminded of the Lord’s comment concerning the rich young ruler’s dejection at have to sell all he had and give to the poor: “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23).

The great sin that brought condemnation and rebuke to the Corinthians’ in regard to the Lord’s Supper is that they separated themselves according to who they were. The rich were the rich and the poor were the poor. Surely this is the scenario that St. James has in mind when he warns the congregations saying, “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:1-4)

St. Matthew wrote Jesus’ words that “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” St. Luke sharpened it by leaving of the qualifier “in spirit”. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).

So great and wicked is this division of the brothers that the apostle even says the unthinkable. He shockingly tells the Corinthians that it is not even the Lord’s Supper that they eat (v. 20)! This division of the saints is so great an evil that it bars them from the blessings of the very meal for which they gathered. Some will say that St. Paul most likely says this because the Corinthians had ceased to use the Verba, the Words of our Lord spoken over the bread and wine, and that this is why the apostle repeats the words of institution (the Verba) for the Corinthians. And maybe they had stopped using the words of our Lord. But the apostle doesn’t say that he will not commend the Corinthians because they don’t say the words of our Lord anymore, but because “in eating, each one goes ahead with his own mean. One goes hungry, another gets drunk … Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not” (1 Corinthians 11:21-22).

It is the separation of the congregation that brings the rebuke from the apostle. It is their separation and division, their despising of one another that causes them to eat and drink in an unworthy manner, denying them the very thing for which they gather: the supper of the Lord. So St. Paul repeats the formula he had received from the Lord. He reinstitutes, as it were, the Lord’s Supper among the Corinthian congregation. His precision is masterly. The Lord’s words in the mouth of the apostle bring home the wickedness of those who had despised their brothers: “This is my body which is for you (plural). Do this in remembrance of me … This cup is the new testament in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” The Lord is speaking to His gathering.

There is no question. This sacred meal instituted by our blessed Lord is for all of us. To divide the congregation is to divide the “for you”. It is to keep the Supper from those for whom our Lord gives it. Not only so, but the Supper is a common confession of the Lord’s death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again (v. 26). It is to be shared by all gathered and not kept for some and not for others.

After all this, after the apostle strongly, emphatically rebukes the Corinthians for their divisions of the brothers concerning this blessed meal, after he reinstates the Supper for its intended purpose – to declare the death and coming again of the Lord and the magnificence that the Lord’s body and blood are given for us – then the apostle says to the congregation, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).

Let a man (person) examine himself and so discern the body. To not discern the body is to despise the church of God.

Some (perhaps many) of my brothers will take issue with me here, but I see significance in the fact that the apostle says “discern the body” and not “body and blood”. I understand this to mean the body of Christ, the congregation, the church. Whoever does not discern, that is, whoever does not recognize and confess the body, the oneness of the body in Christ, eats and drinks judgment on himself. St. Paul’s language supports this (in my opinion).

Consider the apostle’s words. I have italicized the parts when body and blood, eats and drinks, and bread and cup are used together to highlight the one time when body is singled out.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.

No less than five times the two are used together. Only once does the apostle only mention the body; never only the cup. Some will say that the term “body” is synecdoche (a part mentioned for the whole) and includes discerning the blood, but why would the apostle do that here yet everywhere else go ahead and pen the words “drink,” “blood,” or “cup”? Why at this crucial point of discernment would he leave out that we must also discern the blood, i.e., the real presence? Or is the blood not as crucial to discern as the body? Of course not. Rather, it’s that the apostle is saying that a man must examine himself to see that he discerns that he is eating the body and drinking the cup of the Lord with the body.

In chapter 10 the apostle has already made clear that what we eat and drink is in fact the body and blood of Jesus when he writes, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16). There’s your proof that “is” means is. Then, as precursor to what we’ve been discussing, he writes, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of one bread.” (10:17). If we are one body because (not causality only but in confession as well) we eat of one bread, then the weight of chapter 11’s rebuke for the division of the body is all the more powerful. They have divided the very body of which they were made to be one by dividing themselves during the very meal that confesses and even creates their unity in the body!

Then, after chapter 11, when the apostle so powerfully and succinctly reminds and teaches that they are one body eating of one bread and drinking of the cup of the Lord, he says that their failure to discern the body is the reason many of them had fallen asleep (died) and were weak and ill. Division of the body causes harm to the body just like when your little toe hurts your whole body suffers. This sheds much light on the coming chapter (12) when the apostle compares the congregation, the body of Christ, to a physical body in which each part has a role and if one suffers all suffer.

Of all there disagreements, sins, defilements, misunderstandings, and misuses going on in Corinth, the thing that brings the sharpest condemnation and rebuke from the blessed apostle so that he says that it is not even the Lord’s Supper that they eat, is that they have divided the body of Christ with their greed and their hatred (11:22) of their brothers and sisters that make up the body. They have done the unthinkable, they have refused one another. If, though, they judged themselves, that is, if they discerned their error and repented, then they would not be judged by the Lord. But since they have not then the Lord has judged them and has disciplined them (11:32) so that they would not be damned along with the world.

The implications of this are staggering, to say the least. Far from simply discerning that, yes, this bread is the body of Jesus and this cup His blood, we are to know with whom we eat and drink: the body of Christ. When we come together we are to wait for one another (11:33). In the Corinthian context this simply means to wait for everyone to show up. If some are hungry, eat at home and be filled. You don’t come to eat for the body but to eat with the body for the unity of the body. As you might suspect, this has strong implications into our practices of closed communion and other communion practices. For now I would remind the reader that St. Paul is not writing to a congregation about visitors, but about itself. He nowhere suggests that the outsider be welcomed. And he already told them to expel the immoral. Closed communion is biblical, but it is more involved that just being a card carrying member of this or that denomination.

It is truly a great blessing that when we discern the body; when we see those for whom our Lord suffered and died and rose again. We see our brothers and sisters who share our faith, our burdens, and lean on us, coming with us to the table of the Lord, seeking His blessing, His forgiveness, His compassion, and His kingdom. Do not neglect to come together, but gather with the Lord who feeds His sheep. For where the body is, there the eagles will gather (to mix a few metaphors).


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  1. Dutch
    December 5th, 2012 at 10:03 | #1

    Question: would it be echt, to refuse the Lord’s Supper, if one is struggling w/issues (shall we say) in order to not, take it unworthily?

    -I was taught to, our kids were taught to (LCMS & WELS)

  2. December 5th, 2012 at 10:19 | #2

    @Dutch #1
    I am of the opinion, based on 1 Corinthians, that those who are unrepentant of their sin are not to share in the Lord’s Supper. This doesn’t mean – as it is often understood – that a person has to be aware of and so repent directly of every sin, who can discern his errors (Ps. 19:12)? It means that we live a life of repentance, always confessing our sinfulness and, when our conscience is attacked, confessing our specific sins (ie, private confession).

    But someone struggling with sin is not to be barred from the very thing that brings consolation and peace, the very gift of God Himself.

    This topic is broad and I believe our Synod has handled it all wrong, at least on the popular level. We have been taught, either directly or indirectly, that somehow we’re supposed to be as pure as we can be before we can receive the thing that makes us pure and assures us of God’s love for us, the body and blood of Jesus. Some people should be refused the sacrament. They are the unrepentant, the unbeliever (really the same thing). They are the God-haters and, to put it in terms of 1 Corinthians, those who hate the Church by their deeds. They are not those who struggle with sin.

    To take it unworthily, I argue in the post (along with denying Jesus’ words), is to deny the Body of Christ, the Church. I would say that an individual who is always causing problems and trouble for the congregation in voters’ assemblies and in general (the gossip chain, say) by his or her hateful and spiteful behavior is a better candidate for refusal than the homosexual who wants to be free of such at thing but can’t stop the onslaught of lust for what God has forbidden (which is what all sin is). The one acts in hatred toward others, the other hates his sin but cannot escape it, or at least struggles to do so.

  3. Dutch
    December 5th, 2012 at 12:17 | #3

    Thank you Pastor. I met a friend for coffee & we discussed this issue.

    Question: why do some holders of the Office, administer, if unrepentant sin is known by them?

    It didn’t used to be that way, why is it now?

  4. December 5th, 2012 at 12:39 | #4

    Dutch :
    Question: why do some holders of the Office, administer, if unrepentant sin is known by them?

    There may be a variety of reasons, but I would wager the chief reason is the weakness of both the pastor and the congregation. The pastor and congregation may not be happy with communing an unrepentant sinner, but they may not have the support (ala surrounding congregations, district, or synod) to do what needs to be done. Not to mention the family ties that congregations have. It is difficult to do this faithfully.
    Still, it needs to be done. We are to expel the immoral. Excommunication is a real thing. But I would wager that until the excommunicated can’t simply drive down to the sister church (LCMS or otherwise) and join there like nothing happened, this problem will never go away.

    Dutch :
    It didn’t used to be that way, why is it now?

    Most probably because no one wants to see their congregation fight and decline, and let’s face it, as mentioned above, with so many other congregations to choose from pastors and congregations tend to try and please people so they’ll stay.

    This language is pejorative, but I don’t think wrong. Our pastors and congregations need a lot of prayer and study in regard to church discipline. We think it’s all wrapped up in Matthew 18, but it’s not. We like to “put the best construction” and never judge, but we are called to judge (again, 1 Corinthians). Anyway, keep praying.

  5. December 5th, 2012 at 14:53 | #5

    It has been brought to my attention that the following paragraphs contain an exegetical error. I wrote:

    So great and wicked is this division of the brothers that the apostle even says the unthinkable. He shockingly tells the Corinthians that it is not even the Lord’s Supper that they eat (v. 20)! This division of the saints is so great an evil that it bars them from the blessings of the very meal for which they gathered. Some will say that St. Paul most likely says this because the Corinthians had ceased to use the Verba, the Words of our Lord spoken over the bread and wine, and that this is why the apostle repeats the words of institution (the Verba) for the Corinthians. And maybe they had stopped using the words of our Lord. But the apostle doesn’t say that he will not commend the Corinthians because they don’t say the words of our Lord anymore, but because “in eating, each one goes ahead with his own mean. One goes hungry, another gets drunk … Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not” (1 Corinthians 11:21-22).

    It is the separation of the congregation that brings the rebuke from the apostle. It is their separation and division, their despising of one another that causes them to eat and drink in an unworthy manner, denying them the very thing for which they gather: the supper of the Lord. So St. Paul repeats the formula he had received from the Lord. He reinstitutes, as it were, the Lord’s Supper among the Corinthian congregation. His precision is masterly. The Lord’s words in the mouth of the apostle bring home the wickedness of those who had despised their brothers: “This is my body which is for you (plural). Do this in remembrance of me … This cup is the new testament in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” The Lord is speaking to His gathering.

    The fault lies in my presentation of Paul telling the Corinthians that they did not have the Lord’s Supper. That isn’t accurate. The Greek says (the ESV is wrong) that they did not gather for the purpose of the Lord’s Supper. Their intent was not the Lord’s Supper. A reminder that I should always refer to the Greek, especially when presenting publicly.

    Sorry for the faulty exegesis.

    But the point still stands. They were not receiving the blessings of the Lord’s Supper. In fact, they were profaning the body and blood (proof that they did indeed have the Lord’s Supper) by their hatred and despising of their brothers and sisters who had nothing. They were certainly receiving the body and blood of Jesus in the bread and wine, but they were doing it to their judgment and not to their blessing.

    To re-write (abbreviated) the above paragraphs…

    So because their wickedness is so great, the apostle tells them that even though they gather, it is not for the Lord’s Supper that they gather but to feed their bellies. An equally strong, albeit significantly different point than I first made. This is the apostle’s rebuke against them and the reason he says they are profaning the body and blood because they were not discerning the body, the Church (a point my corrector disagrees with but which, my poor exegesis above aside, still stands).

    Moral of the story: never be afraid of correction; admit your mistakes.

  6. December 5th, 2012 at 18:28 | #6

    Is this something that is usually talked about in a Lutheran communion service before the administration of the elements?

  7. December 5th, 2012 at 19:04 | #7

    J. Dean :
    Is this something that is usually talked about in a Lutheran communion service before the administration of the elements?

    I’m not sure what you mean.

  8. December 5th, 2012 at 19:49 | #8

    Let’s start at the very beginning
    A very good place to start
    When you read you begin with

    Child (Gretyl):
    ABC

    I red through your well written post and the comments that have followed and wondered why?

    The Small Catechism

    by Martin Luther

    VI. The Sacrament of the Altar

    Who, then, receives such Sacrament worthily?

    Fasting and bodily preparation is, indeed, a fine outward training; but he is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: Given, and shed for you, for the remission of sins.

    But he that does not believe these words, or doubts, is unworthy and unfit; for the words For you require altogether believing hearts.

    The Large Catechism

    The Sacrament of the Altar

    In the same manner as we have heard regarding Holy Baptism, we must speak also concerning the other Sacrament, namely, these three points: What is it? What are its benefits? and, Who is to receive it? And all these are established by the words by which Christ has instituted it, 2] and which every one who desires to be a Christian and go to the Sacrament should know. For it is not our intention to admit to it and to administer it to those who know not what they seek

    http://bookofconcord.org/lc-7-sacrament.php#para8

    Epitome of the Formula of Concord

    8. We believe, teach, and confess also that there is only one kind of unworthy guests, namely, those who do not believe, concerning whom it is written John 3:18: He that believeth not is condemned already. And this judgment becomes greater and more grievous, being aggravated, by the unworthy use of the Holy Supper, 1 Cor. 11:29.

    19] 9. We believe, teach, and confess that no true believer, as long as he retains living faith, however weak he may be, receives the Holy Supper to his judgment, which was instituted especially for Christians weak in faith, yet penitent, for the consolation and strengthening of their weak faith [Matt. 9:12; 11:5. 28].

    20] 10. We believe, teach, and confess that all the worthiness of the guests of this heavenly feast is and consists in the most holy obedience and perfect merit of Christ alone, which we appropriate to ourselves by true faith, and whereof [of the application of this merit] we are assured by the Sacrament, and not at all in [but in nowise does this worthiness depend upon] our virtues or inward and outward preparations.

  9. December 6th, 2012 at 07:59 | #9

    @Mark Huntemann #8

    Mark, thanks for your citations (and compliment). I’d like to address your wondering why (if, in fact, you were writing for a response), but I need a little clarification. I’m not sure what you’re wondering why at. Are you wondering why I wrote the way I did, suggesting by your citations that I’m off the mark? Or are you wondering why the Confessions say what they say in light of my presentation of 1 Corinthians, or are you addressing one of the comments? In other words, why what?

    Faith does indeed make one worthy. Or, by faith we receive the sacrament in a worthy way. Faith in the words, “Given and shed for you.” But the “you” is plural. So while I believe that it is given and shed for me (the basics of the Small Catechism), I also believe that it is given and shed for my brothers and sisters for whom Christ died. If I deny this, that it is also for them, as the Corinthians were doing, then I am denying my brothers and sisters and hating the Church of God.

    Sorry if I’m misreading you.

  10. December 6th, 2012 at 10:56 | #10

    [The Rich Young Man]

    And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”

    And Jesus, looking at him, loved him,

    and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
    And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said,

    “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”

    (Mark 10:17-27 ESV)

    And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered,

    “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him,

    “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

    (Luke 10:25-28 ESV)

    What you have written above is correct.

    But for what?

    This answer is for a Lutheran who is very immature? He has to be to ask such a question.

    And you answer with this? Even a with a more mature Lutheran you should start with the basics and build from that foundation. I do not understand this mentality of jumping off the deep end of the Lutheran Doctrine pool when the situation calls for foundational Lutheran Doctrine?

    In short I do not understand why you went this way with your response to a basic Lutheran Question?

    Blessings to you and Your Loved Ones the Advent season IXOYC

    http://www.lutheransonline.com/lo/364/FSLO-1308359364-111364.pdf

  11. December 7th, 2012 at 08:17 | #11

    Before attempting to summarize and pose a follow-on question, first I wish to express intense gratitude for the labor of love this posting is. For all the bashing confessional pastors take about being hard nosed or whatever, see, only the confessionals take a question like the one answered here sincerely, and labor from pastoral love to answer it.

    So, on the question, and adding the answer of the posting to other answers that circulate and form part of the reason the question was asked, the candidates are:

    1. Discerning the body refers to recognizing the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament.

    2. Discerning the body refers to recognizing all congregants as equally parts of the body of Christ, particularly disregarding class, station, and worldly condition.

    3. Examining oneself refers to checking that we discern the real presence.

    4. Examining oneself refers to checking that we discern all congregants as equally parts of the body of Christ.

    5. Examining oneself refers to checking some other spiritual qualifier or disqualifier of eating and drinking worthily, there being a sublist of what those qualfiers and disqualifiers might be, e.g.,

    a. Whether we come to the sacrament with repentence, conceived of as being contrition and faith.

    b. whether we come to the sacrament with repentence, conceived of as being amendment of life or sincere intent to amend life.

    c. whether we come to the sacrament unreconciled to someone.

    d. whether etc., etc., etc.

    QUERY: Do we recognize all congregants as equally parts of the body of Christ without recognizing the real presence of the body and blood with the bread and wine? In what relation do these two recognitions stand to one another?

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