How much faith do we need? World Communion Sunday might be a ripe opportunity to preach on what John Wesley thought about this, especially when it comes to presenting ourselves at the table of the Lord.
In recent weeks my work has led me to explore the whole history of the “open table” among United Methodists and the frequently-cited phrase attributed to John Wesley that has led to this practice: that Wesley believed Holy Communion could be a “converting ordinance.”
This World Communion Sunday might be a good opportunity to review and clarify the nature of Wesley’s statement in light of the reading from the gospel of Luke (Luke 17:5-10).
Kimberly Bracken Long notes in Feasting on the Word that how we read the first two verses of this text matters, a lot. Many hear Jesus scolding his disciples for their lack of faith. That’s one viable way to read it. But given the nature of rabbinic teaching, it may be more likely there’s another way. Perhaps Jesus was saying something like this: “You don’t need anyone to increase your faith. You only need the smallest amount of faith, tiny as a mustard seed, and amazing things can happen.” In other words, “You’ve got all the faith you need. Just use it, and watch!” Not a word of scolding, but of encouragement.
So what does all this have to do with communion? Well, as it turns out, John Wesley’s comments on Holy Communion as a “converting ordinance,” a phrase he used exactly four times in all of his written works (two of them later quoting the previous two!) speak to a very similar issue. Wesley wrote these words in response to a group of people who were concerned their level of their faith was too low to enable them to be worthy to receive the Lord’s Supper.
“Converting Ordinance” in Context: Philip Molther, Stillness, and the Fetter Lane (Moravian) Society
The first hint of a problem can be found in an entry from Wesley’s journal dated November 1, 1739. John records that when he returned for a visit to the Moravian Society meeting at Fetter Lane, “one whom I had left strong in faith and zealous of good works… now told me, Mr. Molther had fully convinced her she never had any faith at all; and had advised her, till she received faith, to be still, ceasing from outward works; which she had accordingly done and did not doubt but in a short time she should find advantage of it.” (John Wesley, entries for November 1-7, 1739, in The Works of John Wesley, vol.19, ed. W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashille: Abingdon, 1990)119-20.)
Wesley in subsequent journal entries records this woman was not alone. Indeed, virtually everyone in the Fetter Lane Society had come to doubt having enough faith. And because of this, they should enter into “stillness,” refraining from participating in any means of grace, especially the Lord’s Supper, until God gave them assurance.
Such was the influence on this Society of the teaching their fellow Moravian emigré, Philip Henry Molther. He impressed on these people what was known as the doctrine of “stillness.” He taught assurance of faith came not by good works, but by faith in Christ alone. He interpreted participating in the means of grace, including the receiving of Holy Communion, as forms of works righteousness. He advised the members of the society to refrain from anything that could be construed as works and instead, to be still and wait upon the Lord to deliver the assurance of faith they desired.
John Wesley, good Anglican that he was, was disturbed by the notion the “ordinary means of grace” established for our use by God – attending public worship, receiving Holy Communion, fasting, engaging in private prayer, searching the scriptures –could be construed by anyone as a form of works righteousness. True, these means of grace were not able to do anything in themselves in the absence of any faith whatsoever. But even with the tiniest seeds of faith, intentional participation in the means of grace was of utmost value in growing in a person into robust, healthy, perfected faith.
For about eight months, beginning in November of 1739 and continuing into June of 1740, John Wesley found himself embroiled in dispute with the Moravians and the Fetter Lane Society. Journal entries from the period attest to Wesley’s ongoing frustration over the matter. He writes frequently about his attempts to preach about the proper relationship between faith and the means of grace, but to no avail.
He painstakingly lays out the situation beginning with his entry on Sunday, June 22, 1740, writing,
After we had wandered many years in the new path, of salvation by faith and works; about two years ago it pleased God to show us the old way, of salvation by faith only. And many soon tasted of this salvation, “being justified freely, having peace with God, rejoicing in hope of the glory of God,” and having his “love shed abroad in their hearts.” These now ran the way of his commandments: They performed all their duty to God and man. They walked in all the ordinances of the Lord; and through these means, which he had appointed for that end, received daily grace to help in time of need, and went on from faith to faith.
But, eight or nine months ago, certain men arose, speaking contrary to the doctrines we had received. They affirmed, that we were all in a wrong way still; that we had no faith at all; that none is justified till he has a clean heart, and is incapable of any doubt or fear.
They affirmed also, that there is no commandment in the New Testament, but “to believe,” that no other duty lies upon us; and that when a man does believe, he is not bound or obliged to do any thing which is commanded there: In particular, that he is not subject to ordinances, that is, (as they explained it,) is not bound to pray, to communicate, to read or hear the Scriptures; but may or may not use any of these things, (being in no bondage,) according as he finds his heart free to it.
They farther affirmed, that a believer cannot use any of these as a means of grace; that indeed there is no such thing as any means of grace, this expression having no foundation in Scripture: And that an unbeliever, or one who has not a clean heart, ought not to use them at all; ought not to pray, or search the Scriptures, or communicate, but to “be still,” that is, leave off these “works of the law;” and then he will surely receive faith, which, till he is still, he cannot have.
Wesley proceeds to make his case one point at a time. His first audience includes those with weak faith. There are degrees of faith in all people, he says, but it is all faith. Weak faith, though it be weak, is still sufficient faith for participation in the means of grace. Indeed, a person’s faith may very well be made stronger by such participation. In the context of the scripture lesson for today, even faith the size of a mustard seed is enough to warrant participation in a relationship with God and the ordinary means of grace.
He moves on to note that his opponents are claiming there is only one commandment, and that is “to believe.” This, Wesley says, is a complete distortion of the biblical witness, pointing out that the Lord’s commandment was not to believe, but to love him and keep his commandments.
After this he discusses the subject of whether Christians are required to keep the ordinances. He identifies the ordinances of Christ as “prayer, communicating [participating in and receiving Holy Communion], and searching the Scriptures.” Christ, he says, commands all, believers and unbelievers alike, to follow his commandments. So yes, these are required, but not as “works” but as the very ways we relate to God and God to us. He goes on to talk about sin, and prayer, and the reading and meditating upon the Holy Scriptures.
Finally, after all of this, he comes to the subject of a sermon he recently preached on Holy Communion. He writes:
Friday, June 27, 1740
I preached on, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the ancient Church, every one who was baptized communicated daily. So in the Acts we read, they “all continued daily in the breaking of bread, and in prayer.”
But in latter times, many have affirmed, that the Lord’s Supper is not a converting, but a confirming ordinance. And among us it has been diligently taught, that none but those who are converted, who have received the Holy Ghost, who are believers in the full sense, ought to communicate.
But experience shows the gross falsehood of that assertion, that the Lord’s Supper is not a converting ordinance. Ye are the witnesses. For many now present know, the very beginning of your conversion to God (perhaps, in some, the first deep conviction) was wrought at the Lord’s Supper. Now, one single instance of this kind overthrows the whole assertion.
The falsehood of the other assertion appears both from Scripture precept and example. Our Lord commanded those very men who were then unconverted, who had not yet received the Holy Ghost, who (in the full sense of the word) were not believers, to do this “in remembrance of” him. Here the precept is clear. And to these he delivered the elements with his own hands. Here is example equally indisputable.
The entry continues into the next day:
Saturday, June 27, 1740
I showed at large,
1. That the Lord’s Supper was ordained by God, to be a means of conveying to men either preventing, or justifying, or sanctifying grace, according to their several necessities.
2. That the persons for who it was ordained, are all those who know and feel that they want the grace of God, either to restrain them from sin, or to show their sins forgiven, or to renew their souls in the image of God.
3. That inasmusch as we come to his table, not to give him anything, but to receive whatsoever he sees best for us, there is no previous preparation indispensably necessary, but a desire to receive whatsover he pleases to give. And,
4. That no fitness is required at the time of communicating, but a sense of our state, of our utter sinfulness and helplessness; every one who knows he is fit for hell, being just fit to come to Christ, in this as well as all other ways of his appointment.
In spite of Wesley’s continued attempts to dissuade them, many adherents to the “quietist” or “stillness” doctrine were undeterred. They persisted in believing participation in the means of grace was not just nonessential to their assurance of faith, but could be harmful to it. In their minds, their subsequent conversion experiences, or “baptisms of the Spirit” were far more important to their faith than their water baptisms, the ongoing nourishment of Holy Communion, or participation on any of the other ordinary means of grace.
“Converting Ordinance” Then and Now
What is important about this history for this particular scripture lesson and day is the context in which John Wesley wrote that Communion could be a “converting” ordinance. There is no evidence that Wesley developed this into a basic theological stance to be applied for all times and all places; rather, it was written as a response to a particular issue with a small group of people.
Karen Westerfield Tucker speculates on how it came about that two brief entries from John Wesley’s journal in 1740, later quoted in a letter addressing a similar issue, has come to be interpreted by some United Methodists today as an endorsement for a completely “open table” and the use of communion as a form of evangelism:
With the revival of interest in the writings of John Wesley at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was rediscovered that Wesley spoke of communion as a converting ordinance. The term was rarely used in Methodist literature prior to the 20th century. When used after that time, the phrase was taken up generally without relating it precisely to the original context of its use: the controversy with Molther on the means of grace and “stillness.” In addition, by the time of this rediscovery, the language of evangelism had changed. “Unconverted” or “unbeliever” generally no longer referred principally to the “unassured of faith,” but to those altogether without religion. Different conclusions were reached when Wesley’s writings were read without an eye to their original context and time period. The term “converting ordinance” was thus reinterpreted to mean a remedy for those totally without faith. (Karen Westerfield Tucker, “Table Etiquette: Means and Manners,”
In other words, when applied to Holy Communion today, the use of the phrase “converting ordinance” has come to refer to conversion from total unbelief to belief, without benefit of baptism in any way. This is strikingly different from its original context of referring to moving from being baptized but with weak faith to being baptized and having a lively assurance of faith.
The language of “converting ordinance” in its original context was addressed precisely to those who believed that their weak, small, mustard-seed sized faith was too inadequate to allow them to dare come forward to the table. These were people he already knew to have been baptized and full of faith, but, thanks to the teaching of Mr. Molther and other “Quietists,” had come to doubt they had any faith at all.
To such folks, then and now, Wesley would say, “Come!”
Come! Because sharing in the sacrament will help your faith to grow!
Come! Because it is part of your relationship with God to receive the means of grace that God has provided for you to strengthen you!
Come! Because even though you feel unworthy, the Holy Spirit may use this sacrament to work a new awakening, a reviving, a conversion in your heart from weak, fragile, dying faith to bold, robust, lively faith.
On this World Communion Sunday let us celebrate the fact our Lord invites to his table not only those with a strong faith, but those who are still “going on to perfection.” Indeed, the Lord invites “all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.”
Faith the size of a mustard seed, if that’s all you have, is enough. And if that faith is nourished regularly at the table of the Lord, in time it will surely grow into a faith of notable scope, depth and strength!