Holy Communion – 1

Over the next few weeks, I will be posting some thoughts from a recent paper that I gave on Holy Communion. Much of this material will be based on some very helpful lecture notes by Ray Anderson.

The Gospel declares that we are saved by God’s grace alone. Jesus Christ is the grace and truth of God incarnate. Christians have traditionally held that God has also given us means of grace whereby we receive the grace of God in Christ. They are means of grace only in so far as they literally ‘speak’ the word of Christ to us.

Traditionally, these means of grace have included various spiritual disciplines, especially Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Holy Scripture, prayer, fasting, meeting with God’s people, worship and confession. In more recent times, Christians have also spoken of other things, like silence, suffering, candles, even coffee, as a means of grace.

John Wesley believed that Jesus is God’s means of grace. For him, the ‘means of grace’ were also ‘works of piety’ (spiritual disciplines) and ‘works of mercy’ (doing good to others). He said that means of grace are ‘outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to [people], preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace’.[1]

Wesley talked about a variety of works of piety:

The chief of these means are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon;) and receiving the Lord’s Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying His grace to the souls of men.[2]

In this paper, we will be looking at Holy Communion as God’s gift to us.

The two gospel sacraments (Baptism and Holy Communion) are pledges and pictures of God’s grace and of the redeeming love of Jesus Christ. In this sense, they are proclamation activities, i.e. they proclaim the gospel visibly in the same way that preaching proclaims the gospel verbally. In this it is important to remember that while the Word can and does exist and function apart from the sacraments, the sacraments have no function apart from the Word of God.

The sacraments are rightly viewed as means of grace, for God makes them means to faith, using them to strengthen faith’s confidence in his promises and to call forth acts of faith for receiving the good gifts signified. The efficacy of the sacraments to this end resides not in the faith or virtue of the minister or believer but in the faithfulness of God, who, having given the signs, is now pleased to use them. Knowing this, Christ and the Apostles not only speak of the sign as if it were the thing signified but speak too as if receiving the former is the same as receiving the latter (e.g., Matt 26:26-28; 1 Cor 10:15-21; 1 Pet 3:21-22). As the preaching of the Word makes the gospel audible, so the sacraments make it visible, and God stirs up faith by both means. In other words, sacraments function as means of grace on the principle that, literally, seeing is (i.e., leads to) believing.

Being linked with the Passover, the Supper points back to the old exodus (Israel being released from slavery in Egypt), and forward to the ‘new’ exodus (Luke 9:28) – Jesus’ death which would secure our release from sin and the devil. It also has in view the second parousia of Jesus Christ. In Luke 22:18 we see this fact. It is also given voice in 1 Corinthians 11:26, where Paul says that we are to share in this meal ‘until he comes’. This simple meal points to the ultimate purpose of God when all the redeemed people of God shall be gathered together in glory to celebrate the full salvation and liberty of the children of God.


[1] Cited in Christopher J. Cocksworth, Evangelical Eucharistic Thought in the Church of England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 64.

[2] John Wesley, Sermons on Several Occasions (New York: G. Lane and C. B. Tippett, 1845), 137.

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3 comments

  1. Jason,

    I’m blogging on this topic right now. Thanks for “recycling this.” I missed it first time around.

    Like

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