World Communion Theology and United Methodism

The United Methodist understanding of Holy Communion, “The Eucharist” and “The Lord’s Supper,” has been on my mind because this coming Sunday is World Communion. Watching Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. and his celebration of Mass was a timely reminder to ponder differences of opinion about communion. On one end of the spectrum is the Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation where the elements actually become the body and blood of Christ. On the other end is the Baptist; i.e., Zwinglian view that the sacrament is a symbolic “ordinance” – something Jesus ordered us to do and is strictly memorial in nature.

“This Holy Mystery” in our UM Book of Resolutions answers most, but not all questions about our beliefs and practices of the sacrament. We’re somewhere between the Roman Catholic view and the Baptist. Scholars would say that we fall between the symbolic and literalists, in usual United Methodist fashion, and our view would be an amalgam of “virtualism” and “consubstantiation,” with the latter also known as “corporeal presence.” Virtualism derives its name from the Latin, virtus, which means “power” so that partaking of the sacrament gives real spiritual power. Consubstantiation or corporeal presence means that the elements of bread and wine/juice are Jesus’ body and also remain bread and wine at the same time.

It’s the word presence upon which United Methodists focus. It gives some wiggle room for ambiguity and mystery in this both/and understanding between that which is spiritual and that which is material. There should be little wonder then that the UM and Episcopal traditions hold to a middle way between both of these, and always speak of the sacrament as conveying the “real presence” of Jesus. “Real” denotes Virtualism’s emphasis on spiritual power in the sacrament, and “Presence” is indicative of Consubstantiation’s corporeal or bodily presence although United Methodism does not support that the elements literally change into Christ’s flesh and blood.

We do, however, hope that we as Christians become Christ’s body; i.e., his flesh and blood in intention and action in the world. When we say “real presence” it is a spiritual reality that defies logical and empirical explanation, but it is more than a ordinance. It is real sacrament whereby God gives grace through our partaking.

In the midst of this debate we must embrace both mystery and certainty. In the sacrament, Jesus shares himself and grace is given. “Real Presence” is as close as we can come in conveying the essence of this mysterium tremendum. We believe that Holy Communion is much more than either an empirical miracle or a symbolic remembrance.

You may think, “What does it really matter?” Frankly, you’re probably right, and that’s something that I’m pondering, too. What matters to me is that the sacrament, however defined, unites us to Christ and one another! The worst thing that we can do is celebrate World Communion Sunday and not want to be connected to Christ AND one another. We may have our differences in theology and the way that we do church and theologize about the sacraments, but we can get along because we unite around the most important truth: “Jesus Christ is Lord!”

For sure, we know that every denomination has its distinctives. For instance, United Methodism seems to be more defined by its practices than by its doctrines, but that’s an inaccurate conclusion. We may be called “Methodists” because we are methodical and believe in doing more with our faith than pondering it, but our theological underpinnings are as solid as any other faith. We have our “Articles of Religion” and “Confession of Faith” in every Book of Discipline. We do, however, focus on a systematic and practical faith, and it was birthed through our founder John Wesley’s primary beliefs about God. Some denominations emphasize that humans are made in God’s Legal Image. On one hand, this view has been used as an excuse for humans to take advantage of Mother Earth. On the other hand, it is a call for better stewardship of the planet. While agreeing with the latter, Wesley focused on our being made in God’s Social and Moral Images.

If you’re ever around a United Methodist who knows anything about how we do church, the word “conference” will come up. Another United Methodist word, “connectionalism,” is synonymous. We are a worldwide denomination that has layers of conferences that promote our connectionalism. Our way of doing church starts with charge conferences, all the way through church conferences, district conferences, annual conferences, jurisdictional conferences/central conferences, and General Conference.

Why in the world do we confer or conference so much? We believe that it reflects the social image of God. If God exists in the social community that we call the Trinity then we should, too! The old joke is that the only difference between “United” Methodism and “Untied” Methodism is where one puts the “I.” If the Trinity is three distinct persons, yet one, we can respect one another’s uniqueness and still be one. The church should be as distinct and indivisible as the Trinity. We should never let our “I” subvert our “We” as a church.

We United Methodists also hold with Wesley that we humans are made in God’s Moral Image. In other words, God always does that which is right and moral. Likewise, we have been created in God’s image to be moral creatures. Adam’s “Fall” made that undoable, and caused us to experience total depravity, but, thanks be to God, Jesus gives us a fresh start. Jesus gives us multiple opportunities to truly become perfect in intention, if not action, in accordance with Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This is the root of United Methodism’s emphasis on personal and social holiness whereby God’s sanctifying grace transforms us and the world around us.

World Communion Sunday underscores both Wesleyan distinctives of conference and holiness if we let it. When we partake of the sacrament we find ourselves at one with each other and Christ. We experience sanctifying grace and forgiveness that give us another start on the highway of holiness. This is why we call the sacrament “The Eucharist.” “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving,” so this Sunday we say “Thanks be to God!” when we receive this marvelous and mysterious gift of grace. Someone said it well, “The three most desired phrases that we humans want to hear are: ‘I love you,’ ‘I forgive you,’ and ‘Supper’s ready.’” All three can be experienced this Sunday in the Lord’s Supper. Come and eat!

Communion Picture

Dr. Welch’s Grape Juice & World Communion

This is that time of year when I ponder what World Communion really means. I can say that I love everybody, but if I harbor ill will when I come to the Table then it doesn’t do much good. If I’ve been a jerk to someone, I have prevented them from knowing grace, too. I very much like what someone said, “The three phrases we most often desire to hear are: “I love you!” “I forgive you!” and “Supper’s ready!” In the sacrament of Holy Communion this is what we hear from Jesus. It’s His Table, and all are invited. It’s up to us to come!

When I was a youngster in my home church we went to Sunday School and afterwards made our way into the sanctuary. The educational building was behind the sanctuary so that if you went from one to the other you usually entered through the back door that opened into the sanctuary right beside the pulpit and altar. If we saw the communion elements and the white cloth spread out we immediately pressed our parents into leaving early.

Communion services were so long and were as somber as a funeral service. We used the old ritual; where what we said focused more on guilt than grace . We used words like, “We bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time to time have most grievously committed in thought, word, and deed…” I felt sinful enough already. Our communion service added to my sense of guilt. The words of pardon were miniscule in comparison to the confession. I usually left feeling worse.

This is one reason that today when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper; we attempt to focus more on Christ’s marvelous work of grace than on our power to reform ourselves. We, more often than not, now refer to Communion as the Eucharist. Eucharist means Thanksgiving. The most important thing that we do when we come to the Communion Table is say, “Thanks!” to Christ for his gift of mercy. Rather than focus overly on our sinfulness, we thank God for God’s graciousness. What a better perspective!

World Communion Sunday is an event that bridges denominations and spotlights our commonality in the Body of Christ. This world would be so much better off if we looked for that which we hold in common rather than our differences. Holy Communion, rightly observed, reunites the Church. This is the pastor’s hope when he or she holds up the loaf of bread and says, “Because there is one loaf, we who are many, are one body in Christ.”

Therefore, our focus this week is in how to get over our differences and find common power to live in Christ. The Eucharist is a time of positive celebration, reunion, prayer for healing, and a sacred time to put others before ourselves. Dentist Thomas Welch found himself wanting to make communion accessible to all back in 1869. Communion was problematic for a number of reasons, but the alcoholic content of the wine was primary. Dr. Welch was the Communion Steward for the congregation of First Methodist Church of Vineland, New Jersey. To his dismay, more often than not, communion either set some of the participants off on an alcoholic binge or on a rush to judgment by the abstention crowd. He and his family did experiment after experiment to come up with a solution and they did. He created unfermented grape juice, dubbed it “unfermented wine,” and soon churches all around wanted the product. By 1890 “Dr. Welch’s Grape Juice” had become a staple on communion tables, where it remains so today, all because someone saw communion as a sacrament that brought Christians together, not divided them! Let’s pray that our World Communion 2014 brings the whole Christian family together in grace and thanksgiving.

Communion pic

Ash Wednesday Reflection

Lent is a season that calls for action, real repentance and authentic forgiveness. I remember well the old ritual we used to use for Holy Communion. It was an emotional bummer in many ways. I’m not saying what we have today is glee and gladness but at least it’s Eucharistic and more focused on thanksgiving for God’s grace than us “bewailing our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time to time most grievously have committed in thought, word, and deed.” At least it went something like that. I remember leaving Holy Communion services feeling somewhat worse about my spiritual state than I did beforehand. Was that such a bad thing? It did make me straighten up and ponder the depths of my being.

Although I like the upbeat God-focused tenor of the current Communion service, I do need more time in repentance than a brief prayer and a few seconds of silent confession. If by nature Holy Communion is a sacrament that mysteriously conveys Christ’s Real Presence then it should be taken more seriously than a “Jesus Snack,” which I heard one children’s sermon presenter call it. I need to recapture the depth of repentance that is part and parcel of true communing with God. I also need to own my real sorrow over the sins that I’ve committed.

To be honest, many of my sins are directly against God but most reach God through the conduit of my actions against people. Haven’t you felt belittled, slighted, or otherwise demeaned by someone? Often when we have been treated in such a way, we get even. We curse back or at the very least feel resentment. We may even feel some self-righteous smugness that we have been unfairly assailed and claim a higher ground that is more sham humility than the real reconciliation. I cannot relish any thought of being better than the attacker if I don’t admit my own sins. Nobody’s perfect, yet the Scripture (Matthew 5:48) says “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In its context this Scripture is all about God being perfect in loving everyone, both good and bad.

That’s a tall order when someone has wronged us. To quote from my devotional this morning from The One Year at His Feet by Chris Tiegreen, “No, Jesus gives no attention to whether our feelings are legitimate (when we’re upset with someone). That is not the point. Our feelings may be entirely accurate. What Jesus calls for, instead, is absolutely counterintuitive to the human experience: a rejection of our resentments and bitterness, no matter how appropriate they are. We are to love even when love grates against our souls. While we hope for the downfall of our enemies, Jesus actually expects us to pray for blessings to rain down upon them.” Wow!

The action that Lent calls us to do is a call to love when we’ve been wronged and especially when the person never ever says they’re sorry or asks for forgiveness. It can be called “unilateral forgiveness.” Unilateral literally means “one-sided.” Jesus modeled a one-sided unilateral forgiveness. For instance there’s no evidence in the Gospels that anyone ever asked Jesus to forgive them but Jesus did it anyway! The handicapped guy whose buddies lowered him through the roof didn’t ask for forgiveness but Jesus said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The sinful woman with the alabaster jar of ointment didn’t ask for forgiveness, but Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your sins are forgiven.” On the cross, with no pleas from the soldiers and crowd for forgiveness, Jesus really modeled unilateral forgiveness when he said, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”

A valid call to action this Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent is to model Christ’s love and forgiveness. Unilateral forgiveness sets prisoners free and more often than not the prisoners are you and me. May we repent and be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect – in love!