For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. (1 Cor 11:26-29)
There are many interpretations of this passage. Some have merit, some less so. Most tend to ignore the context.
Some people take the attitude that nobody is worthy, and therefore everyone must specifically pray for forgiveness of sins before they take the Lord’s Supper. Two problems come up in response to this interpretation. First, the passage does not say that the participants should be worthy. It talks about the manner of partaking, not the quality of those that do so. The second problem is that this attitude questions the efficacy of the sacrifice being memorialized. If nobody is worthy, that means that they are still held to be guilty of sin. Since “He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself,” (Heb 7:27) and “the blood of Jesus Christ, his son, continually cleanses us from all sin,” (1 Jn 1:7) those that have been immersed for forgiveness of sins are worthy. We stand before God as sinless people. To say we are unworthy is to doubt that God’s forgiveness is complete or continual.
Many people recognize that Paul defines “unworthily” in the passage. He says that we eat and drink unworthily by not “discerning the Lord’s body.” They say then, that partaking of the Lord’s supper unworthily means thinking of something other than the cross of Christ while partaking. By this definition anyone who thinks about work, or the roast in the oven, or the latest video game would be eating and drinking unworthily. By this definition, though, so too would the mother who is trying to silence an unruly child, or even, in some traditions, the men passing the trays containing the emblems. It is important to be thinking about the death of Jesus and what it means to us. After all, the Lord’s Supper is a memorial; we should remember what it is about. The Jews say one should participate in the Passover, “as if I were there.” Because of the nature of the Lord’s Supper, so should we participate in this in view of what it memorializes. Nevertheless, many people who say that this is the meaning of discerning the Lord’s body are the same people who will talk about the Lord’s Supper as “the body and the blood of Jesus.”
Looking at the broader context of this passage, and of Paul’s writings, there is a more likely meaning of participating “unworthily.” What is, after all, “the Lord’s body”? Is it the physical body on the cross? Or is it “the church, which is his body” (Eph 1:22-23)? In the context, it is the latter. Paul is writing to correct an abuse. The situation was that people were taking the Lord’s Supper as part of a larger “love feast.” There was nothing wrong with that. The abuse was that some people were eating that larger feast without concern for the needs of the poor among them. “One remains hungry, another gets drunk.” (1 Cor 11:21) Some would bring much food, and keep it for themselves, while others could only bring little or nothing and were left out. Then, when it came time for the Lord’s Supper, the selfish ones would participate as if all were equal. Then they would go back to stuffing their faces in front of those that had nothing. It is this attitude that Paul calls eating and drinking unworthily.
These people were not “discerning” the needs of the body of the Lord, the church. They were only discerning their own physical bodies. With this in view, in the example of the woman trying to quiet an unruly child, the mother might not be participating unworthily, although she is not concentrating fully on the cross, while a person sitting next to her who does not help her with the child might be eating and drinking damnation to himself, not seeing her need. Paul advocates looking around, not just inside.