Believers dare not come to the table except with a repentant heart. “Whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner,” as Paul puts it, “drinks judgment to himself.” That should be a sobering warning, especially when the apostle adds that because of this offense many have fallen ill or died. Any pastor who takes the Word of God seriously should never administer Communion without adequately warning partakers. Those who are unrepentant should flee the table rather than trivialize the sacred.
And God does not view this sacred act lightly. Pat Novak, pastor in a nonsacramental denomination, discovered this when he was serving as a hospital chaplain intern just outside of Boston several years ago.
Pat was making his rounds one summer morning when he was called to visit a patient admitted with an undiagnosed ailment. John, a man in his sixties, had not responded to any treatment; medical tests showed nothing; psychological tests were inconclusive. Yet he was wasting away; he had not even been able to swallow for two weeks. The nurses tried everything. Finally they called the chaplains office.
When Pat walked into the room, John was sitting limply in his bed, strung with IV tubes, staring listlessly at the wall. He was a tall, grandfatherly man, balding a little, but his sallow skin hung loosely on his face, neck, and arms where the weight had dropped from his frame. His eyes were hollow.
Pat was terrified; he had no idea what to do. But John seemed to brighten a bit as soon as he saw Pats chaplain badge and invited him to sit down.
As they talked, Pat sensed that God was urging him to do something specific: He knew he was to ask John if he wanted to take Communion. Chaplain interns were not encouraged to ask this type of thing in this public hospital, but Pat did.
At that John broke down. “I cant!” he cried. “Ive sinned and cant be forgiven.”
Pat paused a moment, knowing he was about to break policy again. Then he told John about 1 Corinthians 11 and Pauls admonition that whoever takes Communion in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself. And he asked John if he wanted to confess his sin. John nodded gratefully.
To this day Pat cant remember the particular sin John confessed, nor would he say if he did, but he recalls that it did not strike him as particularly egregious. Yet it had been draining the life from this man. John wept as he confessed, and Pat laid hands on him, hugged him, and told John his sins were forgiven.
Then Pat got the second urging from the Holy Spirit: Ask him if he wants to take Communion. He did.
Pat gave John a Bible and told him he would be back later. Already John was sitting up straighter, with a flicker of light in his eyes.
Pat visited a few more patients and then ate some lunch in the hospital cafeteria. When he left he wrapped an extra piece of bread in a napkin and borrowed a coffee cup from the cafeteria. He ran out to a shop a few blocks away and bought a container of grape juice.
Then he returned to Johns room with the elements and celebrated Communion with him, again reciting 1 Corinthians 11. John took the bread and chewed it slowly. It was the first time in weeks he had been able to take solid food in his mouth. He took the cup and swallowed. He had been set free.
Within three days John walked out of that hospital. The nurses were so amazed they called the newspaper, which later featured the story of John and Pat, appropriately, in its “LIFE” section.