Sunday, January 23, 2011

Wesleyans and Communion (W)

I thought this was posted somewhere here, but I didn't find it in a search or on my sidebar.  This is a piece I wrote once upon a time.  This piece is more about the practice of communion in the Wesleyan Church, extrapolating the theory embodied in the practice rather than any well thought out theology.
1. For Wesleyans, as for other Christians, communion is, first of all, a remembrance of what Christ did for us in his atoning death. Christians also call it the "Eucharist," a "thanksgiving" for what God has done through Jesus Christ's death in reconciling humanity to himself. This is the predominant lens through which Wesleyans understand communion in practice, even if it is not the only one. Nevertheless, it is an element Wesleyans share with the church universal.

At some point in the communion services of most churches, the minister retells the story of the Last Supper:

“On the night he was betrayed, he took the bread. And when he had given thanks, he broke it gave it to his disciples saying, ‘Take, eat. This is my body that is given for you.’

“Likewise after supper he took the cup. And when he had given thanks he gave it to them saying, ‘Drink you all of this, for this is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins. Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”

One Wesleyan once described communion as a kind of “passion play,” where you watch the story playing itself out in the words of the minister.

2. In conjunction with this aspect of communion, we might mention another strong characteristic of communion in the Wesleyan Church. Our tradition used to have regular "altar calls" in which individuals were invited to come forward and pray.  Sometimes Wesleyan churches will still call for a moment of commitment or recommitment to Christ.  But certainly in practice we would strongly associate the time of communion as a time for us to confess our sins and recommit ourselves to Christ. Communion thus serves as a kind of reset button on our relationship with God. Before you go forward, you repent of any un-confessed sin and commit to move forward with God.

3. Thirdly, we would view communion as a sacrament, a divinely appointed moment to meet God and experience his grace, a divinely appointed moment in which God takes ordinary things like bread and juice and catalyzes his presence and power in the believer.  While Wesleyans often do not emphasize this aspect of communion as much as they should, it is part of the language we use to describe communion, and it is of course solidly rooted in John Wesley himself.

To say that communion is a means of grace means that something mysterious goes on in communion, that in some strange way we cannot explain, people meet God when they take communion.  We mean to say that a person seeking God is likely to find him in communion.  We mean that a person who is having trouble experiencing God’s presence or who is in a dark night of the soul is more likely to feel God’s presence if they take communion than if they do not.  Wesley himself thought that since it was ultimately God’s choice as to when he spoke to you but that we should avail ourselves of the means of grace to make ourselves ready.

Does the Wesleyan Church have a view on historical debates  like transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and other issues?  We have never had such debates in our fellowship.  A Wesleyan leader once suggested that by saying “The body of our Lord,” we left it to the partaker to work out exactly what that might mean to them.  In that sense, the Wesleyan allowance for some breadth of belief in relation to the historical debates of the church applies to these issues as well.  John Wesley himself agreed with Calvin on this issue, that Christ was spiritually present in the elements but that they did not literally become the body and blood of Jesus.

Wesleyans generally expect that an ordained minister will "preside" at communion, especially when it comes to the moment when we ask God to make the elements become the body and blood of Christ for us.  However, we do not consider it an absolute.  It enhances the sacredness of the moment for someone set apart by God and recognized as such by the church to call on God to make this moment into a sacramental moment.  But we allow that God can set apart individuals for special moments and times by his own reckoning, outside mortal channels.

4. Communion is about communion with the body of Christ. It is easy to forget that one of the principle functions of communion in the early church was to emphasize the unity of Christians with one another.  1 Corinthians expresses this same point to the Corinthians, who were sorely in need of it: “Though we are many, we are one body, because we all partake of the one bread.”

It is worth reminding ourselves, in the midst of our individual wafers and cups, that Jesus and his disciples shared a common cup and a common loaf.  Wesleyans in North America do not celebrate communion with wine, so hygienic reasons might keep us from drinking from a common cup.  However, many churches practice communion by intinction, where you or the minister breaks off a piece of bread from a common loaf. Then you dip the bread into a common cup.

This way of doing communion preserves the unifying principle much better than individualized plastic cups and wafers.  Also, having people come forward helps with the other two functions we have mentioned: 1) it focalizes partaking to a moment of decision in front of the minister and 2) the imagery of the common bread and juice makes the act look like more than a little snack in the pew (this helps children to see it as a different kind of activity too).

Communion should be open to every Christian or seeker present when it is offered.  If it is part of a wedding, it should ideally be offered to everyone present.  Wesleyan churches are supposed to take communion at least once every three months.  Notice the direction this wording is headed—we are welcome to take it far more often than that.  John Wesley’s conviction was that you should take communion “as often as you can.”  Indeed, he considered it a “sin of infirmity” to miss the opportunity inadvertently when it was available.

The Wesleyan liturgy emphasizes that the person partaking of communion should do so as an act of seeking communion with God.  That means a non-Christian can make communion a time of seeking faith.  Wesleyans do not require baptism for a person to partake of communion. All we require is that the person be seeking God, “you who do earnestly repent of your sin.”

We have never debated the question of children in communion, but we can see how the practice might vary depending on whether a Wesleyan church more practiced infant or believer's baptism.  For churches that practice believer's baptism, there will be a tendency to keep children from communion until they are old enough to make a conscious decision for Christ.  For churches that practice infant baptism--and thus see the children more as "in" until they make a choice otherwise--there will be a tendency to have them participate in the common meal as they would have in the early church.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for doing this!