The Wesleyan View of Communion

 

I was recently asked to give a ten minute talk on the Wesleyan Church’s understanding of communion.  My first thought was that we did not really have a very explicit view.  We do have a few statements in our Discipline, our book of identity.  John Wesley certainly had views on communion, but the Wesleyan Church does not necessarily get all of its identity from Wesley.  Then there is the “functional” view Wesleyans have—the view that is embodied in the actual practices, actions, and thoughts of grass roots Wesleyans in its local churches.

 

Taking all these variables into account, here is what I presented.  I would summarize the Wesleyan view of communion in three main points:

 

1.                  Communion is a remembrance of what Christ did for us in his atoning death.  This is of course the predominant lens through which Wesleyans understand communion, 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 all Christian churches, there is a point where 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 an 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 friend described communion as a kind of “passion play,” where you watch the story playing itself out in the words of the minister.

 

In conjunction with this aspect of communion, I might mention another very strong characteristic of communion in the Wesleyan Church.  Although we have had altar calls in the past and while ministers from time to time will call for a moment of commitment or recommitment to Christ, it is in communion more than any other place in Wesleyan worship where we 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.

 

2.                  Communion is a means of God’s grace, a sacrament through which God conveys His presence to 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.

 

A sacrament is a divinely appointed meeting place whereby a person can experience God’s gracious presence and power in your life.  It is a “means of grace.”  In our modern world we tend to sterilize language that has an element of the mysterious and the affective.  We turn statements like “Blessed are the poor in spirit” into “Happy are the poor in spirit.”  We take a statement like “The unbelieving spouse is sanctified by the believing one” into “The believing spouse has a positive influence on the unbelieving one.” 

 

But to say that communion is a means of grace means that there is something mysterious going on here, 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 more likely to find Him if they take 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, our job was to avail ourselves of the means of grace to make ourselves ready.

 

This seems an appropriate place to address what perspective the Wesleyan Church might have on issues like transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and other historical debates over communion.  The fact of the matter is that we have never had such debates in our fellowship.  A respected Wesleyan leader 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 the spiritual presence of Christ was present in the elements, but that they did not literally become the body and blood of Jesus.

 

3.                  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.  One of my favorite verses in 1 Corinthians expressed 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 would keep us from drinking from a common cup.  However, many churches practice communion by intinction, where the minister breaks off a piece of bread for you from a common loaf (for hygienic reasons, he or she often does it for the people), then you dip the bread into a common cup.  To me, 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).

 

By the way, I think God is very pragmatic, but this aspect of communion implies that it isn’t really appropriate for the bride and groom alone to take communion at a wedding.  Communion should always be open to every Christian or seeker present when it is offered.  So if you are going to make communion a part of your wedding, it should be offered to everyone present.

 

Some particulars

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 would therefore want children to know that they are doing something more than just “snacking” when they take communion.  But it seems to me that a child can recognize enough about communion as a remembrance of Christ’s last meal and an alignment with it to take communion very early indeed.

 

And here let me make a suggestion for Wesleyans.  While a child must eventually make Christianity his or her own, we allow a child to be baptized at least in part because we believe children are on their way to heaven until they consciously do not repent of their sin.  I personally think it is appropriate for children in the church to partake of this meal until they recognize their need for repentance—and then they can take it as a sign of repentance, or refuse it.  It actually happens this way in many Wesleyan churches.

 

Wesleyans do not require baptism for communion.  All we require is that the person be seeking God, “you who do earnestly repent of your sin.”