There is a story about a little girl attending a worship service with her family. The family walked up the center aisle to receive Communion, and when the little girl received her piece of bread, she exclaimed in a loud voice, “I want more!” “I want more!” This caused some laughter and some embarrassment, but it also gives us an excellent jumping-off point to talk about the Sacrament of Communion because it should leave us wanting more.
The focus of my messages over the next couple of weeks will be on the theology and spirituality of Communion. What it is, what it does, why we receive it, and all the rest. I will bring to the table; no pun intended, the four parts of what become known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. We will explore this idea of Communion from Holy Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. But in the end, you have to decide for yourself about all of this.
In 2000, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church authorized a study committee to develop an interpretive document for Holy Communion. The Committee was made of nineteen individuals, bishops, clergy, laity, seminary professors, theologians, and regular folx. They produced “This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion.” This document was the first document created in the denomination’s history to establish the theology and practice of Holy Communion in the United Methodist Church. The document was overwhelmingly approved at the 2004 General Conference.
Like most Church documents, this one can be a little heady in its approach, but it is an important document to help us understand this mystery of the Church. My use of the term mystery will become very clear shortly.
As with any theological or spiritual topic, we have to approach this with an open mind and heart. We have to be open to the movement of the Spirit in our lives to help shape our understanding of this mystery if we can understand it. This morning I want to quickly lay out some background and define terms that will be important in future discussions. I will also make this text available online after the service if you wish to reflect on it this week.
The 18th-century movement that became known as Methodism began as an evangelical movement, evangelical in the 18th-century use of that term and not the 21st-century use of it, emphasizing the sacramental life of the Church. The Wesleys saw the power of God available in the Lord’s Supper and urged those following the Method to draw on that power by frequent participation. Wesley did not, however, define frequent participation. Wesley himself received the Sacrament four to five times per week.
What is a Sacrament? As followers of the reformed tradition, we believe there are two Sacraments, Baptism and Holy Communion. The Greek word used in the early Church for Sacrament is mysterion, translated as mystery. We also use the Latin word Sacramentum, which we translate as vow or promise. The Sacraments were instituted by Christ and given to the Church.
So, then a Sacrament is a mystery that involves a vow or promise. John Wesley defined a Sacrament as an “outward sign of an inward grace, and a means by which we receive the same.” According to Wesley, Sacraments are “sign-acts, which include words, actions, and physical elements. They both express and convey the gracious love of God.” (THM pg 16) Baptism is the Sacrament that initiates us into the Body of Christ, and Holy Communion is the Sacrament that sustains and nourishes us on our journey towards salvation.
Our theological understanding of Communion is rooted in Scripture, such as we heard this morning from the Gospel of St. John. Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” John 6:51 But it goes further than that. These are six themes of Communion presented in Scripture, and if we had time, we could explore them in much more depth.
Communion is Eucharist or an act of thanksgiving. Through the Sacrament, we express our thanks for God’s actions through history. Communion is Communion of the Church local and universal. Communion is more than a personal event; it is corporate, there is one bread, and we partake of one bread. Communion is remembrance, commemoration, and memorial, but it is more than an intellectual remembrance. Communion is a type of sacrifice. It is a re-presentation, not a repetition, of the sacrifice of Christ. We present ourselves as sacrifices in union with Christ to be used by God. Communion is a vehicle of God’s grace through the action of the Holy Spirit. My point is, this is more than a simple remembrance or reenactment of an event that took place 2,000 years ago.
“The grace we receive at the Lord’s Table enables us to perform our ministry and mission, to continue his work in the world-the work of redemption, reconciliation, peace, and justice.” It is the Lord’s Table. This table does not belong to you or me; therefore, we do not get to decide who is and who is welcome. Jesus welcomed all to his table. I mentioned before that Judas, who would betray Jesus, and Peter, who would deny Jesus were present at that first Communion. Everyone is welcome at the Lord’s Table.
I want to leave you with something to ponder this week. “Jesus Christ is truly present in Holy Communion. Through Jesus Christ and in the Power of the Holy Spirit, God meets us at the Table. God, who has given the Sacraments to the Church, acts in and through Holy Communion. Christ is present through the community gathered in Jesus’ name, through the Word proclaimed and enacted, and through the elements of bread and wine shared. The divine presence is a living reality and can be experienced by participants; it is not a remembrance of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion only.” (THM pg 23)
You are free to disagree if you like Christ’s presence in the Sacrament is a promise to the Church and is not dependent upon recognition of this presence by individual members of the congregation. We are free to believe as we wish. I know that something happens, I have seen the power of transformation that comes through this Sacrament, I have seen lives transformed. Do the bread and the wine change? Not in a physical sense but in a spiritual sense. What changes in and through this Sacrament is us if we allow it to change us.