Iannò, Roberto

It is always an intensely emotional experience to participate in the Communion service. Whether it is the Foot Washing or the Lord’s Supper, it is for all of us an opportunity for synthesis between the theological and emotional aspects of faith. With our participation on these occasions, we can communicate many things: our acceptance of the love of Jesus; the remembrance of the death of Jesus on the cross, the moment of victory over evil; the tension of the awaiting of “that day” when we will live this rite again, together with the Lord; love for our brothers and sisters, also expressed by embracing and the tears of emotion.

Recently, I have been asking myself what we communicate by our non-participation in the Communion. Usually there are various reasons given for this auto exclusion. From the emotional point of view, the causes may include the discomfort of interpersonal conflict situations still existent, or moments of discomfort where doubt often wins. From the theological point of view, there may be guilty feelings that cause us to feel unready—unworthy—before God. We may choose not to participate because we recall I Corinthians 11:27, which says, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (RSV).

But I ask myself, “Will I continue announcing to the others—my brothers and sisters—that I still believe in the value of the death of Jesus for my salvation when the deacon passes by and I do not partake of those symbols?” It seems that we are faced with a tension between theological beliefs and the ecclesiastical practice: on the one hand, the death of Jesus is preached as the salvation from my sins—the Communion being one of the signs—and on the other hand, I do not partake of the emblems if I am not yet prepared. 

Reformer Calvin, addressing those who at times excluded themselves from participating in the Communion, had already noted this contrast: “In fact, whoever refrains from the Supper, for reasons of their imperfection in faith and behaviour, is like a sick person who refuses to take medicine.”1 But beyond the reflections of this reformer, what reflections should we consider regarding the passage in I Corinthians 11:27?


First of all, it is best to explain what the apostle Paul is affirming when he uses the word unworthily. The word unworthy comes from worthy (àxios) meaning “balance the two scale pans of the scales”: which means that a thing is worthy when, put on a scale pan, it can be balanced, or is the “equal” of the weight put on the other scale pan. Then, when do we personally appear to be worthy, in comparison with Christ? Is there a time when we can “balance” the scales when comparing ourselves to Christ? The answer seems to be obvious! It is true that we are called to “bear fruit that befits repentance” (Matt. 3:8, RSV), but it is also true that those who follow the Bible see themselves— and continue to see themselves as—unworthy. It is this level of awareness that allows one to receive the gift of grace. We are like the Prodigal Son, who, by recognizing he is unworthy, can be forgiven by his father (Luke 15:22-24). Similarly, the centurion of Capernaum, after expressing his unworthiness to receive Jesus in his home (Luke 7:6), was praised by Jesus for this kind of faith (Luke 7:9).

Only Jesus is worthy: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12, RSV). It is in the virtue of Jesus Christ’s—the only worthy one—that we receive His dignity, and definitely not on our own merits. As Paul the apostle reminds us: “I give thanks to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength for my work. I thank him for considering me worthy and appointing me to serve him” (I Tim. 1:12, GNB).

From a “moral” point of view, it is impossible to arrive at church on a Saturday morning and be worthy of the Communion. What did Paul the apostle mean by this? The answer can be found in the context of the passage and in the grammatical construction of it.


Like all early Christians, the Corinthians were used to celebrating the Communion every time they had supper. Many of them forgot the meaning of what they were doing, consuming the emblems as if they were ordinary food: “When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not” (I Cor. 11:20-22, RSV). The apostle Paul is forced to re-explain some practices because the real significance has been lost. After Paul had re-explained the meaning, he warned them not to make the same mistake again, asking them to consume “these emblems” while remembering Jesus’ sacrifice.

The term unworthily used in the text is not an adjective but an adverb, that is to say, it refers to their way of celebrating the Communion and not to the moral quality of the participants. This point is stated by  J. Pòheler in a work by the EUD’s Bible Research Committee: “Unworthiness does not consist in the moral quality, that is the character of the participants of the Holy Supper, but is the result of the wrong way of considering the Holy meal, with which we contradict the solemnity of the service.”2

Paul tries to correct the problem of the wrong understanding and not of the mistaken moral behaviour. We can also understand this from some verses thereafter, when the same point made in I Corinthians 11:27 is expressed more directly: “For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (I Cor. 11:29, RSV). Comparing verses 27 and 29, we understand that Paul expresses the idea of “unworthiness” to describe those who consume these emblems without “distinguishing the Lord’s body,” and without understanding what they are doing. The use of the word unworthily is therefore not describing the pureness of the moral—that we receive by the cross and not toward it—but the attitude of those who understand what is being commemorated with those emblems.


Another consideration can be made by thoroughly examining the first Communion service that was celebrated, the one established by Jesus. The Bible says that after Satan took possession of Judas, Jesus celebrated the Lord’s supper with his disciples (Luke 22:3,14-20). Why did Jesus not stop Judas from taking part in the ceremony? Why did He not consider him as not being worthy? Ellen White comments: “Though Jesus knew Judas from the beginning, He washed his feet . . . . A long-suffering Saviour held out every inducement for the sinner to receive Him, to repent, and to be cleansed from the defilement of sin . . . . It was because the disciples were erring and faulty that He washed their feet, and all but one of the twelve were thus brought to repentance.”3 Jesus did not only receive Judas at His Communion, but also invited Peter who was conceited and not yet fully converted. Remember the appeal made to him, “and when you have turned again . . . .” (Luke 22:32, RSV). This also refers to those disciples who had sinned: “A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was to be the greatest” (Luke 22:24, RSV). It certainly was not a Communion service for only those who were without sin.


Going back to my query, “What do we convey with our non participating,” I would like to invite everyone of us to see this ceremony in the right light. The Communion Supper is not a celebration for only specially selected people.

The Communion Supper reminds us that it is by going to Calvary—the cross of Christ—that we discover and understand Jesus’ love for us. He says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32, RSV). Ellen White wrote, “Christ has instituted this service that it may speak to our senses of the love of God that has been expressed in our behalf. There can be no union between our souls and God except through Christ . . . And nothing less than the death of Christ could make His love efficacious for us.”4

As we gather in front of His emblems—emblems of His dignity—our hearts have an extra reason to be won over by His love, as the centurion was won at the foot of the cross (Mark 15:39). We do not have to think about ourselves—about our unworthiness—but of Jesus: “The Communion service was not to be a season of sorrowing . . . As the Lord’s disciples gather about His table, they are not to remember and lament their shortcomings. They are not to dwell upon their past religious experience, whether that experience has been elevating or depressing . . . Now they come to meet with Christ.”5

The next time a Communion is celebrated in your community, do not take it as an arriving point but as a beginning one. The best week should not be the one that precedes the Communion Supper but the one that will follow. The reconciliation with God, with our selves, and with our brothers and sisters, should not be a prerequisite to participate, but as a reason to behave in a loving, Christian way. The Communion Supper is always a starting point instead of an arrival: “Communion should always end on a high note. Wrongs have been righted. Sins have been forgiven. Hope has been restored. It’s a time for rejoicing.”6 Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32, RSV).

1 J. Calvin, Il Piccolo trattato sulla S. Cena nel dibattito sacramentale della Riforma (A short tract on the Holy Supper in the light of the sacramental debate of the Reformation), Claudiana, Torino, 1987, p. 81.
2 Ralf. J. Pöhler, “Qui est digne de participer à la cène” (“Who is worthy of partaking of the Lord’s Supper?”), in Cène et ablution des pieds, p. 251. Etudes en ecclésiologie adventiste, vol. I, France, Editions Vie et Santé 1991. See also, Ministers’ Manual: “He is not speaking of unworthy people who participate, but of an unworthy manner in which they participate”, Ministerial Association 1992, p. 212; and F. Holbrook, “For Members Only?” Ministry, February 1987, pp.10-13.
3 Ellen G. White, Desire of Ages, p. 655.
4 Ibid., p. 660.
5 Ibid., p. 659.
6 Ministers’ Manual, Ministerial Association, 1992, p. 216.