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!