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GEN-X RISING: Recommit to Communion as means of healing grace Andrew C. Thompson, Apr 15, 2010
By Andrew C. Thompson UMR Columnist
As I’ve been exploring the means of grace through this column space, a consistent undercurrent in my writing has been the conviction that we need to pay attention to the need for reform in the Church’s practices.
We should recognize where we’ve grown lax in how we approach the means of grace. And for the sake of our faithfulness to God and God’s calling on us, we ought to be willing to repent and recommit where necessary.
Our practice of Holy Communion offers perhaps the best example of a needed area of reform.
Holy Communion is among the most important acts of worship in the Church—a point made in spades during the recent Holy Week. Maundy Thursday recognizes that when Jesus knew his time was limited with his disciples, he took the opportunity to eat the Passover meal with them. But more than that, he also instituted a practice for them of eating bread and drinking wine in his name. Thus Jesus’ followers could have communion with him and—as the Apostle Paul tells us—“proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
It’s no accident, then, that John Wesley names the Lord’s Supper as among the chief means of grace (along with prayer and searching the Scriptures). He believed its constant observance to be a Christian duty, from the command of Christ to “do this in remembrance of me.”
But Wesley sees Holy Communion as more than a duty. It is also a means of grace, which mediates the presence and power of Christ.
In “The Duty of Constant Communion,” Wesley writes, “As our bodies are strengthened by bread and wine, so are our souls by these tokens of the body and blood of Christ. This is the food of our souls: This gives strength to perform our duty, and leads us on to perfection.”
For Wesley, receiving the Eucharist was tantamount to receiving “strength to believe, to love and obey God.”
That such a strong teaching on the significance of Holy Communion exists in the Wesleyan tradition is a real benefit for us today. It can also serve as a corrective to our often lazy approach to it in the present.
At too many of our churches, the Lord’s Supper is either neglected or treated as an onerous add-on to regular worship. Instead of seeing it as a source of healing grace, our congregations see it as an inconvenient extra 15 minutes that keeps them from the meal they really want to celebrate: the Sunday buffet at a local restaurant.
There is also a distressingly casual approach to the sacrament that is widespread in Methodism as well. The “open table” ethic in the UMC has come to mean that anyone present is invited to come forward and receive—regardless of whether they’ve been baptized or even understand Holy Communion’s significance.
Such abuses call for a form of repentance. First, we should recognize how important this gift really is. As a chief means of grace, it is of the utmost importance that we approach it with reverence and an appropriate understanding. Pastors can help in this regard, by regular preaching and teaching on the sacrament as well as insisting on at least monthly observance in their churches.
Reforming the so-called “open table” will require more effort. The weakness of reasons given for its continued practice don’t seem to dampen the desire for some Methodists to define themselves by what they don’t stand for. But make no mistake: Wesley’s use of the phrase “converting ordinance” to describe the Eucharist did not refer to its use as an evangelization tool for the unbaptized. It was rather meant to refer to the sacrament’s ability to quicken the faith of Christians who were caught in the malaise of sin.
Christ does want all to meet him at his Supper. But that Supper takes place in the church, and the manner of inclusion into it goes by a specific name: Baptism. Recognizing the profound meaning of coming to commune with Christ through the baptismal call would help us understand both sacraments more fully.