A Wesleyan Approach to the Lord's Supper

Since I had fun writing the recent post on baptism and it started some good discussions, I though I'd also work on a post about the Lord's Supper. (Plus I'm teaching on it this weekend, so any time that writing a blog post can double as preparing something else that I'm working on, it's a bonus.)

Few things in my adult Christian life have increased in meaning for me as much as receiving the Lord's Supper. For almost all Christians, it's a regular part of what we do, but for me it wasn't until I had already been participating in the practice for decades that I began to count it as an essential part of growing in my life in Christ. Although some things grow in meaning gradually over time, my experience of growing in appreciation for the practice of receiving the Lord's Supper wasn't one of those experiences, but rather was sparked by something very specific: learning what John Wesley and the early Methodists believed and taught about the practice.

In his great book, Recapturing the Wesleys' Vision, Wesley scholar Paul Chilcote notes:

Most Methodists do not realize that the Wesleyan revival was both evangelical (a rediscovery of the importance of the Word) and eucharistic (a rediscovery of the importance of Holy Communion). The Wesleys and the early Methodists held both together, firmly convinced that both were necessary for proper guidance in the Christian faith and walk. Sacramental grace and evangelical experience were viewed as necessary counterparts of a balanced Christian life. The enthusiasm for the sacrament of the Lord's Supper among the early Methodists was the result of zeal kindled in the hearts of the people by the flaming message of God's love.  And so the combination of pulpit and table was like a two-edged sword; the conjunction was a potent agent in the spread of the revival.

In the Wesleys' view there could be no suggestion of setting the preaching of the gospel over against the celebration of the sacrament. It was impossible to think about the spoken word (preaching) apart from the Word made visible (Eucharist). Hardly a new discovery in the life of the church, this essential connection of Word and sacrament has been the hallmark of virtually every movement of Christian renewal.

I can identify with what he says, because even though he's describing the widespread Methodist revival of almost 300 years ago, this is also a good description of my experience of allowing the Scriptures to sink in more deeply together with receiving the Lord's Supper.

Wesley clearly taught about the Lord's Supper, particularly in sermons such as "The Means of Grace" and "The Duty of Constant Communion." Yet there isn't one singular place in his writings where we can get a comprehensive view of all that he believed and taught regarding the Lord's Supper, so I'll summarize here from a very helpful resource: Steve Harper's workbook, Devotional Life in the Wesleyan Tradition:

  • Holy Communion is a memorial meal. As we partake of the bread and the cup, we do so as a visual, taste-able, sense-able, reminder of the sacrifice Jesus made in his death. Yet in doing so, the point is not just to bring to mind something that happened 2,000 years ago. Rather, Harper says that the remembrance Jesus taught us to observe when we "do this is remembrance of [him]" is in a Hebrew sense of "recalling an event so thoroughly that it comes alive in the present." That fascinates me- that we can re-member Jesus' offer of his own body and blood in this act and be aware that what Jesus expressed to his friends as they shared this meal on their last night together is also true for us today.
  • The Lord's Supper is a pledge of future glory. Not only do we look to the past when we celebrate Holy Communion, but it also foreshadows the future when, as God recreates earth and heaven, and they will be joined together forever and celebrated in a way that Scripture describes as akin to a great wedding feast.
  • Christ is truly present each time we receive the Lord's Supper. While, on one extreme, Wesley did not accept the Roman Catholic belief that the elements change into actually being the body and blood of Jesus, neither did he believe that in receiving them, we are doing nothing more than taking bread and juice/wine into our bodies. Rather, he believed that the Lord chooses to be present in a real way whenever we receive Holy Communion. It isn't that his presence is somehow in the materials, but the act of taking those materials into our bodies is a physical way for us to open the deepest spiritual parts of who we are to Christ's abiding presence.
  • We are commanded by Christ to partake of the Lord's Supper. I have been in churches where the only teaching that ever took place on Holy Communion was that, every time it was offered, the pastor would read without comment from Paul's warning in 1 Corinthians 11:23-29 not to eat the bread or drink the cup "in an unworthy manner," lest we be guilty of "sinning against the body and blood of the Lord" and therefore eat and drink judgment on ourselves. Yikes. If that's the only thing I had ever learned about the Lord's Supper, I would opt to stay in my seat just to play it safe, which is exactly what a lot of people in that church did. Unfortunately, that pastor never taught on the surrounding verses in that passage, which make clear that Paul was addressing the "unworthy manner" in which the Corinthian church had been practicing the Lord's Supper (some partaking so much that they filled their stomachs and even became intoxicated while others were left with absolutely nothing to receive), not that any individual person had been sinful and therefore unworthy to participate. If worthiness as an individual was the qualification- who could participate? This grace-filled meal is meant precisely for those of us who are unworthy to receive it.
  • Proper preparation begins with a repentant heart. Wesley often began on Thursdays to prepare his heart for receiving the Lord's Supper on Sunday. He realized this wasn't always possible and  that nothing like it was a prerequisite for participating. Yet it remains true that when we receive the Lord's Supper having prepared our hearts through repentance, we are more open and able to receive God's grace so abundantly offered to us in this meal.
  • Since it is a means of grace, we are wise to receive the Lord's Supper as often as we can. In Wesley's day, many of the churches around him had gone to only offering Holy Communion two to four times per year, yet he urged his Methodists to practice this means of grace at every opportunity, making the case that the more frequently we practice Holy Communion, the more likely we would be to enjoy a "constant communion" with God.

And one other point that has become very meaningful to me, though not specifically mentioned in this list by Harper:

  • Receiving the Lord's Supper is something we never do alone, but in relationship with God and others. The Lord's Supper is not one of the devotional practices that we are encouraged to make part of our daily, individual practices alone in homes. Rather, Holy Communion is always celebrated in communion with others. It's a way of increasing our communion with God, as we contemplate Jesus' sacrifice and, in his presence, open the deepest places of ourselves to him. It's a way of increasing our communion with others, as we do things together in order to receive it. The method may vary in your church, but we typically get up out of our seats in worship, go forward together, and regardless of our situation or station in life, receive Christ's body and blood together. Finally, it's a way of increasing our communion with "the communion of saints." Every time that we receive the bread and the cup, we are doing so, in a very real sense, together with all other followers of Jesus, both around the world today and throughout history. It's a practice that crosses every cultural barrier, and even though I cannot meet John Wesley, Martin Luther, St. Augustine, St. John, nor millions of other Christ followers whose names will never be known beyond their own context, every time that you and I receive the Lord's Supper, we do so together with them, as those who do so in remembrance of him.