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What is the Free Methodist stance regarding communion?

People are asking for clarification regarding Free Methodism’s stance regarding communion. This document is designed to help. It was requested and then approved by the Study Commission on Doctrine of our denomination in Canada in May of 2002.
In the Manual of the Free Methodist Church in Canada we read:

•125 The Lord’s Supper

The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of our redemption by Christ’s death. To those who rightly, worthily, and with faith receive it, the bread which we break is a partaking of the body of Christ; and likewise the cup of blessing is a partaking of the blood of Christ. The supper is also a sign of the love and unity that Christians have among themselves.

Christ, according to His promise, is really present in the sacrament. But His body is given, taken, and eaten only after a heavenly and spiritual manner. No change is effected in the element; the bread and wine are not literally the body and blood of Christ. Nor is the body and blood of Christ literally present with the elements. The elements are never to be considered objects of worship. The body of Christ is received and eaten in faith.

•711 COMMUNION SERVICES

The central act in Christian worship is the Lord’s Supper because it is the one thing Jesus told his followers to do in remembrance of him. In Communion we look in at ourselves and confess the things that have gone wrong. We look back to Calvary and praise Jesus for his death for us. We look up to his risen presence, longing to nourish us through the bread and cup which he said were his body and blood. We look around in love and fellowship with other guests at God’s table. We look forward to his return at the end of all history, the marriage supper of the Lamb, of which every Communion is a foretaste. And then we look out to a needy world; Communion is battle rations for Christian soldiers. [Adapted slightly from Michael Green, One to One (Moorings, 1995) p. 102]

“Christ is really present in the sacrament”

The statements above seems to say less than that the bread and cup actually are changed into the body and blood of Christ, and yet more than that they are simply symbols to help us remember his death for us. Is there biblical foundation for the “Christ is really present in the sacrament” view?

The first piece which follows addresses this fundamental question. The second responds to the fact that in many of our churches the basic tone of communion in the early church (joy, thankfulness — which would be our experience if we realized that Christ is really present!) has been replaced by a dull, somber service of remembering and penitence which people approach with some hesitation.

These have been reviewed and approved by the Study Commission on Doctrine and are provided to assist our people in better understanding and practicing the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

What’s Going on in Communion?
(a “narrative” explanation)

Paul and a couple of the brothers and sisters from the church had dropped by to see Felix and Diana one night. The people closest to them in the church had sensed that something was pulling them back from the vitality of their walk with Jesus. Now that Paul was back in town, they had agreed they would stop by to do some pastoral care.

“Hey Felix,” Paul said, after the three of them had been warmly ushered into their friends’ home. “We missed you last night. I was back in town, and a couple of us stopped by after supper to see you and Diana, but your kids said you were at a banquet down at the community centre. Did you guys go out for a long-overdue date?”

“Well, sort of, Paul. We went to a banquet with one of the shop-owners down near my store. We really didn’t know what all would be involved, but we’re trying to build a friendship with them. It turned out that it was a banquet for the adherents of that new spirituality group from Outer Slobovia that is just the rage these days.”

“But the food was good, and the idol-worship ceremonies they did were certainly intriguing,” he added.

Paul tried to respond. ‘Felix . . .”

But he quickly continued, “Don’t worry, Paul. We haven’t abandoned our faith. We don’t buy into that stuff. We believe that Jesus is God, not that that piece of wood and stone they had standing there. We just went through the motions with them. Relax, Paul. We ourselves were by no means into what they were doing.”

“You yourself surely remember how you responded when we asked you what Christians are to do when the only meat available has all been ritually sacrificed to pagan gods before it goes on sale. We wanted to be faithful to Jesus, and so we asked you, ‘Is it O.K. to use that meat or not?’ Some of the brothers and sisters were sure it was wrong, but others of us had said to go ahead and eat it by all means — not a molecule of it has been altered by having been offered to some piece of stone or wood. And you agreed. You said that there has been no transformation in the meat itself: an idol is nothing, and as far as that goes, we are neither better nor worse off for eating the meat . . . right?

Paul piped up, “But what else did I say?”

Diana answered. “You also said that it’s vital that our freedom from superstitious scruples should not be allowed to force the pace of a weaker, newer Christian who might not yet be able to handle the distinction. I think we have been careful there.”

“Good,” Paul said. “But what you’re saying you were involved in last night is more than that —and here’s where I want to help you. I haven’t changed my tune. I still agree with you that the food sacrificed to idols is nothing, and, for that matter, that an idol is just wood and stone. We’re together on that.”

“But here’s where you’re in grave danger. What pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. The issue is not the food from that pagan meat-shop, or the molecules of the statue, but with the spiritual realities that group was bonding with. I do not want you to be partners with demons.”

Felix wasn’t buying it. “O Paul, you’re just being too much of a purist; you’re getting superstitious! We were just going through the motions of their ritual. That’s all.”

“Think again, Felix,” Paul said. “You’re sensible people. Judge for yourselves what I say. You know that whenever we have communion, we’re not consuming some molecules of wine and bread, are we?”

“That’s true,” Diana said. “The cup of blessing that we bless, it is a participation in the blood of Christ. And the bread that we break, it is a participation in the body of Christ. You taught us that when we first became Christians. We know that when we have the Lord’s Supper, it’s not just about some bread and wine, it’s about Him and communing with Him! Yes, we know that there’s a whole lot more going on than meets the eye when we have communion. . . . . . .”

“ . . . . . . . O my! I see what you’re getting at, Paul,” said her husband. Though we were telling ourselves that we were just going through the motions last night, there was more going on in the unseen spiritual realm. . . . . . . . . I’m ashamed to admit it, but now I can see that we were subtly becoming partners with the evil reality behind their superstitions, weren’t we?”

“Yes,” Paul said. “I’m so grateful that you can see that now. Thank God that you now know why you mustn’t go to pagan feasts that are built around idol worship. We cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. We cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”

Soon they were praying together, asking forgiveness for being careless, and to be totally freed from any spiritual entanglement they had brought on themselves in that way.

The preceding scenario illustrates the concerns Paul has as he writes I Corinthians 10:14-21 [NRSV]:

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.

In this passage Paul tells us that although the meat is not changed because it is used in the worship of idols, the use of it with a particular intention and in a particular context may and can affect our relationships with the unseen powers of good and evil. The physical material does not change, but spiritual relationships with the unseen world can. “They are partners with demons,” he says in verse 20. Nothing has happened to the meat, but something more has gone on than meets the eye.”

And to prove his point, he refers to the view of the Lord’s Supper he knows they hold in common with him. That’s why verses 16 and 17 are there.

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

That is to say, the use of the bread and wine in the context of Christian worship, in relation to Christ’s death, and in repentance and faith, effects an actual participation in Christ’s sacrificed life. This Paul assumes that his readers know, and he uses the fact that more goes on than meets the eye in Communion as an argument against getting involved in pagan worship services.

He emphasizes that while the materials have not changed (as is believed about the Lord’s Supper in one part of Christendom), the use of them in certain contexts does involve changes in spiritual relationships. Paul speaks of our being actually united with Christ and with one another. So the other extreme view in Christendom (that the bread and cup are only ‘symbols’) misses the point too. More goes on in the Lord’s Supper than meets the eye, when we participate in repentance and faith and openness to the Spirit. Some beautiful things we can’t even begin to grasp are nonetheless happening – in the Spirit of Jesus.

Every time you take communion you are being changed. You’re either becoming more dull spiritually, or more alive in Jesus. But you don’t stay the same. Christ is really present.
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Communion Dread
John W. Vlainic

When it comes time for communion, many Christians feel dread. Their minds play tapes from I Corinthians 11: “eating and drinking in an unworthy manner,” “examine yourselves,” “some have died,” etc. As a result, what should be a joyous celebration of forgiveness and new life together in the presence of Christ, is turned into a moment when people feel they are sitting alone under a 10,000 watt searchlight! Instead, we need to recover communion for what it was in the early days of the church –a feast of thanksgiving and joy!

But someone will say, “I understand your desire for something positive and upbeat, but what about these warnings from Paul?” Here, the background helps us.

Historians tell us about the homes of the well-to-do. The hosts usually seated members of their own high social class in the small first-class room (where they ate what was their equivalent of caviar and steak and lobster –you fill in whatever is sumptuous and first-class for you), while others were often crowded into a clearly inferior room, sometimes in plain sight of the luxury accommodations (eating what amounted to bread and water).

Here is what a satirist from that time says about his experience of this practice1:

Since I am asked to dinner, …why is not the same dinner served to me as to you? You take oysters fattened in rich sauce, but I suck a mussel through a hole in the shell; you get mushrooms, but I take hog funguses; you tackle turbot, but I brill (a common, bland fish). Golden with fat, a turtledove gorges you with its bloated rump; but there is set before me a magpie that has died in its cage.

The host and his wealthy close friends would gorge themselves on rich food, while other “guests” would eat elsewhere on bits of bland ordinary food. Doesn’t that make you angry?! It should!!

It seems that this outrageous practice sometimes carried over into the life of this church. Communion would be tacked on to one of these feasts of separation and contempt. Thus we read in vv. 18 & 19 about “factions” in the church and hear Paul say in v. 22:

What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? [N.R.S.V.]

So who does Paul have in mind when he writes these warnings that have been used (inadvertently) to turn communion into a sombre penitential service? The person who lost their cool this week, and still feels bad about it? The person who failed to follow through on some promises, and now regrets it? The person who is spiritually numb right now, and hasn’t been reading their Bible and praying as they would like? The person who gave in to some temptation you’re struggling with? No! Paul is not trying to keep such people (or anyone aware of their need) away from the Lord’s table!

Instead, he is trying to get the attention of people who have taken the Lord’s Supper and made it a mockery by tacking it onto a blatantly evil pagan practice that is a total denial of its essence. He does not have in mind people who come to worship aware that they still have problems and needs and growing edges in their lives.

So here’s what, unfortunately, has happened. In failing to note clearly who Paul addresses in this particular passage, the church gradually let these harsh words (needed to address the high-handed sin in Corinth) come to dominate thinking about communion, so that people did not experience it as a joyful celebration of the presence of the one who had died and was now alive and with them! It became more like a funeral!

Yes, of course, we should come to the Lord’s table with a repentant heart, a heart eager to clear up sin. And yes, self-examination is very appropriate.

But in the earliest church (and hopefully again today) our repentance, our self-examination, our desire to clear up sin and be transformed is bathed in joy, deluged with forgiving grace –because our Lord is present with us in love in a special way when we share in his Supper!

So we come in confidence –even with the things that still need the touch of grace –because it is in the death of Christ and in his living presence with us that those needs can be addressed!

These are some of the core reasons why in many churches these days communion practice is evolving away from the solemn, let-me-clear-up-my-sin-by-myself penitential service that arose over time. Many across Christendom are trying to recover two notes from the earliest church the note of oneness, and the note of joy.

One way to do this is to use a range of music during communion — a mixture of music that celebrates the death and the resurrection and the living presence of Christ. Think of the overwhelming joy that the disciples who recognized Jesus after the Emmaus Road journey felt, or the experience of the discouraged disciples when the suddenly saw their Lord with them — alive!

Many churches are also attempting to recover the warm spirit of the early church regarding communion by using the common cup and the common loaf (in most cases, through intinction — dipping a piece of bread in a common cup) to enact the fundamental oneness of the body of Christ that we celebrate in the face of all our differences (this conviction was central in the earliest church, and blatantly denied in the Corinthian abuse). In so doing we cut against the grain of the radical individualism of modern western culture, in which spirituality is a private thing between “me and the Lord”. Through common loaf and cup Christians can visibly declare that we are one!

 

Whenever you are able to be in a communion service, I urge you:  come in joy; come in confidence, come in gratitude — even if there are challenges for which you are still asking God’s help, even if everything is not yet what it should be.  There, at Christ’s table, in his living presence with your brothers and sisters, experience afresh his forgiving, transforming grace.  Lay all your burdens before him, and find his power to forgive you and set you free.

 

1cf. Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1987), p. 542.
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For further reading:

 

Howard A. Snyder, “The Lord’s Supper in the Free Methodist Tradition” in Dale R. Stoffer, ed., The Lord’s Supper: Believers Church Perspectives  (Herald Press, 1997), pp. 212-218.

 

Rob L. Staples, Outward Sign And Inward Grace: The Place of Sacraments in Wesleyan Spirituality   (Kansas City:  Beacon Hill Press, 2002).

 

Ben Witherington III, Making a Meal of It: Rethinking the Theology of the Lord’s Supper  (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007)

Tom Wright, The Meal Jesus Gave Us: Understanding Holy Communion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999)

 

Robert E. Webber, ed., The Complete Library of Christian Worship – Volume 6, The Sacred Actions of Christian Worship  (Nashville: Starsong, 1994).

 

Webber’s work contains materials on the history of the Lord’s Supper, theologies of the Lord’s Supper (from various traditions), and the practice of the Lord’s Supper.  Included is a brief article on “A Wesleyan Theology of the Lord’s Supper,” by Rob L. Staples.