Self-examination for the Lord’s Supper

“Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Cor 11:28). 

The last time I sat an exam was in May 2008. It was a good feeling saying goodbye to exams. While some people do better than others, exams are associated with stress, whether it’s your driving test, or a Grade 7 piano exam. We can all remember the pressure, and the butterflies in the stomach. So, if I told you that God wants you to sit an exam every time you hear the Lord’s Supper announced in the notices, it might make you uncomfortable. Maybe it sounds anxiety inducing. Isn’t this going to turn the Lord’s Table into an experience of dread, rather than delight? Is Jesus really assigning me spiritual exams every fortnight of my Christian life?! 

But, as we receive this homework, notice two things about it: 

i) This is self-examination. The elders aren’t examining you. Your friends aren’t scoring you. Your mum and dad aren’t marking your answers. You mark your own answers to this test. The results of this homework won’t be displayed on a wall at church to compare yourself with others. If you cheat, no one else in church will be able to pull you up. If you skip this exam, no one else will even know – just you and the Lord. 

ii) This exam doesn’t have a pass/fail mark. We don’t sit this exam to see if we’re going to eat. That’s often how we understand it, I think. In our heads, we’re scared that, given the week we’ve had, we’re going to flunk the exam, and so be barred from the table. But the picture isn’t that if you score under 50%, you sit the supper out, whereas top scorers can go ahead. Paul says: “Let a person examine himself… and so eat”. The point of this exam is to clear the way to partaking. This exam is designed to help you eat and drink. It’s more like checking the tyre pressure and oil on your car before a long drive.

In the previous verse, Paul talks about partaking in an “unworthy manner” (v.27). Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s possible to merit and deserve admission to the Table. You can’t make yourself “worthy”. So, eating in an unworthy manner describes inadequate, inappropriate eating, which is unsuited to the sacrament. It’s an eating that is not in harmony with the meaning of the sacrament (see v.21). 

So, what do I have to do to “pass” this exam? I have to check that I know three things: 

– I need to know I’m guilty. Self-righteous people “fail” this exam. Do I know that I deserve hell? Not just for stuff in my past, but even stuff in my Christian life. 

– I have to check I know God’s grace comes to me in Jesus Christ alone. Am I confident that my friend Jesus has aced the exam set by God’s holy law? Do I know he’s passed that exam for me? 

– I have to be ready and willing to express my gratitude to God. To take the bread and wine comes with obligations. Am I loving God by obeying his commandments? Am I loving my brothers and sisters at church, and my neighbour as myself? Where I’m being disobedient, am I willing to change? This isn’t about my perfection, but about my willingness and openness to be changed by Jesus. Finger-crossing and reservations about whole-hearted obedience are a problem. 

This is a happy kind of homework. This is the exam Jesus sets us before we come to the Lord’s Supper. It’s designed to stop us rattling through communion, like it’s delayed coffee for 10 minutes. And it’s designed to make us all the more ready and eager to receive Jesus Christ, as he feeds us with his body and blood, by his Holy Spirit. 

I encourage you to take time ahead of the Lord’s Supper to sit this exam.