I grew up in a tradition where Holy Communion was celebrated at every worship service…It was possible, and encouraged, to receive Communion every day…I realize that some people will argue that this frequency makes the sacrament less special…I disagree…Something that brings God’s grace to us every single day seems pretty special to me.
I remember the prayer we recited right before walking down the aisle to receive the Eucharist…“O Lord, I am not worthy to receive you; only say the word and I shall be healed.” This also gave Holy Communion some of its importance for us…Without God’s healing word, we are not worthy to accept the sacrament.
This background and experience causes me to be truly mindful of the sacred nature of the Lord’s Supper…It also presents me with issues concerning how we understand the sacrament today and how we practice it in church. While this concept of being unworthy to receive has its roots in Scripture and rightly describes our human condition of being undeserving of God’s favor…It is also the source of some confusion about how we receive communion and even whether we should participate.
Let’s begin with the question of frequency…In our contemporary religious culture Holy Communion is observed in widely different ways across denominational lines…Most mainline denominations – Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, Christian…and even many United Methodists – celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. Many other denominations – for example, Baptist, Assemblies of God, and Presbyterian – celebrate less frequently; once a month or once a quarter…The Bible offers us very little in the way of guidance on this issue…Luke 22 is the only place where Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And he does not specify how often we should “do this.” Acts 2:46 tells us that the early converts broke bread together as part of their regular worship ritual…Again, we do not know how frequently “regular” is. Paul comes closest to offering a schedule when he tells the Corinthians, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” The issue here is what is “often”? I think this question really boils down to our understanding of how important Holy Communion is and what its purpose is for the church.
As United Methodists we should look to John Wesley for guidance in this matter…Wesley taught us to use four factors to illuminate the core of our faith:
- SCRIPTURE – Scripture is considered the primary source and standard for Christian doctrine.
- TRADITION – Tradition is experience and the witness of development and growth of the faith through the past centuries and in many nations and cultures.
- EXPERIENCE – Experience is the individual’s understanding and appropriating of the faith in the light of his or her own life.
- REASON – Through reason the individual Christian brings to bear on the Christian faith discerning and compelling thought.
These four elements taken together bring the individual Christian to a mature and fulfilling understanding of the Christian faith and the required response of worship and service.
Wesley said that the duty of regular participation in the Lord’s Supper was an important part of piety that he wanted to cultivate among Methodists…His Sermon 101: “The Duty of Constant Communion” asserts that, “Do this in remembrance of me,” is a binding mandate for all Christians…Christians should receive Communion frequently because of Jesus’ command in Luke 22:19…Wesley is clear that this is not a legalistic obligation; rather it is a rich opportunity to experience God’s grace.
I believe that the question of frequency must find its answer in the understanding that the purpose of celebrating the sacrament of Holy Communion is two-fold:
- The sacrament honors Christ’s command to remember him in the breaking of the bread;
- When we receive communion we also receive more of God’s grace poured into us.
If we agree on this purpose, then we should want to receive Communion every chance we get.
So why has the Methodist Church fallen into the habit of celebrating the sacrament once a month, or worse, once a quarter? The answer to this question is easy and it reminds me of the story about the young woman who cut off the end of the ham before baking it. When someone asked her why she did that, she said, “I don’t know; that’s the way my mother did it.” So she called her mother and asked her why she cut the end of the ham off before she baked it. Mom said, “I don’t know; that’s the way my mother did it.” So they called Grandma and asked her the same question. Grandma told them, “That’s easy; it’s the only way to get it to fit in my roasting pan.” You see, some traditions made sense at the time, but they no longer make the same sense.
As the Methodist Church expanded to America and westward into the frontier, there were never enough preachers to serve every new church. The tradition of the Circuit Rider preacher was born to satisfy this need…Methodist preachers would ride from town to town on horseback and minister to each congregation on a regular basis…usually monthly or quarterly…When the preacher wasn’t there, services were led by lay persons and no sacraments could be administered…During this time it became common for Methodist churches to celebrate Holy Communion whenever an ordained minister rode into town…maybe monthly, maybe quarterly…This practice continues today in most United Methodist churches even if they are blessed to have a full-time appointed clergy person available every week. It’s not that we can’t do Communion; it is simply that the “ham won’t fit in our roasting pan.”
I suggest that we may need to re-think our reasons for once-a-month Communion. Wesley also deals with the issue of “unworthiness to receive”…He taught that it is misreading the Bible to avoid Communion because you feel “unworthy”…Christ’s command overrides whether one feels deserving of Communion…In fact, repentance and a sense of one’s unworthiness are the factors that make one ready for the sacrament. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…Amen