Sure and Real Is the Grace: How Often at the Table?

January 6th, 2011

I recall vividly going with my grandmother to the quarterly Methodist “Holy Communion” services in my home church. The wooden pews were not padded and the service was punctuated by solemn words and “The Old Rugged Cross” most of the time. The high point for me was when I was taken by the hand to go kneel at the altar rail, waiting for the day when I could take a piece of bread and the little glass of Welch's grape juice in my own hand. After Confirmation, that day came, and I wondered at how the rhythm of my heartbeat was reflected in the surface pulse of the juice in the glass, and how Jesus could be present in the little cube of slightly dried white bread.

I remember how the pastor, reinforced by Sunday school teachers, had remarked that Holy Communion was so special that we shouldn't do it too often. It would become “dead ritual.” And, of course, too frequent participation would be “too much like the Catholics.”

That puzzled me in my teenage years because I would keep wondering about my mother, who died when I was five, who was Austrian Roman Catholic. Yet to come for me were the heavier theological discussions of the meaning of the sacraments, of “real presence,” or of what Wesley, Luther, and Calvin intended by frequent participation in the sacrament. Yet to come was the surprise of learning about the early church's practice of the Lord's Day, and Justin Martyr's eschatological view of the Eucharistic meal, and of reflecting on all the meals Jesus ate with saints and sinners alike.

Now I find myself—after forty years of teaching Christian worship and the sacraments—thinking about some of the most basic questions all over again. These reflections themselves are a result of a remarkable resurgence in the frequency of celebrating the Holy Communion within United Methodism, and in much of the Christian world itself. Few of us could have anticipated the impact of the worship reforms following upon the Second Vatican Council in the decades of the 70s and 80s. But fewer still would have predicted that Holy Communion would, within a period of twenty-five years or so, have moved from the standard “quarterly” special service to monthly and, increasingly, to weekly observance in many United Methodist local churches. What are we to make of this? Is this new frequency of celebration a “fad”? Is it simply “in vogue”? Or is there something deeply theological and spiritual emerging here?

Here is one story. A former student of mine was assigned to develop an “alternative service” in the gymnasium of a local church in Florida. With remarkable pastoral care and a lot of knowledge about Christian worship practices, he worked with the leadership of that church, both lay and professional, over a period of time. The so-called “alternative” service is now a strong and lively weekly celebration of Holy Communion, using a common ecumenical pattern of Word and Table. But in bringing this to birth, it became clear that many people in that church were ready for more interactive, intergenerational worship.

The visual and musical ethos of this service has introduced the history of Christian iconography, as well as to the blending of classical hymns, with music from Taizé and the best of the recent “praise and worship” music. One could certainly call this “blended” worship, but that might be misleading. The truth of the matter is that this church is in the process of recovering a much deeper sense of the theological and spiritual meanings inherent in Holy Communion. Such a recovery of the mystery of God's self-giving in the unity of Word and sacrament obviously is a reply to the fear of “dead ritual.” But it is much more as well. I will sketch what are cultural shifts that are part of United Methodism's move toward more frequent celebrations and will conclude with several theological dimensions of this remarkable renewal.

The move toward more regular celebrations of the Holy Meal reflects, in part, several relevant cultural shifts. Many persons, and not only the young, find themselves drawn more toward nonverbal forms of communication than to “wordy” forms. Weary of too many words and less responsive to excessively verbal worship, increasing numbers of those coming to church find visual, musical, tactile, and kinetic forms of experience more engaging. It is now almost a cliché that oncoming generations are more disposed than are many older worshipers to respond to “interactive” human environments.

The fact that rituals are more bodily engaging than words alone contributes to being drawn toward a renewed interest in sacramental sign-actions. Rock concerts, for example, are occasions of singing, dancing, and gesturing. But they are not focused on matters of life and death, of how we should live, or necessarily on our desire to find God or be healed from our deeper wounds. Christian rituals such as Holy Communion (Eucharist), foot washing, baptism, or healing services are obviously more stylized and less spontaneous, but it is the sensory and bodily engagement required that is part of the recovery of “life-giving” ritual encounters. In these we find sensory and bodily engagement precisely in the desire for God.

Furthermore, and especially in North American society, we long for greater intimacy and personal encounter in our increasingly “impersonal” and highly constructed consumerist worlds. Many people witness now to the deeper spirituality of the church's sacraments-when they are celebrated with honesty, integrity, and with awakened senses. Suddenly one recognizes that both sensory/bodily engagement and intimacy have been ingredients in the Christian liturgical tradition from the beginning of the church.

Quite apart from these cultural factors and the range of human needs implied, let us consider four theological/spiritual reasons for this rediscovery of grace. First, the Holy Mystery of God's offer of grace through Word, bread, and cup promises a more wholistic relationship with God in Jesus Christ than we may be used to. Second, the Eucharistic prayer and communal action is a continual remembering of our distinctive identity in Christ, especially in view of our exposure to the import of Islam, Judaism, and other world religions. Thirdly, the deepest strands of the Wesleyan tradition support this. The Wesleys hoped for a profoundly sacramental life enriched by prayer, song, and the lively Word of God. Much of their hope for a truly evangelical and catholic sense of church was diminished by the American frontier experience. In the fourth place, this represents the Spirit-led ecumenical sharing and cross-influences of our time. Only by receiving the grace of God through the lavish love of the Holy Meal in which Christ shared his very life will we begin to overcome our old suspicions and prejudices. The sacraments, and especially the Eucharist, belong to the whole church, not just to the so-call “high liturgical” traditions.

Finally, where I have found a deeper passion for the whole Christ, good teaching about the larger Christian traditions, and vibrant celebrations, I experience United Methodists witnessing to a fuller sense of the Incarnation and the ongoing life of the Spirit in community. Jesus Christ is known to them “in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24), and in the on-going practices cited in Acts 2:42 ff.: continuing in the apostles' teaching, the fellowship of care, the breaking of the bread, and the prayers.

Perhaps I can best say it this way: What Jesus Christ said and did, continues to be proclaimed and enacted in the gathered assembly through the signs of bread and wine he gives us. Christ's grace-giving words and actions will continue until the rule and reign of God comes in fullness to this whole creation. So, as he feeds us, so we must feed others. As he forgives, so must we. As he reconciles and makes new every Lord's Day, so we must be reconcilers and peacemakers. As we are given vision of God's future for us, so we must work to transform the world in that light. These things are made present every time we take the bread and cup, bless and give thanks to God, break the bread, and receive and share the grace. This is, in my judgment, continuing Wesley's “ordinary means of grace,"—the practice that leads to “constant communion” with the creating, redeeming, and sanctifying Holy Three-in-One. This can never simply be a religious fad or fashion, nor the latest passing trend. It is the very heartbeat of Christian life and faith.

When the sacrament of God's self-giving comes to life, and our lives are brought to the Holy Meal, what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ will come alive in surprising, graced-filled ways.

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