Communion goes by many names. Some call it the Eucharist, which is the original name given it by the Church. Others call it Communion, which is what we achieve, or the Lord’s Supper, of which it is an extension. In some quarters it is called the Mass, which comes from the Latin word the Roman Catholic priest uses at the end of the service to send the people into all the world. All these terms are appropriate.
I take Paul as saying that just because we distribute bread and wine during a worship service, that alone does not make it the Eucharist:
When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk.
—1 Corinthians 11:20-21, NIV
So it is the Church’s corporate obligation to make sure that the elements are properly consecrated and that the rite is carried out with due order and dignity. Otherwise we’re just serving refreshments.
The unworthy—such as unbelievers—should not partake, for Paul writes:
Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord… For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.
—1 Corinthians 11:27, 29, NIV
Note that it is necessary not just to be worthy, but also to recognize the Body of the Lord in the bread of the Eucharist. This does not require a belief in transubstantiation, nor does it affirm Zwingli’s belief that the bread is only a symbol. It means that for the believer who takes the Eucharist in faith, the bread does not become or symbolize the Body of our Lord, it just is. For Jesus did not say, “The bread becomes my body,” nor did He say, “The bread symbolizes my body.” He said, “This is my body, take, eat.” Therefore, the key to the Eucharist is in the partaking of the Heavenly Food, not the ingredients in the recipe. Theologians can argue about the chemical analysis of the ingredients till Armageddon; it does not matter to the faithful, for whom subjectively the bread is the Body and the wine is the Blood, as Jesus said.
But ‘discerning the Body’ is more than your opinion about what you are putting in your mouth. Suppose that your mother died, and a close friend came to the service unbathed, dressed in cut-offs, open sandals, and a Grateful Dead sweatshirt—in this example, I’m assuming that is inappropriate. Suppose that friend sat next to you and told loud off-color jokes to the people sitting nearby and laughed raucously at his own jokes during the eulogy. Would you not say that your friend had failed to discern the nature of the occasion? So think of this during the Eucharist part of the service, and make sure that in all your conduct you discern the Body and Blood of your Lord.
The next question is, then, who has the duty to bar the unworthy and the undiscerning from the Eucharist? The early Church excluded the unbaptized from the Eucharistic part of the service, but reversed this trend because the overheard liturgy (“this is my body, take, eat” ) caused people outside the building to think that cannibalism was going on inside, and it resulted in persecution. The Church reacted by allowing the public to witness the Eucharist, because we realized that Paul wrote:
A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.
—1 Corinthians 11:28, NIV
Therefore I think that the Eucharist must be conducted with due solemnity—not with the overly casual sloppiness of fashionable grunge worship—and the elements must be properly consecrated, following Paul’s instructions. It is appropriate to offer prayers of thanksgiving (after all, that is what ‘Eucharist’ means) and invocation. Then, when the worshipers are invited, they should be charged to examine themselves to make sure that they are reconciled to anyone with whom they’ve had words, that they are worthy, and that they discern the Body and Blood. Since the Eucharist prepares us for the last judgment, any who are unworthy are obviously just commemorating their own destruction.
After all this, the Church should allow all comers to partake. Paul commanded the partakers to determine their own eligibility, and the penalty is self-enforcing. I think it is worse for the Church to mistakenly exclude someone who is worthy than to allow someone who is unworthy.
And for those with discernment who partake, they eat the Body of our Lord, and thus become one with Him. They drink His blood, which is His Life—which was not terminated on the cross or smothered in the tomb, for He rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven, where He rules over all things. So those who are worthy and discerning will some day die, like everyone else, but it will not harm them—for they have taken the Medicine of Immortality, the Antidote to Death.