The Duty of Constant Communion

Bread and wine

TEXT: Luke 22:14-20

Last week we looked at the question, "What does it mean to be the Church?," and I mentioned that when John Wesley finally figured that out the established church found it so unacceptable that they kicked him out of his pulpit. John Wesley, who began the Methodist movement, was a minister in the Church of England and began preaching in 1730. When it seemed to him that something was missing in the Church, he began his search for answers in the same place we did last week...with the early church. What he found was so powerful that even the church taking away his pulpit didn't matter. He preached in the fields and streets and even standing on top of his father's grave because that was one place no one could force him to leave.

Our own roots as a church lie both with the early church and with John Wesley, so on and off for the next few months you will be hearing my take on some of Wesley's sermons. I hope by that we can come to understand the ideas on which Methodism was founded and why we do some of the things that we do.

Because we are beginning a practice of weekly communion, I wanted to start the series with Wesley's sermon entitled, "The Duty of Constant Communion." The question seemed to have come up among Wesley's followers about how often they should take Communion, and this sermon is his response. We saw from last week that the earliest Christians shared it every day and Wesley reminds people of that in this sermon. [p. 503]

He says at the outset that the purpose of the sermon is twofold: to show that it part of Christian duty to receive Communion as often as possible, and to answer some objections that people have. The place in Scripture where Wesley really hangs his hat is the passage that we read from the Gospel of Luke where Jesus says "Do this in remembrance of me." For Wesley, taking Communion is first and foremost a command. Jesus says, "Do it," so you do it. Period. Since Jesus said those words the night before his death, Wesley treats them as Jesus' dying words to his followers and gives them that much more weight. Why do it? Because Jesus said to. That's where Wesley starts.

But Wesley was never one to advocate leaving your brain at the door of a church. "Because Jesus said so" is good enough for his faith, but not for his mind, so he goes on in his sermon to give some other reasoning. He goes on to say that a second reason "is because the benefits of doing it are so great to all that do it in obedience to Him; namely, the forgiveness of our past sins and the present strengthening and refreshing of our souls." [p.. 502] Basically he wants to say that this is not just a ritual. Something actually happens at the Lord's table, even now.

Taking Communion is participating in forgiveness. We come as sinners, we leave forgiven as a gift from Jesus, the host of the meal. And because we find that we are always welcome at the table of Jesus, we are strengthened to go out and be better people. The love we find there refreshes us, washes us, gives us strength. We might have thought we would be met with punishment or a lecture or at least disappointment when we came into God's presence. Instead, we are welcomed and fed and loved. That's enough to pick up anybody's spirit. Communion is a time of joy for Wesley, which is why it is just as acceptable to take it during the praise music before first service as it is during the more reflective bell music before second service.

Some people have questioned taking communion while people are singing and clapping before first service. Joy is always an acceptable attitude before God. While part of our remembrance in Communion is the night on which Jesus was betrayed, that is not all of it. At the same time that we look back, we also look forward to the time, as it says in the liturgy, "When Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet. I don't at all imagine that the heavenly banquet is going to be a solemn and somber affair. How could it be? In the two different moods before the two different services, we remember two important aspects of what communion means. And at both of them, we remember that communion is also about our present life together, one with each other, one with Jesus, one with God.

Some people in Wesley's time objected that they couldn't take communion that often because they didn't have time for prayer and reflection ahead of time, Wesley says that such time is good but not necessary. He implies that to be ready to take Communion is the same as being ready for salvation, and we ought to have regular practices of devotion that would keep us in that state anyway. Besides, he goes back to the fact that Jesus commanded it and says, "To obey is better than self-examination." [508]

Any resistance to Communion puzzles Wesley. Here is Jesus commanding us to take part in something that brings peace and forgiveness and joy. For Wesley, to refuse it is either being disobedient by refusing to obey Jesus' command or dumb for refusing to do something that brings such benefit. [505]

He does spend some time trying to help those who have been tripped up by the passage in 1 Corinthians 11 that condemns people who take of the Lord's supper in "an unworthy manner." In response, he points people to the earlier part of that chapter to see what Paul is talking about. The early church had Communion every time they gathered, and they had it in the context of a regular meal...just like Jesus did at the last supper. They only stopped the entire meal part when the persecutions started and they had to do things in secret. Then they came to share only a tiny piece of bread and a tiny sip of wine as symbols of the fuller meal.

Before the persecutions, when they were able to gather openly for a meal, it was a potluck sort of thing. Each brought what they could and shared. We see in Corinth, however, that this had gotten distorted. The rich didn't have to work and came early with elaborate meals. By the time the others came after work, with what little they could bring, all the rich food was gone and the earlier arrivals were drunk. The poor had only what meager fare they brought and had to fellowship with drunks. Paul comes down on them hard for this, as well he should.

It is that situation he is referring to when, in his rebuke, Paul says that "whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord." Some have come to think that this passage means that if we are personally unworthy, we should not take Communion. Wesley addresses this quite directly. "In this very chapter we are told that by eating and drinking unworthily is meant taking the holy sacrament in such a rude and disorderly way that one was hungry and another drunken. But what is that to you? Is there any danger of your doing so?" [506] Personal unworthiness is not what that passage is about.

To those who still might feel unworthy, Wesley says, "The case is this. God offers you one of the greatest mercies on this side of heaven, and commands you to accept it. Why do not you accept this mercy in obedience to his command? You say, ‘I am unworthy to receive it.' And what then? You are unworthy to receive any mercy from God. But is that a reason for refusing all mercy? God offers you a pardon for all your sins. You are unworthy of it, ‘tis sure, and he knows it: but since he is pleased to offer it nevertheless, will not you accept of it? He offers to deliver your soul from death. You are unworthy to live. But will you therefore refuse life? He offers to endue your soul with new strength. Because you are unworthy of it, will you deny to take it? What can God himself do for us farther, if we refuse his mercy, even because we are unworthy of it?" [505] While our feelings of unworthiness are real and difficult, there is something refreshing in Wesley standing up there and saying, "So you're unworthy. So what? Get over it. God doesn't care. Take what is's your ticket out of that unworthiness."

He is just as direct with those who object that taking Communion frequently makes it less special...that they feel less reverent when doing it often. Suppose taking it frequently did lessen the reverence, he inquires. "Has God ever told you that when the obeying his command abates your reverence to it then you may disobey it?" [508] When others objected that they had taken frequently but received no benefit, he responds, "Suppose a man has often been at the sacrament, and yet received no benefit. Was it not his own fault? Either he was not rightly prepared, willing to obey all the commands, and to receive all the promises of God; or he did not receive it aright, trusting in God." [509]

I am sure that Wesley was an impossible man to live with and probably to work for. But God used that straight and sometimes harsh talker to cut through the complacency and wishi- washiness of Wesley's England to bring Christians back from the breathe life into the dry bones of the Church. It may be a voice that we need to hear again.

Wesley called Communion a "means of grace." We don't have to be worthy to come to the table, it is by coming to the table that we became worthy, as we accept that means of receiving the grace of God. For that reason the Methodist table is always open. There are no restrictions of church membership or of age. In the words of the old hymn, "whosoever will may come."

It is just as appropriate to come with singing and joy and clapping as it is to come with prayer and tears and repentance, because our faith brings us to different emotions at different times. I still remember one woman at my last church who said to me after a communion service, "My life has changed...I never knew it was OK to smile during Communion before. I am free." So this morning, and every week, I bid you come. To close with Wesley's words, "If therefore we have any regard for the plain command of Christ, if we desire the pardon of our sins, if we wish for strength to believe, to love and obey God, then we should neglect no opportunity of receiving the Lord's Supper." [503]


Sermon © 2002, Anne Robertson


John Wesley's Sermons: An Anthology edited by Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater. Compilation and Preface Copyright 1991 by Abingdon Press.

Sermon texts reprinted from The Works of John Wesley, Volumes 1-4: Sermons I-IV, Copyright 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987 by Abingdon Press.

Share this