When I was growing up there was something special about each and every time I took Communion. I could never explain it fully, but every time I went to the table and received the bread and juice I…just felt something. Never sure how to explain it I always would call it a mystery. The feeling was mysterious.
As I went through my seminary time I sought to learn more about the sacraments because of how much of an impact I felt they had on my faith life. In the United Methodist Church we have two sacraments, those are Baptism and Communion. This Lenten Season we are going to focus on Communion.
Because I think we, as the church, have become disillusioned with the true understanding of Communion. It has become more habitual than anything, and we merely come up receive the bread and juice, and sometimes we don’t treat it with the true sacramentality that the meal is really worth.
We will follow through the liturgy that we use when we take Communion and observe the various aspects that are associated with the meal, and my hope and prayer is that through this series, and our Lenten study if you are participating in that, you may come to a deeper understanding of communion and truly have your life changed each and every time you receive it.
To begin, and before we dive into our liturgy, it is important to talk about possibly the most important aspect of communion, or either sacrament for that matter, grace. Grace is where this whole discussion on sacredness and sacramentality begins.
In This Holy Mystery: A Methodist Understanding of Communion the writers write, “Sacraments are sign-acts, which include words, actions, and physical elements. The both express and convey the gracious love of God. They make God’s love both visible and effective. We might even say that sacraments are God’s ‘show and tell,’ communicating with us in a way that we, in all our brokenness and limitations, can receive and experience God’s grace.” (This Holy Mystery. pg. 16)
Christ is at the center of this meal and through Christ, we are offered God’s grace, but let us ask today “what is God’s grace?”
To begin our discussion this lent of Communion we must first answer that question, and we gain a bit of insight on this from one of the earliest theologians of the Church, Paul in his letter to the church in Ephesus.
Grace, to begin broadly, is “the love and mercy given to us by God because God wants us to have it, not because of anything we have done to earn it.” (http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/our-wesleyan-heritage)
Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Eph. 2:8-10)
Let’s break that down in light of how Paul introduces us to grace. We learn first that it is by grace that we are saved through our faith. We also learn that it is a gift and we do nothing to deserve it, and never can. That is that even our good works do not impact the grace we receive from God. However, Paul does note that in our creation in Christ and our living into that grace we do good works. Essentially, as I have mentioned before, good works should be a byproduct of our faith. So, grace is not something we earn, but it is something, by nature of being created beings we have, and through our faith we can experience it in all the fullness God has intended. This idea is placed in juxtaposition to how Paul speaks about a life without God’s grace. Note here Paul talks in terms of a life without the offer of God’s grace.
Paul begins this teaching saying, “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient” (Eph. 2:1-2)
This idea plays into our understanding of eternal life expressed by Christ. We often say that life without Christ is death, but life with Christ is eternal life. It is important to note here that we talk of spiritual death, and even here from Paul it is a reference to the despair that a life without understanding God’s love entails. Paul talks of desires of the flesh, in reference to how we try and live by our own desires. We do what we want to do. We forsake God and move away from God, but Paul notes that through grace God has always been, and will always be there. Paul writing, “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…” (Eph. 2:4-5)
Paul here says that because God has offered grace to us our lives are enriched and made better through God’s presence in the life of creation and this is expressed fully in the manner in which Christ comes down to earth and dies so we may fully understand that love. Paul wants to set against each other what a world with and without God’s grace looks like. This plays into our United Methodist understanding of grace, because it sets forth for us the sheer magnitude of God’s grace.
In the United Methodist Church, we proclaim the one grace that God offers, however, we also proclaim that that grace can be experienced and manifest itself in three different ways (some of which we have discussed before).
To begin we believe in what is called prevenient grace, or preceding grace. Prevenient literally means “to come before,” and in that understanding we see God’s grace present throughout all of creation, and it is present before we ever completely understand God’s grace. This is saying that God’s grace is not indicative on our actions, again we don’t have to do anything to receive God’s grace. God’s grace is there, and present amongst us no matter where we are, or are not, in our faith journey.
Justifying grace, is the work in which we do (in part). Even with God’s presence all around and within us, we believe that we have that moment where we claim that grace and we are forgiven and put into right relationship with God. With that understanding, we continue to make right on our part that relationship. We ask for forgiveness and seek repentance in our lives to enhance that relationship we have with God.
This moves us towards sanctifying grace. This is the manner in which grace does call us to become better and transformed Christians. Through sanctifying grace we grow and mature in our ability to live like Christ. We are continuing to work our way towards what John Wesley refers to as “Christian Perfection.” Our doctrine reads, “By perfection, Wesley did not mean that we would not make mistakes or have weaknesses. Rather, he understood it to be a continual process of being made perfect in our love of God and each other and of removing our desire to sin.” (http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/our-wesleyan-heritage)
The cool things is that we experience each of these manners of grace not in a linear fashion through our lives, but at any point in our lives we can experience grace in any of these three manners, and because of that we understand grace, not in a linear fashion of our lives, but in a manner of full experience. This means so much when we talk about our salvation, because in other theologies of grace justification is the focus and salvation is earned through justification, and in a manner we express our salvation in the manner in which we have faith, but as we look at Paul here in Ephesians and we think about the theology we proclaim as United Methodists, our salvation is better expressed in a journey. This journey has ups and downs, it has times of deep learning, and it looks forward to being the best embodiment of the Kingdom of Heaven that we can be.
This is grace. Grace is a journey and a feeling, and it is why Communion is such a major part of our experience as Christians. Sacraments, throughout the history of the church have been defined as outward signs of an inward grace. However, in Wesleyan thought and theology there is added an addendum of sorts that not only is this an outward sign of an inward grace, but we make explicit that it is also a means of grace. By that we mean that in the meal and time together we experience God’s grace in any of the manners in which it presents itself.
So why is this so important for communion?
Because God’s grace is present in Christ and flows through us. It revitalizes us on our journey of faith. It awakens us to the presence of God, and not just at the table, but we are given calm and nourishment for the journey through God’s grace.
This defines and sets forth how we will talk during the rest of our time in this series because grace is at the foundation of this meal.
I want you to reflect on your understanding of God’s grace. How do you experience God’s grace, both throughout your faith and within the meal of Communion? As we work ourselves the rest of this way I hope that you will be able to centralize this meal on that grace that God offers through it and you will find a renewed understanding and love of coming to the table.