Dean Phelps, Interim Regional Minister
When I step to the table to offer the words of institution—that is, to tell the story—I use Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 almost every time. The most likely reason is that these are the words my pastor used, and so I carry it forward. This is the story I was told, so now I am telling it to you.
Offering these words, though, using this particular story, carries a reminder of the context. When Paul reminds the Corinthian church about the Lord’s Supper, he is admonishing the church for its table manners. Paul reprimands the church for selfishness, for putting individual above the community. He goes on to say, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.”
During my first call out of seminary, I wrote a weekly religion column for the local newspaper. During Holy Week one year, my column centered on that phrase, “In an unworthy manner.” The same day the paper was delivered, a gentleman called me at the church office, taking issue with my use of the word “unworthy.”
He read Paul’s words from a translation that used the adverb “unworthily” instead of the adverbial phrase “in an unworthy manner.” He repeatedly said that Paul was not trying to say that we were unworthy but that we should not behave unworthily. It was one of those conversations where I found myself trying to convince someone that we were saying the same thing, that we were in agreement. He was not having it, though, and continued to push that I was misquoting the Apostle, no matter how many times I tried to say that we were both right.
Nevertheless, he was absolutely right. Paul’s challenge is not about who we are. It is about how we behave toward one another.
Paul would not admonish us for being unworthy, because we are. Whenever we come to the table, we come unworthy. We come to the table having selfishly put our individual needs above the concerns of the community. We all, at some time or another, come to the table forgetting that those who feast with us are our siblings in Christ and beloved children of God. We come to the table carrying the rancor of division in our culture, forgetting the One who makes us one.
We all come to the table unworthy.
We come to the table unworthy, but we come to a table of grace. If we were worthy, there would be no grace. If we earned our place at the table through our own effort or merit, it would be just another meal.
“Unworthy” is what makes it grace. By the grace of God, we come to the table with others unworthy as ourselves, receiving grace freely given so that we may live graciously. We extend the grace that we receive. We offer gratitude. We live grateful lives, thereby eating the bread and drinking the cup of the Lord in a worthy manner.