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Holy Communion


Holy Communion (con't.)


As early as the Emmaus experience on the day of Resurrection, recorded in Luke 24:13-35, Christians recognized the presence of Jesus Christ in the breaking of bread.  The traditional Jewish practice of taking bread, blessing and thanking God, and breaking and sharing the bread took on new meaning for them.  When followers of Christ gathered in Jesus’ name, the breaking of bread and sharing of the cup was a means of remembering his life, death, and resurrection and of encountering the living Christ.  They experienced the presence of their risen Lord and received sustenance for their lives as disciples.  As the church organized itself, this custom of Eucharist became the characteristic ritual of the community and the central act of its worship.


Over the centuries, various understandings and practices of Holy Communion have developed.  Roman Catholicism teaches that the substance of bread and wine are changed (although not visibly) into the actual body and blood of Christ.  Protestant Reformers in the sixteenth century rejected this teaching but had diverse ideas among themselves.  Lutherans maintain that Christ’s true human body is present with the elements of bread and wine in the celebration.  Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss reformer, taught that the Lord’s Supper is a memorial or reminder of Christ’s sacrifice, and affirmation of faith, and a sign of Christian fellowship.  Denominations in the Reformed tradition, following John Calvin, maintain that although Christ’s body is in heaven, when Holy Communion is received with true faith, the power of the Holy Spirit nourishes those who partake.  The Church of England (the Anglican Church) affirmed a somewhat similar view in its Catechism and Articles of Religion.  These understandings (stated here very simplistically) suggest the range of ideas that were available to John and Charles Wesley and the early Methodists.


Early Methodism


The Methodist movement in eighteenth-century England was an evangelical movement that included a revival of emphasis on the sacraments.  The Wesleys recognized the power of God available in the Lord’s Supper and urged their followers to draw on that power by frequent participation.  John Wesley described the Lord’s Supper as “the grand channel whereby the grace of his Spirit was conveyed to the souls of all the children of God” (“Sermon on the Mount – Discourse Six,” III.11).  During the years in which Methodism was beginning and growing, Wesley himself communed an average of four to five times per week.  His sermon “The Duty of Constant Communion” emphasizes the role of the sacrament in the lives of Christians in ways that are keenly meaningful today.


American Methodism


The early American Methodists, who began arriving in the 1760’s, were at first able to receive the sacraments from Anglican churches of which they were considered a part.  But the situation soon changed, and Methodists began to reject the English church.  By the mid 1770’s, most Methodists had no access to the sacraments at all.  The missionary preachers sent by John Wesley were laymen, as were the Americans who became preachers.  They had no authority to baptize or to offer Holy Communion.  Methodists were longing for the sacraments, and it was this need that motivated Wesley to take actions to provide ordained elders for America.  In 1784 the Methodist Episcopal Church was created and some preachers were ordained.  Still, the number of elders was too small to offer the sacraments regularly to the rapidly increasing number of Methodists.  During the decades of the circuit riders, most Methodists were able to receive the Lord’s Supper quarterly, at best, when the ordained elder came to their community.  Even after ordained elders served many Methodist churches the habit of quarterly Holy Communion remained strong.


American Methodists considered Holy Communion a sacred and solemn event.  The tone of the ritual was deeply penitential, calling upon people to repent and having less emphasis on the celebration of God’s grace.  During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the rich Wesleyan understandings of Eucharist were largely lost, and the sacrament became understood only as a memorial of the death of Christ.

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Last revised on 25 October 2008