No holiness but social holiness: Communing and Sending Forth

This article is the sixth in a series we're calling "A Good and Joyful Thing: A series on liturgical spirituality." We hope this series takes you on an imaginative “travelogue” at various worship services in a local United Methodist church where the liturgy is treasured. We hope that these resources will accentuate how the Wesleyan “religion of the heart” can be fostered by liturgical experience in the richness of our liturgy, both for United Methodists and others who follow the deep flow of the church's worship history.

You walk forward and kneel at the rail at the chancel steps. Your knees fall on the needlepoint image of the church as a ship on water. The body of Christ, given for you. The Christ remembered, the Christ present, and the Christ yet to come is here, in one bread, pressed into your slightly sweaty outstretched palm. You take Christ into yourself as he simultaneously takes you and the rest of the church—the symbol of which you’re kneeling on—into himself, his wounded and resurrected body. 

And the cup. It’s one of those little cups that so reminds us of our individuality and our sensitivity to germs, however expedient that concern may be. But this is not your private communion, a personal audience with Jesus. You are here, together, with the whole flock, receiving. The disobedient church is being reconstituted right here into the new creation, by being incorporated into Christ and one another at the same time. 

That image of the church as a bark sailing through the deep of this life to a promised future shore is apropos this moment. The shore toward which you travel, though, is not simply a heavenly destination, but this very moment itself, brimming with the newness brought about by the fact that the entirety of salvation history, from creation to promised fulfillment, which has been recited in the eucharistic Berakah is contained in the meal and given to you, so that you are now as real a participant in it as Peter or John in the Upper Room. 

You are aware of the significance of kneeling on the ship for another reason. Until now, you had been sitting alone during this morning’s service, apart from others. You are keenly aware of being next to others kneeling on either side of you. You even feel crowded. You came to the Table because Christ our Lord invited you. The Holy One beckoned you to this holy supper. You are here to encounter a Person (in fact, a Trinity of Persons as the eucharistic prayer had it). That Person is here, but so are other persons. And maybe that’s just it. There is no holiness but social holiness. 

The holy moment passes so quickly, though. You might reflect this afternoon, on your back porch with another beverage and food in hand, about whether your heart burned within you as you partook (Luke 24:32). The Eternal contracts to a span of time, the infinite to a piece of bread and a sip of wine.[1] Back in your pew, everyone rises and says a prayer of thanksgiving together:

Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery
in which you have given yourself to us.
Grant that we may go into the world
in the strength of your Spirit,
to give ourselves for others,
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

There is that dialectical tension again characteristic of Wesleyanism. God’s giving makes your giving possible. Going forth isn’t a mere resolve to “do better this week.” We go in the Spirit’s strength to love the neighbor. The communing moment was for you, given for you. But it cannot remain your private moment. In fact, it never was private in the first place. It was together, with others, the whole church around the world, that you communed this morning. And its orientation is to service of others in the week ahead. As much as food is to be enjoyed, it can never only be an end in itself. Its goal is deep in our bones and cells, where the revitalization without which we can’t live takes place. 

That famous line about social holiness came in Wesley’s preface in Hymns and Sacred Poems, a hymnal, one of Methodism’s first worship resources! In it Wesley identifies holiness as faith’s outcome; saving faith works by love. Perhaps our understandings of holiness come best in the context of worship. If our faith has been invited, nurtured by Proclamation and exercised in Response, formed again in Thanksgiving and Communion, it is now ready for the love toward which it is oriented in the Sending Forth. 

Here again, saint-making is the goal of grace, and Wesley is adamant that such holiness is not solitary. Dietrich Bonhoeffer—with equal notability—called it “life together.” Both the thanksgiving prayer and the blessing following the closing hymn speak to that kind of holiness, but in an understated way that could be easily missed. 

If, as we have been saying, the Table portion of the service is faith’s “room itself,” that means union with Christ and each other is the object of Christian living, in a network of relationships that constitute who we are. The image of God for Wesley is primarily about those relationships. 

Go forth in peace.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,
and the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit
be with you all. Amen.

As with the Entrance, the business of sending forth should be concise and to the point. This is functional time. The whole liturgy has given us our marching orders. We are not given a list of things to do, to keep in mind, no last pep talk before taking to the field of the world. We don’t need goading or reminding about what to do. That would be more misplaced didacticism crowding out the beauty of this moment. 

We are going forth to live our lives in a world of work, play, family, community; the social part of holiness comes with the territory. We need nothing else but peace, grace, love, communion and the being-with-ness that is the life of the Trinity. If you “Love, and do as you will” as Augustine advised, then what you should do should become apparent in the course of things. Love, here, is not some airy romantic feeling that comes and goes. Love is the life of God, the Trinitarian giving and receiving, the life of which you have just received eucharistically. The holiness we should find in and bring to the world is the same holiness that preveniently brought us here. It has the power to move us from world to sacred celebration back to world again. The moment we step out of the church door into the world, we are being drawn back to Word and Table, at first imperceptibly, then more and more as the week moves on, until we have worked up a hunger and thirst that can only be slaked together, in the company of the hungry and thirsty, who will return with us. This corporate back-and-forth, too, is social holiness.    

You step out into the overcast morning for some fresh air and conversation, until you step back inside for a Sunday School class and to help someone move tables and chairs for a later meeting. In those utterly pedestrian ways, you have already begun the liturgical dance in the world to which you have been sent, and you haven’t even gotten in your car to go home yet. Grace, love, communion, are already written on your heart because Christ, in the Word and at the Table, has written them there. 

[1] Charles Wesley’s Hymn “Let Earth and Heaven Combine” v. 1. 

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