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.

Renewing Our Covenant With God

I've had several experiences where something that used to seem to me like a dry, boring, old, "why in the world do we do this" practice has come to be something very meaningful for me. A prime example of that is the Wesleyan Covenant Renewal Service. I had a chance last week to help explain its history and meaning to our congregation, and particularly if you haven't yet had a chance to do something similar to set your intentions for 2012, feel free to take a look at what we did. And so that you'd have it, here's a pdf of the portion of the Covenant Renewal Service that we use in this video.

[tentblogger-vimeo 34627827]

Wesley's Sermon 26: Upon Our Lord's Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 6

[This is a post on one of John Wesley's Sermons as part of the Getting to Know John series. See the other posts here.] This is the sixth of John Wesley's thirteen sermons on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7). In this message, Wesley moves into chapter 6 of Matthew, which he says represents Jesus' shift from describing characteristics of true inward religion to now teaching us how we can make all of our outward actions holy: by having "pure and holy intentions."

This message covers Matthew 6:1-15, where Jesus warns not to give or pray like the hypocrites do, but that we should do all things to please God alone, rather than seeking to be seen by others. After describing how not to pray, Jesus gives a model of how we should pray, which we have come to call The Lord's Prayer.

Wesley's sermon is basically a verse-by-verse exploration of this passage. So, even if you're not a strange one like me who would normally read all of the way through one of his sermons, this would be a good one to print and have in your Bible as you do your own study and reflection on this passage (either the full text or the outline- both are linked below). Wesley's explanation of The Lord's Prayer will certainly add depth to your own practice of praying it, whether alone or together in worship.

To dig in further to this message:

Wesley's Sermon 25: Upon Our Lord's Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 5

[This is a post on one of John Wesley's Sermons as part of the Getting to Know John series. See the other posts here.] This is the fifth of Wesley's thirteen sermons on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7). This sermon focuses on Matthew 5:17-20:

17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Wesley makes some brilliant points in this message, which are important to understanding him, his theology, and his ministry.Although Wesley organizes this sermon verse-by-verse (which is unusual for him), the key themes that emerge include the relationship of the law to the gospel, and what inward and outward holiness have to do with one another.

In examining Jesus' words in this passage about the law, Wesley makes a strong case for an idea that would be just as controversial among Christians in our day as it was in his: there is no conflict between the law and the gospel. A view which many hold today, and apparently did in Wesley's day also, is that the law was only in place until the coming of Jesus, and is now no longer necessary because of Jesus' gospel. Wesley, and apparently in this passage- Jesus himself, would have none of that.

Rather than the law and gospel being at odds with one another, or at least one doing away with the other, Wesley makes the case that they both do the same thing in different ways. The law, he says, points us toward life through commands, while the gospel does so through promises. The law makes way for and points us toward the gospel, and the gospel makes it possible for us to fulfill the law.

Let's try to put some skin around this by looking at the great commandments, which both come from Old Testament law, to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. The law says, "you must do this," and the gospel says, "you are able to do this." In other words, God will work in us (gospel) that which God commands of us (law). Neither of these can be set aside in the way of Jesus.

Another part of the sermon that stands out is Wesley's comments on the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, and what it means that our righteousness should surpass theirs. Again, his comments aren't what many of us would be expecting to hear.

Rather than only claiming that the Scribes and Pharisees' righteousness was outward, and ours can exceed those by not trusting in outward things, but in an inward faith, Wesley again holds on to both sides of the spectrum. He gives the Scribes and Pharisees credit for how outwardly devoted they were and makes the case that our righteousness can't exceed theirs if it can't even catch up to theirs. Using Luke 18:9-14 to illustrate, Wesley points out how devoted the Scribes and Pharisees were in their practices of being different from others for what they thought were God's purposes, their practices of fasting, prayer, sacrifices, and studying the Scriptures, and how they gave of what they had to help others. So, rather than advising us to set aside the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, Wesley says that if we are to exceed them, we must first catch up to them.

In other words, we need those outward things that we normally chastise the Scribes and Pharisees for having trusted in. The main difference, and how our righteousness is to exceed theirs, is that in the way of Jesus, we are pursuing inward and outward holiness. To propose that either could exist without the other is unthinkable for Wesley.

To dig in further to this sermon:

Wesley's Sermon 24: Upon Our Lord's Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 4

[This is a post on one of John Wesley's Sermons as part of the Getting to Know John series. See the other posts here.]

"Christianity is essentially a social religion... to turn it into a solitary one is to destroy it."

This is the fourth of Wesley’s thirteen sermons on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7). This sermon focuses on Matthew 5:13-16: "You are the salt of the earth... You are the light of the world... A city on a hill cannot be hidden... Let your light shine before others..."

Wesley says some brilliant stuff in this sermon. Much of it is a counter-argument against a movement in his day called "quietism," which taught that Christians only needed to worship God inwardly so as to avoid trusting too much in anything outward. Wesley never denies the importance of the inner aspects of our faith; in fact, he encourages ample time alone with God (at least two periods of solitude every day!). But he says that the inward roots have to produce outward branches in our lives with others, or else we cannot fulfill the kind of life that Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount.

Wesley begins this sermon by explaining the quotation above, that Christianity is essentially a social religion and to turn it into a solitary one is to destroy it. What he means by Christianity being a "social religion" is that it does not survive at all without "society" (which he describes as living and conversing with others; today we would be more likely to use the word "community"). He then describes the absurdity (also described by Jesus) of thinking that the light God has put into our souls can or should be hidden. Then he concludes the sermon by answering foreseen objections from critics.

Wesley is a master at holding together things which seem to be opposites, and finding a place of tremendous strength in hanging on to them both. This sermon is a great example of how he does this, in this case with "inward religion" and "outward religion." Christians of all groups would do well to dig into what he says here.

For further exploration of this sermon:

Wesley's Sermon 23: Upon Our Lord's Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 3

[This is a post on one of John Wesley's Sermons as part of the Getting to Know John series. See the other posts here.] This is the third of Wesley’s thirteen sermons on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7). In this sermon, he continues working his way through the Beatitudes and focuses on Matthew 5:8-12: “Blessed are the pure in heart… Blessed are peacemakers… Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake…”

Also, as in the previous sermon, Wesley believed that Jesus used the remainder of chapter 5 to provide illustrations of the life he describes in these verses. So to further explore the meaning of Matthew 5:8-12, Wesley also explores Matthew 5:33-48.

Wesley continues his approach to the Beatitudes as both being characteristics that are in some degree true of all of God's children all of the time, and also a process that we go through as we mature spiritually. This sermon begins right where the last one left off, describing those who have learned to love their neighbors as themselves. To begin this sermon he says we must examine the foundation of that love, and explores the meaning of "Blessed are the pure in heart..."

He explains that purity of heart is emphasized by Jesus throughout his teaching, rather than only outward acts. He also provides an interesting explanation of how it is that the pure in heart "see God," saying that by faith we will see him through our deep fellowship with him, his presence in our world, his provision of our needs, and most fully through his ordinances (prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord's Supper, etc.). He then uses Matthew 5:33-37 as an illustration of those who are not pure in heart and felt the need to depend on oaths versus those who are pure in heart and could let their speech be trusted and had a deep sense of God's presence everywhere (heaven is God's throne and earth is God's footstool).

According to Wesley, with "Blessed are the Peacemakers..." Jesus' teaching shifts from what we kind of people we are to be to focusing on what kinds of things we should do and say. He says that peacemakers are not only those who work to end and avoid strife and conflict, but in a more general sense, they are those who do good to others at every opportunity they are given by meeting physical needs, and when the opportunities arise, spiritual needs as well.

He then moves into an examination of Jesus' statements on persecution, stating that although we would hope and think that people who live lives such as he has described to this point in the Beatitudes would be well loved by everyone, that is certainly not the case. The world's ways will always be violently opposed to the ways of God, and this results in persecution of the righteous. Wesley describes different forms that persecution can take, some major (such as losing our lives), and others more minor (such as losing relationships), but he says that regardless of whatever kind of persecution we face, it should never cause us to lose our meekness, love, and kindness toward others.

Again turning to another passage of Matthew 5 to illustrate, Wesley uses Jesus' statements on turning the other cheek, refusing to return evil for evil but rather returning good for evil, and then gives a very valuable paragraph on some practical ways to think about this. Much harm has been done by those who have taken Jesus' statement to mean things that he never said here, and Wesley provides a valuable corrective, which applies to in broader senses in this context beyond just material possessions:

Although Jesus said that we should always be ready to give to whomever asks of us without expecting anything in return, he never said that we should give things that do not belong to us. Wesley explains with three short points:

  • We need to take much care to avoid all kinds of debt. If we give to others while we have debts, we are actually giving someone else's things away, not our own. (For our day, Dave Ramsey offers great advice. We should give while we are working to get out of debt, but set a limit on the giving during that time, such as 10%. In other words, if you're making your tithe to your church on your credit card and running your debt up higher, stop it. Still tithe, but on money you actually have.)In another sense which Wesley doesn't mention here, Jesus does offer the illustration of offering our other cheek to someone who hits us. He never says that we should offer the cheeks of other people to be injured.
  • We should provide for our own household the things that are necessary to sustain them in life and godliness. If we give to such a point that we cannot do this, it is certainly not being done in the spirit of Jesus' teaching.
  • Then, we should give away everything that's left over. (Certainly there are wise ways to do this, so that we're actually helping the recipients rather than harming them.) He says if we don't have enough to give to everyone, we should begin by remembering the "household of faith," then give to others as we are able.

Wesley finishes with a concluding paragraph about the Beatitudes, calling them "a picture drawn by God's own hand" of the life intended for us. His interpretation of the Beatitudes is valuable and inspiring. (As I've mentioned before, I've come to view the Beatitudes in a different way, thanks to Dallas Willard. I'll post a summary of Wesley's understanding compared to Willard's soon.)

If you would like to dig in further to this sermon: