Silver trays, clean hands, fresh bread, sterile cups, and a well-ordered room may be just a few of the things that keep us from seeing how messy the Lord’s Supper is. And how the Lord’s Supper is for messy people.
Think about it. The cross of Christ was invented to be the most horrendous bodily experience known to man. It is reported that spectators sometimes vomited as they watched the crucifixion. One account describes the physical effects of the cross this way.
Naked and embarrassed, the victims would often use their remaining strength to seek revenge on the crowd of mockers who had gathered to jeer them. They would curse at their tormenters while urinating and spitting on them. Some victims would become so overwhelmed with pain that they would become incontinent, and a pool of sweat, blood, urine, and feces would gather at the base of their cross (Death by Love, 25).
In Jesus’ case, we know he did not use his remaining hours to malign his accusers. Rather, he prayed for those who killed him; he granted pardon to the thief next to him; he cared for the mother who had once caressed him; and he prayed to the God who was abandoning him. In all of these ways, Jesus’ death was wholly other. And yet, his body beaten and bleeding, lacerated and lashed to the cross, was a mess.
From what we know of crucifixions at the time, Jesus’ “cross was likely already covered in the blood of other men. Timber was so expensive that crosses were recycled; therefore, Jesus’ blood mixed with the layers of blood, sweat, and tears of countless other men who had walked that same path before him” (ibid.). All in all, Christ’s crucifixion was anything but a sanitary affair.
Pure and holy? Absolutely!
Clean and sterile? Hardly!
Making a Mess of the Lord’s Supper
Fast forward to our present age. Obeying the Lord’s command to remember his death by taking the Lord’s Supper, it’s possible we miss the messiness of the cross. Certainly, in our germ-free age, we wouldn’t conceive of recycling half-eaten bread. And in honor of our Lord, we rightly vacuum the carpets, wash the linens, and sterilize the trays. Nevertheless, with such a pristine table setting, I wonder if we wrongly perceive the meaning of the Lord’s Supper?
First Corinthians 11:27–32 says,
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. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
In reading these sobering words, Christians are right to pause and ask: Am I worthy to eat the Lord’s Supper? The warning is given to those Corinthians who ate and drank to their own condemnation. This may mean unbelievers who have no share in Christ, or it could be believers who took the Lord’s Supper while reserving the right to divide themselves from others in the family of faith (cf. 1 Cor 1:10; 3:1–9). Either way, the seriousness to which Paul assigns to the Lord’s Supper goes so far as to say that some have become sick, and others have died, because they mingled God’s holiness with their unbelief.
Seeking to honor this word, Christians may at times feel it is necessary to abstain from the Lord’s Supper. And there may be a good reason for this. However, such abstinence also exposes the content of a person’s heart. It is possible that such decision to abstain indicates a good desire to reconcile with someone and that such reconciliation cannot happen before the plate is passed. In such a case, abstinence is motivated by eating the Lord’s Supper rightly, and the sinner seeks to be at peace with his brother as soon as he can so the two of them can take the meal together.
There may be another motive at work though. Some who abstain from the Lord’s Supper may do so indefinitely. Feeling the pinch of Paul’s words, they don’t want to eat in an unworthy manner. Yet, also feeling no compulsion to be reconciled, they simply put off the Lord’s Supper until their conscience is passively assuaged. They may reason that since no one is saved by the Lord’s Supper, they need not concern themselves with missing the Lord’s Supper. Yet, to make such a judgment is to miss the spiritual carnage that takes place when a believer insists on withholding themselves from the Lord’s Table. The Lord gave his meal to his people so that we would know the joy of finding unity with him and with brothers and sisters in the Lord.
The Lord’s Supper is the Sinner’s Mess Hall
Indeed, it is here that the messiness of the cross must reinterpret the messiness of our lives. I fear that too often Christians believe that the thrust of Paul’s command to “examine ourselves” (1 Cor 11:28) results in Christians who feel the need to clean themselves up before they come to the table. After all, the table setting is served on fine china and offered by men in suits. Those who come with blood on their hands or sin in their hearts ought not to come, so they reason. But this is to turn the good news of the gospel into a system of works.
The Lord’s Table does demand our holiness, but the gospel which it proclaims (11:26) tells us that holiness comes from the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ. In other words, we do not come to the table to present ourselves as holy. We come as sinners confessing our sin, receiving into our hearts and mouths the testimony of Christ’s death in our place and the assurance that all who have trusted in Christ are unified with him and with all those who confess his name.
It is for this reason that the Lord’s Supper functions as the monthly membership renewal of the church. It requires members who sin against each other, hurt one another, and struggle to bear with one another to confess that ultimately what defines their union is not their preferences or heroes, but the broken body of Jesus and the cleansing blood of his sacrifice. In this way, the Lord’s Supper is a meal for messy people. Figuratively, the Lord’s Supper is the saints mess hall.
Jesus Became a Mess So That We Could be Made Clean
Christ knew what he was doing when he died on the cross. He was not simply offering salvation to the world; he was providing sanctification for his church. And in the life of the church, nothing has the power to bring about purification for messy people like the Lord’s Supper. It requires us to examine ourselves and confess that we have no right to approach his table, but in that confession we find hope. The table set with bread and juice does not portray honor and integrity. It depicts shame and misery. On the cross, Jesus became sin for us. Unrobed of his honor, he was made a mess, so that he could reach down into the mire of our lives and make us clean.
Though set with silverware, the Lord’s Table does not require self-sanctified hearts or self-sanitized hands. It invites sinners smudged with anger, malice, lust, and greed to come again to Jesus, to be washed by his word and made ready to eat. The prophet Isaiah tells us to come and eat freely and that is what the Lord’s Supper offers.
It is a meal for those who know their need, who confess their sin, who see in the elements the Lord of their salvation, and who with eyes on those around them see brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, crazy uncles and tired aunts who are all a mess, but washed clean by the mess Jesus made on his bloody cross.
Friends, this is the uncomfortable good news that God offers to us. It strips us naked from the fig leaves of respectability and offers in their place the robe of Christ’s righteousness.
As we prepare for the Lord’s Supper this Sunday, may we not come clothed in our righteousness, but rather confessing the mess of our sin and our circumstances may we hunger for Christ and the righteousness and life he offers. I will meet you at the table to confess our trust in Christ together!
Soli Deo Gloria, ds