John Wesley on the importance of Communion
In a recent blog post, Louis McBride writes about the delight he experienced while reading Ben Witherington’s book, A Shared Christian Life. Louis quoted a section in which Witherington talks about the importance that John Wesley placed on our participation in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper with fellow believers. This got me thinking about some reorientation in my own beliefs concerning the spiritual benefit Christ intends to give us through the Communion service. To set the stage for brief reflections of my own, here is what Louis wrote, citing from Witherington:
“It is hard to exaggerate how important John Wesley saw taking Communion regularly was to the normal Christian life and to growth in grace. In fact, so important was it to him that he wrote an entire sermon entitled, ‘On Constant Communion’ in which he argued that regular Communion was not enough!
‘In Wesley’s view, spiritual formation, indeed Christian growth, needed to focus on prayer, probing the Scriptures, and taking the Lord’s Supper–not on having a personal spiritual director; not on going on spiritual retreats; not on reading a lot of books on how to improve one’s Christian life or discern God’s will for one’s life. However much there might be other things that can improve a person’s spiritual formation, it is precisely and especially these three things that Wesley said, “we Methodists” should concentrate on.’” (92-93)
My experience of different approaches to Communion
My father had started his formal church ministry as a Baptist pastor, before he went to India as a missionary, in 1944. But during his work in India, my Dad came into contact with Plymouth Brethren missionaries. Whether he had any exposure to the way in which Brethren Assemblies structure their weekly “breaking of bread” services before he went to India, I do not know. But it was clearly something for which my Dad developed a strong appreciation. I regret now that I never took an opportunity to talk with my Dad about how that came about, or what drew him to weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper as the central point of Sunday morning congregational worship. In any case, by the time my memories of India become strong, my Dad had planted a church in which our Sunday morning service was modeled on the Brethren pattern, beginning with an hour long communion service, before the exposition of the Word.
Most missionaries in South India took a holiday in the mountains, during the hottest time of the year, up where the schools for missionary children were located in South India. During those holidays, our family used to worship in the local Brethren Assembly. So I was quite young when I grew to love the practice of gathering weekly with fellow believers in Jesus around his table, and eating and drinking together the bread and wine which signified Christ’s death for us.
As I mentioned in my most recent post, I became a Baptist after I got married, in a congregation where communion was celebrated twice a month, though always at the end of an otherwise usual Sunday service (morning or evening, alternately). Those too were significant times for me, even though the Lord’s Supper did not have the prominence in the service that it had within Brethren practice. On two sabbaticals, however, one in Oxford, England, and the other in New Haven, Connecticut, we worshipped in Anglican/Episcopalian churches and, once again, I was in a context where the eucharist was the central point around which congregational worship was focused every Sunday. My spirit was nourished by that practice, and it was a large change from the practice of the Mennonite congregation which has been our home church since we moved to Manitoba, 23 years ago. Here, the Lord’s Supper is celebrated only 4 times a year, twice after a regular Sunday morning service (Baptist style), and twice in the evening, when communion and foot washing are the whole point of the gathering.
The theology that underlies Communion practices
It seems plausible that a different theology of the Lord’s Supper informs this difference in practice. Anabaptist and Baptist practice grew out of Ulrich Zwingli’s theology of the Lord’s Supper, at a time when this point of theology was immensely controversial within the Protestant Reformation. All of the Protestant theologians formulated their theologies of Communion with the late medieval theology of the Roman Catholic Church in view. There it was an established doctrine that the consecration of the elements of communion by the priest were instrumental in those elements becoming substantially the physical body and blood of Christ, without a change in their “accidence,” i.e. their appearance – it was a divine act of transubstantiation.
In this, as in all areas, there was a spectrum of views among the Reformers, which grew increasingly distanced from Rome’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, moving from Luther (physical presence, “in, with and under” the elements), through Calvin (spiritual presence), to Zwingli, and the Radical Reformation out of which the Mennonite and Baptist understandings evolved (symbolic).
My limited personal experience and observation lead me to hypothesize that sacramental understandings of Communion foster frequent celebration and understandings of Communion as an ordinance which memorializes Christ’s work foster less frequent celebration.
Communion as a Sacrament
John Wesley’s strong appreciation for the spiritual benefit of the Lord’s Supper was natural in his Anglican context, an attempted via media which was influenced by both the Lutheran and Reformed movements. Article 25 of the Thirty-Nine Articles describes the two sacraments in this way:
“Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him. . . .The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same, they have a wholesome effect or operation.” (American revision of 1901)
In a classic work of Reformed theology, Louis Berkhof wrote:
“A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ, in which by sensible signs the grace of God in Christ, and the benefits of the covenant of grace, are represented, sealed and applied to believers, and these in turn give expression to their faith and allegiance to God.” (Systematic Theology, 617)
Communion as an Ordinance
You will have noticed that the Thirty-Nine Articles specify ordination by Christ as the necessary criterion for something to be designated a sacrament (hence two rather than seven, as per the Roman Catholic Church), but the emphasis is on their value as means by which God communicates his “good will towards us” and works “invisibly in us.” Similarly, Berkhof noted the function of the sacraments as expressions of faith and allegiance to God, but this is subsidiary to their benefit in the application of the benefits of the new covenant to believers. By contrast, the Radical Reformation tradition has emphasized the believers’ action rather than God’s, in the celebration of the Ordinances. They are signs of our public commitment to Christ. In a classic work of Baptist theology, A. H. Strong wrote:
“By the ordinances, we mean those outward rites which Christ has appointed to be adminstered in his church as visible signs of the saving truth of the Gospel. They are signs in that they visibly express this truth and confirm it to the believer …a symbolic rite which sets forth the central truths of the Christian faith, and which is of universal and perpetual obligation” (Systematic Theology, 930)
Between Rome and the magisterial Reformers, there was a difference regarding the efficacy of the sacraments. Rome posited them to be efficacious in and of themselves, whereas the Reformers stressed the need of faith in appropriation. Zwingli avoided the issue of efficacy by attributing none to the ordinances, since he did not view them as means of grace, even when celebrated as a declaration of faith.
A modified Radical Reformation sacramental understanding
I grew up with a basically Zwinglian understanding, so that I celebrated the Lord’s Supper as a declaration of my faith in Christ which was beneficial in the way that all acts of obedience to Christ are beneficial in our spiritual lives, but I did not expect God to act within me, communicating new grace for my strengthening in faith and Christ likeness, through my reception of the elements. As I studied the theology of the Baptist tradition into which I had gladly entered, this same memorialist emphasis on my obedience to Christ was emphasized.
When I became a Calvinist soteriologically, I remained a convinced credo-Baptist and my understanding of the Lord’s Supper was not significantly affected. I can’t identify clearly the trajectory of a change in my attitude. Some of it probably came through a growing appreciation of covenantal theology, but I suspect that my year of worship at St. Aldate’s, in Oxford, also contributed. Through the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper, as central to the congregation’s gathering for worship, I grew in a sense that God did communicate himself and his grace to me, as I received the elements with faith. I began to relish going forward to receive the bread and wine from the hands of someone who told me as I did that “this is the body of Christ broken for you,” and “this is the blood of Christ shed for you.” With Calvin, I began to sense that in this act, not only did I receive elements which “signified” what Christ had done for me, but Christ “sealed” those benefits to me as I received them with faith.
I have not been alone within the Radical Reformation tradition in this regard. In 2000, Canadian Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz noted that some Baptists are now reaffirming “a sacramental significance for the acts of commitment, while retaining the primacy of the designation ‘ordinance’” (Theology for the Community of God, 671). Stan suggested that, as ordinances, we practice them “as the primary divinely ordained means for us to declare our loyalty to Jesus as Lord” (671), but Christ commanded us to observe them because participation in them is of benefit to us. Here Stan cited Calvin’s statement that “they have been instituted by the Lord to the end that they may serve to establish and increase faith” (Inst., 4.14.9)
Stan went on to propose: “Through our participation we not only declare the truth of the gospel, however, we also bear testimony to our reception of the grace symbolized” (672). Through them, we act out our faith and, “as we affirm our faith in this vivid symbolic manner, the Holy Spirit uses these rites to facilitate our participation in the reality the acts symbolize” (672). Thus, these ordained means for our expression of loyalty to Christ become “channels of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives” (673).
This has become my conviction too. Despite numerous differences between Stan’s theology and mine, I miss him as a kind and gracious friend, and I am happy when we concur at points such as this.
I have also been encouraged by similar signs of change within the Mennonite world. The “Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective” was adopted at the delegate sessions of the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church, meeting at Wichita, Kansas, July 25-30, 1995. Article 12 speaks of the Lord’s Supper, and emphasizes our remembrance of the Lord’s death for us, in a way that is characteristic of the Radical Reformation tradition which Anabaptists and Baptists all value, but it introduces another note that moves us beyond mere symbolism and memorial.
“The supper re-presents the presence of the risen Christ in the church. As we partake of the communion of the bread and cup, the gathered body of believers shares in the body and blood of Christ 3 and recognizes again that its life is sustained by Christ, the bread of life.”
In the second item of the Commentary, which was also agreed upon, they write:
“As Christians eat the bread and drink the cup, they experience Christ’s presence in their midst. The Lord’s Supper both represents Christ and is a way in which Christ is present again (‘re-present’) in the body of believers. In this meal, the church renews its covenant to be the body of Christ in the world and to live the life of Christ on behalf of others.”
I am thankful for the richness of this understanding of the Lord’s Supper. When I first read it, I was reminded of conversation I had on Theologos, a theology list serve, years ago when list serves were active. An Anglican theologian suggested in one of our discussions of the Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper that Baptists believe in “real absence.” A couple of us Baptists protested, but I understand where he got that impression. Statements such as this one from major Mennonite bodies give a different message. I was also encouraged that the Commentary encouraged frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper, which had been the practice of the early church (Acts 2:46) and of 16th Century Anabaptists (# 4). How that has affected practice in these churches I do not know.
The Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches very carefully developed their own confession, when they became distinct from the Conference in the U.S. Unlike the Mennonite Church, They say nothing about the nature of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, but they do attribute spiritual benefit to the celebration. Though primarily a statement by believers, a remembrance and a celebration, in the process of that act there is a “strengthening believers for true discipleship and service.”
It is worthwhile for me to point out too, however, that Baptists who developed their confessions of faith intentionally in continuity with earlier Reformed statements acknowledged spiritual benefit in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. We see this in the Philadelphia Confession of Faith (1720 edition), where Article 30 states that the Lord instituted the Supper, not only for perpetual remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice, but also for “confirmation of the faith of believers in all the benefits thereof, their spiritual nourishment and growth in him” (1). And question 196 of the Philadelphia Baptist Catechism asks: “What are the benefits of the Lord’s Supper to believers?” To which the answer is given: ‘”They are made stronger in their faith, they are spiritually fed, they are reminded of the debt they owe to Christ, and they are caused to renew their promise of serving and worshipping Him” (1 Cor 10:16; Jn 6:53-57).
Traditionally, there has been a marked difference in understanding between churches that speak of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as “sacraments,” and those which call them ordinances.” I favor the modifications about which I have spoken above, and I no longer hesitate to refer to baptism and the Lord’s Supper as sacraments. I believe that Christ gave us these ceremonies, not only to elicit our obedience, or to give us opportunity to testify to our faith, but because he has chosen these as means of grace, as celebrations of the gathered church in which he is especially present, advancing his gracious purposes in the lives of both individuals and new covenant communities.