When you were little and getting ready to take your seat at the family dinner table, did your mom ask, “Have you washed your hands?” If you had, you probably proudly held them up to show her. But on those rare occasions when she caught you “dirty-handed,” you’d sheepishly have to slip away to put soap and water to work.
As often as we were reminded, we should have remembered to wash our hands every time. But since we are creatures of forgetfulness, or just too preoccupied with other things, that getting ready for the table often got lost in the shuffle. Then, too, there were times we knew our hands were dirty, but we came to the table anyway!
Some in the early church developed a bad habit of coming to the table—the Communion table—without “clean hands.” The apostle Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, said, “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28, author emphasis).
It’s important to point out that Paul was not demanding perfection, but calling for preparation. Some of these early believers were coming to the table with indifference or even arrogance. What was supposed to be a reverent and holy gathering was being tainted by hands and hearts unready to handle anything holy.
What about your hands? How are you coming to the table? With a life that’s gone unexamined? Paul told the Corinthians that coming with “dirty hands” invited judgment—not just the stern word of a mother who might send you off to the sink, but of a God whose judgment is a far more serious reckoning.
The Communion table is all about our being forgiven by God, so Paul is not saying all the cleaning up is the product of our own labor. God is the one who makes it possible for us to have clean hands and hearts. But if we treat the sacrifice of Christ with indifference, if we fail to live lives that honor what the cleansing brings, we soil the hands that he died to make clean.
So an important question needs to be asked before you eat the bread and drink from the cup today: How clean are your hands? It can be a deadly thing to come to God with unexamined lives. If you’ve forgotten that all-important truth, you might want to take a prayerful moment, before we all sit down to eat . . . and “wash your hands.”
David Ray is dean of the graduate seminary at Cincinnati Christian University and professor of practical ministries at Cincinnati Christian University.