One of the most important texts for understanding the nature and use of the Lord’s Supper is in 1 Corinthians 11. There, Paul sharply criticizes the Corinthian church for administering the Lord’s Supper in a way that divided the body along economic lines. The rich would partake first, and they treated the Lord’s Supper as a great feast, with wine and lots of food. The poor would arrive later and eat the leftovers if there were any.
One chapter earlier, when Paul was warning the Corinthians against participating in pagan festivals, he pointed to the Lord’s Supper as a teaching tool regarding the nature of the Christian fellowship. He said, “The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” That verse is where we get the term “Communion” as another name for the sacrament. It means a communal participation, a joint fellowship both with God and with our fellow believers. We as an earthly fellowship jointly partake of the life of Christ and the bread of communion symbolizes that. This is why we never take the Supper as individuals, and why the practice of the Corinthians was so offensive. It is a symbol of the unity of the body.
So Paul tells them to examine themselves, “discerning the body.” He says that this will enable them to partake of the supper “worthily” or “in a worthy manner”. That does not mean that we need to be somehow worthy of fellowship with Christ; of course, we can never be worthy of that. But it means that we recognize what the supper is, and what it says about the nature of the church and its fellowship with Christ.
“Discerning the body” means that we recognize that we are part of the people of God, who are the body of Christ. We as a fellowship together partake of the grace of Christ, and grow by His life. God is working His will out in history for the salvation of His people through the church. Our relationship with Christ is never purely individual. We come into fellowship with Christ by becoming truly part of His body, by being engrafted into the vine.
To participate in the Lord’s Supper in a worthy fashion, then, we are called to contemplate what it means to be part of Christ’s body. We must believe the gospel of salvation in the blood of Christ, and be committed to the love of the brethren as a result. We must be committed to forgiving each other, bearing with each other, and using our gifts and talents for the good of each other. We must look out not only for our own interests, but those of one another as well. This is what it means to discern the body and to partake of the supper in a worthy manner.