This sermon is based upon 1 Corinthians 10:21, Ye cannot drink the Cup of the Lord and the cup of the devils.
The sermon has two points of particular interest: (1) what is the nature of the elements in the Lord’s Supper: particularly what is work in a symbol. (2) What does it mean for a modern Christian to take the cup of the devils?
As for symbol, Denney makes an important corrective to the concept of symbol: a symbol is not meant to put something at a distance, but rather to bring that thing close:
Perhaps it was under a deep sense of what it signified, perhaps with a sort of perplexity in our minds that in a spiritual religion like ours such a place should have been claimed by a material rite. It is certain that many church members have no clear convictions about the sacraments, and are uncomfortable in the celebration of them. They may think in some indistinct fashion that they are symbolical, but they use even the idea of symbol in a wrong way.
A symbol in their thoughts is something to be distinguished from reality; just because it is a symbol, it keeps them, one might say, at arm’s length from the thing symbolized. But the true use of a symbol is to bring the reality near; it is to give us a grasp of it such as we could not otherwise obtain.
A Christian spirit does not play off the reality in the sacrament, and the symbol, against each other; it grasps the reality through the symbol; it does not answer to its experience to say that in the communion it partakes of the symbols of Christ’s body and blood; it has Jesus Christ Himself in all the reality of his incarnation and passion as its meat and drink. It is nothing less than the cup of the Lord which we drink, nothing less than the table of the Lord of which we partake.
James Denney, The Way Everlasting: Sermons (London; New York; Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1911), 230–231. The “symbols” of the supper are not to create a distance, but rather to bring about a relationship which could not obtain otherwise. The best of symbols make us understand better; help us relate better.
As for the second issue: what now is the cup of the devils? Denney says, Well, we don’t see idol worship or overt devilry nowadays. On this first point, things have changed greatly. There are a substantial number of people who self-identify as Wiccan, “In 2014 Pew Research Center estimated that 0.4 percent of Americans, about 1 to 1.5 million people, identify as Wiccan or Pagan.” There are any number of things quite common today which would have been unthinkable in such numbers in the late 19th century (although since the First World War, such things have certainly grown).
But even without overt paganism, Denney speaks of a certainly “liberty” which has one taking in ideas and culture which are contrary to Christ. The cup of devils is far more dangerous to us than we understand. Paul is warning them of a very real danger:
No matter how sure a man’s hold may be of the Christian principle that an idol is nothing in the world and therefore can do nothing to harm any enlightened person; if he takes part in such a transaction as I have described, then its atmosphere, its circumstances, its spirit, will prevail against him; he will be brought in spite of himself into the great communion of heathen life again. Let him say what he will, it is another world than that in which we live at the Lord’s table; it is spiritual influence of another quality which tells there upon the soul: and the two are irreconcilable. “Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons”.
James Denney, The Way Everlasting: Sermons (London; New York; Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1911), 235–236.
Here is how Denney describes the effect of such liberty:
Probably the cup of devils is drunk most frequently still under the sign of liberty. Even a Christian man says to himself that everything in human life ought to be of interest to him. It belongs to his intelligence to concern itself with all the experiences of his kind, and the most attractive way to look at these experiences is in literature. This is the mirror in which life is reflected, and it cannot be wrong to gaze into it. It is indeed the mark of a large and liberal intelligence to have the amplest toleration here; to allow the mind to familiarize itself with all that has been said and thought by human beings; to cultivate breadth, appreciation, geniality; to avoid a censorious and puritanic temper. The world that is good enough for God should be good enough for us, and we should not be too good to take it as it is.
It is by pleas like these, or in a mood like this, that men and women who have drunk the cup of the Lord allow themselves to drink the cup of devils. They deliberately breathe a poisoned spiritual air as if it could do them no harm. But it does do harm. I do not believe there is anything in which people are so ready to take liberties which does so much harm. There are bad books in the world, just as there are bad men, and a Christian cannot afford to take either the one or the other into his bosom. There are books, and books of genius too, which should not be read, because they should never have been written. The first imagination and conception of them was sin, and the sin is revived when they are conceived again in the mind even of a Christian reader. It is revived with all the deadly power that belongs to sin. We cannot give our minds over to it with impunity. It confuses, it stains, it debilitates, it kills. It is the cup of devils, and we cannot drink it and drink the cup of the Lord.
James Denney, The Way Everlasting: Sermons (London; New York; Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1911), 237–238.
And, “All things are not lawful for us if we wish to remain in the Lord’s company and to share in His life.”