“We thank you Lord for this holy mystery in which you have given yourself to us.” We pray these words every time we take communion. Yet how often do we take a close look at this mystery? There are so many questions, and viewpoints about communion.
Ask for examples
Some Christian churches think that one has to be of a certain age, when one can be taught and begin to understand what communion is and how to take it, before one may even receive the bread and cup. That’s why some children prepare for weeks to receive their First Communion. But some of the greatest minds like Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth have written pages and pages about the sacrament, Charles Wesley wrote at least 166 hymns on the Lord’s Supper. They described its meaning and beauty as a means of grace and still have not encompassed the height and depth and width of its meaning. It is a holy mystery – and as such none of us humans will ever know all there is to know about it.
Other traditions, like ours, offer communion to all who have been baptized, which means that some of us here don’t remember a time when we were excluded from the table. But if anything, that has kept communion shrouded in mystery. Who has been taking communion as long as they’ve been eating? Did anyone take time to teach you what it means?
We will be taking five weeks to look more closely at Communion using the gospel of John chapter 6, and hunting through history to discover what United Methodists understand and how we practice it. Along the way I hope to clear up confusion, and answer many questions. So it will help me if you share those questions with me. And as we go, we will experiment with having weekly communion.
There are two mysteries before us today. First the mystery of frequency.
Why do some congregations have communion weekly, but not others? From the perspective of history the Lord’s Supper has almost always been celebrated weekly by almost every congregation. Jewish Christians continued to worship on the Sabbath, but they also gathered on the first day of the week to remember the Lord’s resurrection. Sunday became known as the Lord’s Day and the gospel of Jesus Christ was proclaimed and communion was shared to celebrate life in him. That Lord’s Day service became the primary Christian worship service each week. Word at Table is the basic pattern of Christian worship among the Orthodox, and the Catholics, and even among the Protestants. Reformers introduced many changes to worship, but several did not wish to reduce the frequency of communion. The Church of England kept the weekly practice as well. John and Charles Wesley were priests in the Church of England. They took Communion more than once a week and Charles wrote over 160 Eucharistic hymns. But some Protestants, including Methodists ended up having communion much less often. My grandparents, who were raised in the Methodist church only had it about four times a year. Why? What happened?
The only reason Methodists don’t have weekly communion is that there were not enough ordained clergy to go around when our church was founded in 1784. When this congregation was founded in 1818 we were part of a circuit – the Mansfield circuit stretched from Stoughton to Seekonk, included all the Methodist congregations in Rhode Island and we were on the northwestern edge. In any year the circuit was assigned 1-3 preachers, who traveled around each day on horseback to tend to their congregations. Not all of the preachers were ordained and able to preside over the sacraments. Not all congregations had a preacher in town on a Sunday, it might be Tuesday or Friday when one showed up here in South Walpole. This was typical everywhere in America, so Methodists got used to holding Morning Prayer services without communion on most Sundays. The time they could be sure to share the sacrament was during their quarterly meetings. Four times a year Methodists from each place on a circuit would meet for a long weekend full of worship services, prayer meetings and business meetings. The Presiding Elder was at each quarterly meeting and there were other elders so Methodists always had communion at these meetings.
Little by little the circuits were given up and Methodist preachers began to be stationed at just one or two locations. New England, influenced heavily by our Congregational neighbors, led the way in this trend within American Methodism. South Walpole got its first stationed preacher in 1834. But by then the practice of having Communion once a quarter had become a habit. By the time my grandmother was growing up 100 years ago it was just assumed by Methodists that communion would take place just 3-4 times a year. But in recent years most Methodist churches have increased the frequency to at least once a month. Why is that?
Clue – look at p. 2 in hymnal Basic Pattern features two central parts – Word (Proclamation and response) and Table (Thanksgiving and Communion)
In the 1960s, a time when the ecumenical movement was flourishing and major changes were taking place among Catholics and Protestants, Methodists leaders started to examine our anemic practice and take note that it didn’t flow out of our heritage or represent John Wesley’s teaching that the sacraments were a sure and certain means of God’s grace. Liturgy scholars like Drs. Westerfield Tucker, and Gayle Felton worked to produce This Holy Mystery which aims to help United Methodists find a richer sacramental life including weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper. It was adopted by the General Conference in 2004. The order of worship in our hymnal and book of worship (which came out in the 1980s) is one of word and table, in anticipation that we will follow this encouragement.
We come to the second mystery when we turn to John Chapter 6. There are several clues in the first few verses of this chapter. Turn to the scripture.
Verses 1-4 is an introduction to the chapter. It has several clues of what this whole chapter is about.
In verse 1 puts the story along the Sea of Galilee. This is where Jesus conducted his ministry, teaching (the Sermon on the Mount), healing many people and proclaiming that the kingdom of God is very near.
In verse 2 a large crowd followed him there because of the signs he did on the diseased. Ah! Another clue. You have to go back a couple of chapters and to read about some of the healing Jesus did. Jesus will have a lot to say about people looking for signs in chapter six.
Verse 3 “Jesus went up into the hills, and sat down with his disciples.” More clues. You can read about Jesus calling his disciples namely Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathaniel in chapter 1. It’s easier to teach a few disciples than a whole crowd. So they retreated up into the hills, away from the crowd – the area where Matthew records Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Verse 4 mentions the Passover. This clue opens up a whole history of the Jewish people. It reminds us that God saved the people of Israel from Egypt, let them through the wilderness to the Promised Land and on the way fed them manna from heaven. The mission of Jesus was to continue that salvation history and open it up for all people. This theme of the bread of heaven will show up again and again throughout chapter 6.
Next we come to the miracle story itself. The first thing to notice is that Jesus initiates this miracle. Verse 5 says Jesus himself looked up and saw that the crowd had found him. Rather than being annoyed that they were interrupting, Jesus responds with hospitality – he is concerned about these people’s hunger.
He asks Philip a rhetorical questions – “how will we buy bread to feed all of these people?” Jesus knows what he is about to do, but he wants to see if Philip has come to know him. Phillip and Andrew show that they are only thinking of earthly things. Phillip quickly calculates how much it would cost to feed this multitude. Andrew notices one boy’s lunch. They both show they have a mentality of scarcity which leads them to believe the situation is hopeless.
In verse 10 we see Jesus take the lead as host as he invites the crowd to sit down. It is estimated that 5,000 were there (Matthew reminds us in his telling of the story that such statistics included just the men, though women and children were surely there as well). Then as all Jewish hosts did at a meal he took the bread and fish, gave thanks and gave it to his guests. And then in verse 13 the miracle becomes evident. Not only was there enough for everyone, but there were twelve baskets left over.
From these clues we can see that Holy Communion began as a meal offered by Christ and open to all who were present and choosing to be identified with followers of Jess by sitting down. Accordingly This Holy Mystery directs United Methodists to keep an open table. The invitation of who may receive is clear. See page 7 Christ is still the host. “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him.” You don’t have to go through confirmation classes first. You don’t have to be a certain age. You don’t have to be a member of this church. And though we believe this Holy Meal is primarily to sustain those who are baptized into the Body of Christ, we won’t turn you away if you are not baptized yet.
There is a bit more to the invitation. Those invited are expected to “earnestly repent of our sin and seek to live in peace with one another.” This is important and we will pick up this clue another time. But for now, just know that it is left up to each one of us to examine ourselves and decide if we are truly ready to receive. And if we can confess our sin sincerely and make steps to live in peace with each other, we are welcome to receive.
Christians have typically taken a passage of scripture to heart when it says that we ought to take care to take communion in the right fashion. But we have often debated just what that means. Some have been afraid to receive if they have not been able to forgive someone. But if we find ourselves in that state, and we confess our anger and our difficulty in forgiving and at least ask God to help us with that, those steps, I think, are sufficient for us to come forward and receive the grace of God through the sacrament.
As our congregation continues to shift to become more hospitable to guests, we can take our cue from Jesus who invites all who are willing to come, and feeds them out of God's abundant grace.