Laurence Hull Stookey was one of my favorite professors when I was a student at Wesley Theological Seminary. I will always be thankful for Professor Stookey and all he taught me about the theology and practice of Christian worship. I continue to learn from him when I re-read his three books, Baptism: Christ’s Act in the Church, Eucharist: Christ’s Feast With The Church, and Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church.
With all the recent talk about congregations practicing, or considering, online communion, I have spent time with Dr. Stookey by re-reading his book on Holy Communion (Eucharist). The first chapter is a very helpful summary of the various meanings of the sacrament. To unpack this Dr. Stookey employs the five Cs of sacramental theology: Creation, Covenant, Christ, Church, & Coming Kingdom.
Creation: Jesus’ use of bread and wine tell us that God values the goodness of creation. Bread and wine are products of the earth and must pass through the work of human hands and systems before they arrive at the Lord’s table. The Lord’s Supper tells us that creation and human beings are good and for good.
Covenant: The sacrament is a sign and symbol of God’s covenant with the Church and each of its members. It is a sign and symbol of God’s self-giving love for us within the community of the Church in the world.
Christ: Holy Communion is a re-presentation of God’s love for the world in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we come to the table to receive the bread and cup we remember Jesus’ breaking bread with sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, Pharisees, Scribes, and Gentiles. We remember the feeding of the five thousand when everyone was fed. Christ invites everyone to his table where he gives himself away. He supplies the grace we need to repent of our sin and to receive the forgiveness and healing we need to live and serve with Christ in the world.
Church: This is the piece that is particularly important when we are considering questions around the efficacy of online worship and, in particular, online communion. I’m going to quote directly from Eucharist here:
“Theologically understood, the church is the covenant community of Christ’s people; it is the company of those who know they live by grace and believe themselves incorporated into the transforming work of the resurrection. …
“The church is a body, says Paul, an organic system, not a collection of separated individual parts. We should be reminded of this by the fact that the Eucharist is normally received by congregations assembled in one place, not individuals in their own homes.
“The Eucharist is not each believer communicating separately with God, and happening to be in the same room for matters of convenience and efficiency. … Christians come together because the believers by definition are bound together. The congregation, not the individual, is the irreducible unit of Christianity”
(Eucharist: Christ’s Feast With the Church, pages 22-24).
Coming Kingdom: The gospel of Jesus Christ is the reign of God. The heart of his preaching and teaching are summarized in Mark 1:14-15 and described in Luke 4:18-19 and Matthew 5:1-7:28. In the Lord’s Supper the church enacts the nature of the reign of God that is among is in Christ and that is coming. All are invited and welcomed. All are fed. All are loved, forgiven, and reconciled. All are given the grace they need to live as citizens of God’s realm.
The Lord’s Supper is Christ’s feast with the Church. In it he reveals for us the goodness of God and God’s creation. He enacts God’s covenant love for the Church and the world for which the Church exists. Christ gives himself freely to all who “love him, who earnestly repent of their sin, and seek to live in peace with one another.” At the table, through confession and forgiveness, giving and receiving of life-giving gifts, and sending forth into the world he reminds the Church of its nature, life, and mission. Finally the Lord’s Supper gives us a glimpse of the reign of God that is among us and that is coming.
John Wesley believed Holy Communion is the “grand channel” of divine grace for God’s children. Why then do so many United Methodist congregations that have pastors who are ordained elders starve their people of this grace by offering the sacrament only one Sunday a month?