The first time I participated in Holy Communion using the the liturgy of the Great Thanksgiving found in our United Methodist Hymnal was when I attended my first Walk to Emmaus sometime in 1993. The Walk to Emmaus is a program of the Upper Room of the UMC but persons of all denominational traditions and churches participate and are invited to be a part of this ecumenical ministry of the UMC.
I was serving as an American Baptist pastor in southern Indiana and I was looking for a program of spiritual renewal for the members of my church. I talked with our church board about it and they decided to send me on a walk thinking, “If it doesn’t hurt the pastor, it probably ok.”
As I attended the walk two things were readily apparent to me about the Emmaus Walk. The first was a very strong presence of the love and grace of God displayed by a loving community. At the time I thought this was simply a characteristic of the Emmaus movement. Later I was to discover that this grace of God that is always with us came from the Emmaus movement’s Wesleyan theological foundation.
The second thing I noticed was Holy Communion. In the area I was in both American Baptists and United Methodists had communion about once a month. But in the Emmaus Walk we communed daily. As part of our communing and learning the musicians on the walk taught us contemporary sung responses which at first I did not identify as part of the Great Thanksgiving but later realized that by teaching us the different sung responses we would be ready and comfortable when we sang them in the communion service with the whole community.
When we first communed using the Great Thanksgiving I heard the sactus, “Holy Holy Holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory!” I heard the description of Christ’s last night in the upper room, we sang “Christ has Died! Christ is Risen! Christ will come again!” Finally the pastor prayed the prayer of consecration (epiclesis) asking for the presence of the Holy Spirit to fill us and bless the bread and cup that we were about to receive. All I could think was WOW!
The Great Thanksgiving was so full of meaning, so powerful, so complete in its proclamation of the message of Christ, so joyful, so expectant, so forward looking, and so very full of God’s grace!
It was also on this Walk to Emmaus that I learned about Prevenient Grace, God’s love that is always there for us. I knew that God loved me but I’d not thought about God in this powerful way. That Great Thanksgiving and Prevenient Grace planted the seeds in me that years later would make me into a Wesleyan Christian.
Because of those experiences I have enjoyed very much reading about how Holy Communion played such a vital role in the early Methodist movement. John Wesley proclaimed not frequent communion but even “constant communion.” He went so far as to claim constant communion as a duty of the Christian. Wesley talked about how God uses our communing with him to give us strength, and grace, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He declared that he communed several times a week! (Yes, not a month but a week!).
So then how did United Methodists get to the place where we only commune monthly or less in many churches? Well it goes back into our unique American experience. In the early years of Methodism in the United States the system of circuit riding pastors traveled the country far and wide preaching the gospel in to little groups of Methodists in every town and village. They road hundreds and thousands of miles on horse back proclaiming the gospel. And they were the one’s we were ordained and trained to share the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. So churches only communed when the Elder was present to officiate at the table. Often this was only about once a quarter or less. So the emphasis on constant communion and a constant experience of the presence of the grace of God at the table was lost due to practical concern.
But we are no longer in the days of the circuit riders and United Methodists have started to recapture the early church tradition and the early Methodist tradition of more frequent communion.
At Grace UMC I am now offering communion twice a month as a step up in our frequency. I would love to see the day come when we would eventually offer communion at least weekly to the people of God. Why? Because communion, as a means of grace, is one of the ways God’s spirit works in us. Communion brings us closer to God, it brings us into a closer relationship with God and it reminds us of the great and eternal truths of the gospel. Communion encourages spiritual strength, reflection, and commitment. John Wesley so believed in the value of communion that he offered it to everyone who wanted to receive it, even if they had not yet proclaimed faith in Christ because he believed that the experience of God’s grace at the Lord’s Table could be a “converting element” leading a person to faith in Christ by experience God’s accepting love.
A document called, “This Holy Mystery” lays out the official position of the United Methodist Church on Communion. In that document the UMC encourages its local churches to return to at least weekly communion and to lift up a high view of the value of the sacrament.
Whenever someone asks me why I am now a United Methodist there are several ways I can answer that question because of how God has worked in my life. But one of the reasons I am a United Methodist is because I find Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection in the liturgy of the Great Thanksgiving and in sharing in the bread and cup as often as I am able.
Come to the Table!