The recent Consultation on Online Communion (September 30-October 1) held in Nashville caused me to reflect on the sacrament and the role it played in the life and ministry of John and Charles Wesley. I am encouraged by the fact that the church is engaged in conversation about Holy Communion. It tells me that pastors and congregations are trying to find ways to increase participation in the central act of Christian worship. This is a good thing. My hope is that we will move closer to the sacramental practice Mr. Wesley taught and modeled for the people called Methodists.
John Wesley believed the Lord’s Supper to be “the grand channel whereby the grace of his Spirit was conveyed to the souls of all the children of God” (Sermon 26: “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount VI”, §III.11). This is one of the reasons he received the sacrament at least weekly most of his life. He received daily during the eight days after Easter and the twelve days of Christmas. “The Wesleys strongly emphasized the importance of Holy Communion and helped to bring about a sacramental revival in the eighteenth century. Their sacramentarian principles, indeed, eventually proved the major factor in bringing about a separation. The members of the societies were urged to communicate frequently at their parish churches, and the Wesleys themselves led organized groups of Methodist communicants to St. Paul’s or St. Luke’s in London or to the Temple or St. James’s in Bristol, and were happy to share in the administration of the Lord’s Supper whenever invited so to do by sympathetic Anglican colleagues” (Frank Baker, John Wesley and the Church of England, page 84). This explains why the prayer book John Wesley edited and sent to America in 1784 for use by the newly constituted Methodist Episcopal Church assumed weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
To understand why Wesley emphasized frequent communion read Sermon 101: “The Duty of Constant Communion.” As you read the sermon it soon becomes clear that Wesley believed regular and frequent participation in the Lord’s Supper is essential to Christian discipleship because Christ commands it:
“The first reason why it is the duty of every Christian so to do is because it is a plain command of Christ. That this is his command appears from the words of the text, ‘Do this in remembrance of me’: by which, as the Apostles were obliged to bless, break, and give the bread to all that joined with them in those holy things, so were all Christians obliged to receive those signs of Christ’s body and blood. Here therefore the bread and wine are commanded to be received, in remembrance of his death, to the end of the world. Observe, too, that this command was given by our Lord when he was just laying down his life for our sakes. They are therefore, as it were, his dying words to all his followers” (Sermon 101: The Duty of Constant Communion, §I.1).
Christians, according to Wesley, are duty bound to obey Jesus. He believed Jesus when he said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). The Baptismal Covenant is our declaration of loyalty to the Triune God. It binds us to God and to one another in relationships of mutual love, justice, and accountability. All of which assumes loving obedience to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Wesley believed and Christian tradition teaches that the Lord’s Supper is the paramount means of grace. The sharing of bread and wine that re-present the body and blood of our Savior conveys forgiveness of sins, reconciliation, and healing that is tangible and real. Wesley puts it this way:
“The grace of God given herein confirms to us the pardon of our sins by enabling us to leave them. 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. If therefore we have any regard for the plain command of Christ, if we desire the pardon of our sins, if we wish for strength to believe, to love and obey God, then we should neglect no opportunity of receiving the Lord’s Supper” (Sermon 101: The Duty of Constant Communion, §I.3).
The Consultation on Online Communion tells me that pastors are looking for ways to increase availability of the sacrament to their congregation. That’s a good thing. My reading of Wesley tells me that weekly Communion at the principal worship service is the minimum for a Wesleyan practice of Holy Communion. However, a Wesleyan practice can never include virtual worship or virtual sacrament.
Discipleship in the Wesleyan tradition is necessarily communal and relational. It requires Christians seeking to grow in holiness of heart and life together through regular gathering together for worship and in small groups to watch over one another in love through mutual support and accountability. The Wesleyan Way requires Christians working with one another in settings where they can see, hear, smell, touch, and embrace one another. Mr. Wesley is very clear on this:
“So widely distant is the manner of building up souls in Christ taught by St. Paul, from that taught by the Mystics! Nor do they differ as to the foundation, or the manner of building thereon, more than they do with regard to the superstructure. For the religion these authors would edify us in, is solitary religion. … Directly opposite to this is the gospel of Christ. Solitary religion is not to be found there. ‘Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. ‘Faith working by love’ is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection” (Preface to Hymns and Sacred Poems – 1739, §4 & 5).
I think Wesley would regard the practice of online worship and communion as akin to the individualistic spirituality practiced by the Mystics. Such practice is contrary to the nature of the Triune God and the Gospel of Christ. Christian faith cannot be isolated from Christian community. While it is deeply personal it cannot be private. This is why Holy Communion requires the physical community of the Christian congregation. The congregation gathers in the name of Christ to offer themselves, as a physical body, in service to the Triune God through praise, prayer, song, Scripture, proclamation, and thanksgiving. Worship is physically performed together for God.
Persons watching a television or computer display may observe and listen to the worship of the congregation, but they cannot participate in the liturgy because they are physically separated from their sisters and brothers in Christ. They may certainly experience blessing and comfort through listening to the songs, Scripture, prayers, and sermon. Such activity is an act of personal devotion similar to what Wesley called “the ministry of the Word.” To participate in worship, however, requires physical presence in the congregation where my voice can be heard and I can reach out and take the hands of the persons seated near me.
By all means let’s make our practice of the Holy Communion more Wesleyan. This can be done by moving toward including the sacrament in the weekly Sunday worship services, and other times during the week. Use and teach the United Methodist ritual found in “A Service of Word and Table I” found on pages 6-11 of The United Methodist Hymnal. Such teaching and practice will help congregations understand that the Wesleyan altar call is the invitation to the Lord’s table.