Wisdom of Wesley: The Duty of Constant Communion

1 Corinthians 11:17-32

The community meal

17 Now I don’t praise you as I give the following instruction because when you meet together, it does more harm than good. 18 First of all, when you meet together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and I partly believe it. 19 It’s necessary that there are groups among you, to make it clear who is genuine. 20 So when you get together in one place, it isn’t to eat the Lord’s meal. 21 Each of you goes ahead and eats a private meal. One person goes hungry while another is drunk. 22 Don’t you have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you look down on God’s churches and humiliate those who have nothing? What can I say to you? Will I praise you? No, I don’t praise you in this.

23 I received a tradition from the Lord, which I also handed on to you: on the night on which he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread. 24 After giving thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this to remember me.” 25 He did the same thing with the cup, after they had eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Every time you drink it, do this to remember me.” 26 Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you broadcast the death of the Lord until he comes.

27 This is why those who eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord inappropriately will be guilty of the Lord’s body and blood. 28 Each individual should test himself or herself, and eat from the bread and drink from the cup in that way.29 Those who eat and drink without correctly understanding the body are eating and drinking their own judgment.30 Because of this, many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few have died. 31 But if we had judged ourselves, we wouldn’t be judged. 32 However, we are disciplined by the Lord when we are judged so that we won’t be judged and condemned along with the whole world.

 

Thoughts on the passage:

The role and nature of communion have been a hot topic in the Church since the beginning. We see that in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where he is already having to correct and teach them about the proper way to observe the sacrament. While he may have settled this issue for the Corinthians it is one that has come up over and over again since then. The Catholic Church just recently issued a statement around the importance of gluten in communion wafers. There is always something that we are trying to understand when it comes to this holy mystery.

For John Wesley, one of the pressing issues was around the frequency of communion. It was a question he was confronted with repeatedly and so felt the need to put some thought into. His conclusions can be found in his sermon “The Duty of Constant Communion.” While he states it more eloquently, and takes several more words to say so, his conclusion is simple. There is never a good reason to not take communion.

Wesley pins his argument on the simple statement that Christ gives during the Last Supper: “Do this to remember me.” He sees this command from Jesus to be some of his last words and a final directive to us. We cannot ignore it for several reasons. First, we should not be in the practice of ignoring God’s commands in general. More specifically, however, he argues that this command is central to the saving work that Christ does for us on the cross. We are all in need of God’s grace and so following this command is a part of how we are able to receive this grace.

To make his case, Wesley looks at a number of objections and tries to respond to each of them. In each instance however he comes back to what he feels is the heart of this matter, Christ’s command to do this. A divine command to action overrides any reasons we might have for ignoring it. It does not matter if we are worthy or not for communion. If God is offering it to us, how can we refuse? For those who might believe that more frequent communion would cause it to lose meaning, Wesley has a few thoughts. First, it does matter how sacred it is, Christ commands us to do it. Second, Wesley feels that rather than diminish its power, the more frequent taking of communion will increase its sacredness.

Here is perhaps the best summary of Wesley’s views on communion.

“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; then we must never turn our backs on the feast which our Lord has prepared for us. We must neglect no occasion which the good providence of God affords us for this purpose. This is the true rule: So often are we to receive as God gives us opportunity. Whoever, therefore, does not receive, but goes from the holy table, when all things are prepared, either does not understand his duty, or does not care for the dying command of his Saviour, the forgiveness of his sins, the strengthening of his soul, and the refreshing it with the hope of glory.”

So, if John Welsey’s views on communion are so clear and the importance of constant communion so strong, why is it that we do not offer communion more frequently in the church today? The first reason is historical practicality. Communion, along with baptism, is one of the two sacraments in the United Methodist Church. As such, it requires an ordained elder to preside over the communion table. When church was growing rapidly in the United States, there were far fewer elders than there were congregations. Circuit riders would travel from community to community. When they were not present, the people would gather for worship and fellowship, but without a minister there could be no communion. For this reason, many churches would only offer communion a couple of times a year because this was when the minister was present. Old habits die hard and a church culture was created that centered around less frequent communion. Even as the number of elders grew and churches became more established, the habit of less frequent communion was ingrained in the nature of church.

Another reason is really a legacy of our Protestant heritage. In the Catholic Church, the heart of the mass is the sacrament of communion. While a homily or similar teaching might be given, the reason to come to church is to receive the sacrament. By contrast, Protestant churches did a lot to de-emphasize the sacraments in worship. Instead, the heart of worship became the Word of God. This was made possible by translations of scripture from Latin to more widely spoken languages and the increased use of teaching, really preaching, as a part of worship. Before long, the sermon had become the key point of worship.

Where does that leave us? Do we take Wesley’s word and look for ways to take communion more frequently? What can we learn from reading this passage from Paul where he talks to the Corinthians about the importance of communion?  There are great questions. If I am sure of one thing, it is that questions and conversations will drive us deeper into relationship with God and with each other.

The fundamental meaning and value of communion is not at stake. The question is not, what is offered to us in the breaking of the bread, but instead the question is how do we prepare ourselves properly to receive this great gift from God? Wesley talks to an audience, directing them to never refuse communion when it is offered. He does not direct his remarks to other church leaders about how frequently to offer it. Probably he does not address this because it was not something that was debated. It is thought that Wesley probably took communion an average of four to five times a week. He does this because of what he hopes to accomplish in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the cup. Wesley believes that through communion we are feeding our souls. Through communion we tap into the grace that God offers to each one of us. This is what we need to get ready for.

In the church in Corinth, people were not treating communion with reverence. Those with the time and leisure to arrive early to worship were able to partake of the food that was there while those who were working arrived late when nothing remained. Not only was there not equal access to communion, but it risked becoming a symbol of status and power. Paul needed this to end and so did everything to return the focus on communion to where it belongs, Christ. When we take communion, our focus is meant equally to be on Christ. When we gather and break bread together we remember that we are all one together in Christ and that Christ died for each one of us. We take the bread, we drink the cup, and we remember. Can we do any less for our God who loves us, lived for us, and died for us? Thanks be to God.

 

Questions to Ponder:

What are your first memories of communion?

What makes communion sacred and holy to you?

What do you do to prepare yourself to receive the sacraments?

Prayer:

God, you love us all, even when we turn away from you. Help us to remember the depth of your love, a love that was willing to die for each one of us. When we take communion, help us to remember that your love is present and your grace abounds. Center our thoughts and our minds on you that we might be faithful followers of your commands.  Amen