In celebrating the Lord’s Supper, we commune with Jesus in a way that remembers the atoning significance of His death and anticipates the perfect unity between people who trust in Christ that will be ours when Jesus returns. That is Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 11:23–26, and it is the theological foundation for critiquing the Corinthians’ abuse of the sacrament. To use the Lord’s Supper to divide the church with respect to wealth and to humiliate those of other social classes, as the Corinthians were doing (vv. 17–22), is incompatible with the reconciling purpose of Jesus’ death (see Eph. 2:14–16; Col. 1:18–20; James 2:1–13).
Not only is such behavior incompatible with the Lord’s Supper and the gospel, but it also puts one at risk of divine judgment. Paul makes this clear in today’s passage. The Apostle tells us that if we eat and drink “in an unworthy manner,” we will be “guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27). Essentially, Paul means that unworthily partaking of the bread and wine makes us liable for Christ’s death, for committing the sin of executing Him. How so? Well, if we do not see and live out the reconciling purpose of the crucifixion, we have misunderstood the atonement, and if we have misunderstood the atonement, we have not really seen our need for it. In that respect, we are like those who put Jesus to death, for those men did not see their need for our Lord’s atoning death.
To eat in an unworthy manner, then, entails not understanding the purpose of Christ’s death and not pursuing reconciliation and unity in the church. To come to the table as sinners is not in itself to eat in an unworthy manner, for we will sin until we die (see 1 John 1:8–10). The Lord’s Supper is not for perfect people, for perfect people do not need an atonement. It is, however, for people who recognize their sin, who humbly ask God for forgiveness, who come to the Father through Christ, and who seek unity with others across lines of social class, knowing that what unifies us in Christ is our common status as sinners and our common need of the Savior (Rom. 3:23–24).
John Calvin comments that the worthy guests at the Lord’s Table are those who seek “the righteousness of God” earnestly, trembling under their “misery” and “wholly lean[ing] upon Christ’s grace, and rest[ing] upon it.” If we fail to do this, we are eating and drinking “without discerning the body” and thus we are eating and drinking eternal judgment upon ourselves (1 Cor. 11:28–29).