This is a part of a series of meditations discussing what we refer to as “Means of Grace.” To assure a shared understanding of our discussion, let us provide some definitive frames of reference. In This Holy Mystery, a paper formally adopted by the United Methodist Church in 2004, we are provided with these words about “grace.”
In accord with biblical and Christian teaching, we believe that we are sinners, constantly in need of divine grace. We believe that God is gracious and loving, always making available the grace we need. Grace is God’s love toward us, God’s free and undeserved gift.
Our United Methodist Book of Discipline tells us
Because God truly loves us in spite of our willful sin, God judges us, summons us to repentance, pardons us, receives us by that grace given to us in Jesus Christ, and gives us hope of life eternal.
In other words, the scriptures contain many divine promises to those of us who follow our triune God and keep his commandments. But such is human nature that we will not qualify for those promises on the basis of our behavior and performance. We have a bad habit of sinning. So we need God’s Grace to compensate for our deficiencies.
The story is told of a man who found himself at the pearly gates seeking entry into the Kingdom of God. St. Peter told the man he would need to have earned 1000 points to enter, and asked him what he had to offer to justify the points. The man confidently told St. Peter of his work on church committees and boards, financial contributions to the church and charities, work with children in scouts and little league, fidelity and support as a husband and father and other virtues. Looking at St. Peter’s computer he noted with dismay that each of these virtues earned him 5 or occasionally ten points and he was showing a total of 85 points. Disappointed and frightened he cried out in dismay, “It would take the grace of God for me to get 1,000 points.” Looking at St. Peter’s screen again, he saw his total -1,000 points.
It’s easy for us practicing Christians to become complacent about our relationship with sin. We see a lot of misbehavior around us and in the news which, by comparison makes us look good. But I don’t find any scripture that tells me God grades on a curve. And even though we might do pretty well avoiding sins of commission, those sins of omission are a challenge to most of us.
Our Christian theology tells us that God has ordained actions by which we can obtain the grace he seeks to convey. In This Holy Mystery, John Wesley is quoted as saying: “By ‘means of grace’ I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men [and women], … grace”
If you know I am going to send you a message, whether by fax, text, phone, or radio, there are actions you must take in order to receive my message. At the very least, you must avail yourself of appropriate equipment and monitor it. Means of grace are things we should do to facilitate our ability to receive God’s grace, and today we consider one of those, The Lord’s Supper.
Before we take a closer look at The Lord’s Supper, it is appropriate to note two points John Wesley chose to emphasize in his sermon on Means of Grace. First, the means must not be mistaken for the ends. These actions are without value except as they are associated with genuine love and worship of God. Second, although God is understood to have ordained these means, God is not limited by them and may use whatever means God chooses to convey his grace. In the vernacular of a legal document, the Means of Grace include, but are not limited to those we may be aware of.
Our United Methodist Book of Discipline describes the Lord’s Supper as follows:
We believe the Lord’s Supper is a representation of our redemption, a memorial of the sufferings and death of Christ, and a token of love and union which Christians have with Christ and with one another.
The author of a book titled Five Means of Grace tells us, “The Lord’s Supper is a potent, embodied prayer through which we align ourselves fully with God’s work of making all things new. Each time we eat the bread and drink the cup we say yes to all that Christ is and all that he invites us to be together. This Holy Mystery offers the following description, emphasizing the real presence of Christ as we engage in the Lord’s Supper today:
Holy Communion is remembrance, commemoration, and memorial, but this remembrance is much more than simply intellectual recalling. ….This dynamic action becomes re-presentation of past gracious acts of God in the present, so powerfully as to make them truly present now. Christ is risen and is alive here and now, not just remembered for what was done in the past.
The United Methodist Church takes some pride in the fact that it imposes no restrictions to participation in this service. Carmen usually makes the point that the Lord’s Supper is served on the table belonging to God and under his control. Some of our published “Services of Word and Table include the invitation, “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.”
However, although the serving church imposes no restrictions, this invitation does. First, those participating are declaring their love of our Lord. John Wesley elaborates to tell us that ,“To prepare for the Lord’s Supper [we should] truly wish to follow the commandments of God and to receive all the promises of God.” Repentance implies that we sincerely regret our sins and ask God’s help in overcoming them. And we must ask ourselves whether we truly seek to live in peace with those we find obnoxious or offensive, or those whom we may not have forgiven. It would seem appropriate to apply Matthew 5:23-24 here.
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
Perhaps one need not leave the communion service, but should accept communion with a firm commitment to seek reconciliation with the brother or sister as soon as feasible.
A constant theme in Jesus’ ministry is love of and unity with God and each other. In this service, we ask that we be “One with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry….” One is reminded of Jesus’ prayer as he anticipated his departure from earth. Here he used the preposition “in” to define the closeness he sought for those he was leaving behind, the closeness he seeks for us with him and with each other.
I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word [that’s us], that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me..” John 17:9, 20-23
The strengthening of our relationships with God and each other is a primary objective of the Lord’s Supper. We United Methodists address the importance of this unity in our Book of Discipline:
We affirm our unity in Jesus Christ while acknowledging differences in applying our faith in different cultural contexts as we live out the gospel. We stand united in declaring our faith that God’s grace is available to all, that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
A key part of our Great Thanksgiving has us asking God to:
Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood. By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final -victory, and we feast at his heavenly banquet.’
The author of Five Means of Grace interprets these words to mean that in the communion service God gathers our community into something analogous to a loaf, blesses us, forgives us and directs us toward healing and reconciliation. He then “breaks” us into individuals, whom he sends out to the world to represent Christ, and we become a communion bread for the world.
After we acknowledge in prayer the original serving of the bread and cup by Jesus, we make a significant commitment to God.
And so, in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith.
In praying this we commit to joining our lives to Christ’s. We commit to obeying God’s commandments, especially the Great Commandments to love God and our neighbors. We commit to following the Holy Spirit’s direction as we defy temptation, interpret scriptures, and make moral decisions. In the words of the author of Five Means of Grace, “God’s love binds us to God forever. In the embodied prayer of Holy Communion we remember, we celebrate, and we commit ourselves to full participation in the mission of God.” If we are repentant and seek to live in peace, Wesley tells us that this sacrament enables us to leave our sins behind and live as holy people.
May it be so.