Eucharist as a Means for Following Jesus

I celebrate Christina Wassell’s account of what the Catholic tradition has done for her and her family. The deeply personal description shows an active, lively faith in following Jesus.

In my response, I will concentrate on the Eucharist that has meant so much to her. My tradition may not be best known for its liturgical and sacramental life, but John Wesley encouraged Wesleyan Methodists to receive the Lord’s Supper (as they referred to Eucharist) frequently. My tradition can affirm with Christina the importance of Eucharist for following Jesus. Methodists initially received the sacrament in their local parishes or when an Anglican priest sympathetic to Methodism was among them.  The sacrament was so important to the people that it became a pressing motivation for Methodists to constitute the movement as a church so they could receive it in the same community where they experienced the presence of Jesus Christ in other ways (many then felt the kind of disconnect in their parish churches that Christina describes in her search for congregational worship that would match the theological riches of Catholicism). My tradition can also affirm the search for authentic worship where all elements work together to present the wholeness of what faith is.

To compare Catholic and Wesleyan Methodist understandings, I will turn to a document produced in dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Methodist Council (hereafter WMC). The document, titled Encountering Christ the Saviour: Church and Sacraments (hereafter ECS), may be found here: https://www.methodist.org.uk/media/3024/encountering-christ-the-saviour-church-and-sacraments.pdf. This document is neither an authoritative declaration of the Roman Catholic Church nor of any member church of the WMC.  Rather it is a report of the thoughtful and serious understanding arrived at through dialogue over several years that has taken place between these two traditions. Because the WMC has many member churches (several of which were represented in the membership of the Methodist side of the dialogue) it reflects widely held consensus in my tradition.

The dialogue report acknowledges the underlying and interlocking issues that Christina Wassell can only hint at in her posting, namely that how each tradition understands church and ordination greatly affects the understanding of Eucharist. There are differences between the two traditions regarding those underlying questions; nevertheless, the dialogue also uncovered much agreement. I cannot do justice to all the underlying questions in the space allotted, so I will focus on a few matters specific to Eucharist that Christina Wassell’s posting highlights. Catholics, of course, have a long and developed history of understanding the Eucharist. John Wesley encouraged receiving the Lord’s Supper, but he wrote little in sermon or treatise form about the theology of the Eucharist. In ECS, the major documentary source for the Methodist side was Hymns on the Lord’s Supper produced by John and Charles Wesley.

In her account of “what happens” in the Eucharist, Wassell describes the importance of the priest.ECS recognizes that Wesleyan Methodists have no officially formulated understanding of the priesthood and its relation to Eucharist, but both dialogue sides affirmed that priesthood itself is rooted in Christ’s own priestly office (ECS ¶ 169). Methodists, though, stress the “common priesthood of the faithful” and have “rejected the notion of a distinct ministerial priesthood” (ECS ¶161). Despite this difference, the WMC dialogue found agreement that “When the Church exercises its priestly ministry it does so only by virtue of participation in the priesthood of Christ” (ECS ¶162). Although Wesleyan Methodists do not think in terms of ministerial priesthood, our tradition does recognized ordination as “conferral of the particular ministerial charism by the invocation of the Holy Spirit” so ECS draws the conclusion that this understanding suggests “a basic theological agreement that ordination is sacramental” (ECS ¶177) That is, ordination is “a rite that contains and confers the grace it signifies” (ECS ¶179).

As for the potential “showmanship” that concerns Christina when the priest in the new mass faces the congregation instead of the altar, in my tradition, the minister intentionally faces the congregation in order to show that the whole gathered community participates in this event. All are brought into new life with Christ through baptism, and the people’s participation in Christ through the Lord’s Supper is highlighted through the minister and people facing one another. ECS says, referencing the report from a previous round of dialogue: “Taking part in the Eucharist should lead to God’s baptized, priestly people being more transformed by the Holy Spirit ever more truly into the likeness of Christ, and to a more radical following and imitating  of Christ and in all that he has done for us, so that we ‘enter together more deeply into the saving mystery of Christ.’” (ECS ¶110). Receiving Eucharist is a clear invitation for the people to move more deeply into this imitation of Christ.

The ECS found a movement toward convergence between the two traditions regarding the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, although the language is somewhat different—Catholics refer to “offering” Christ’s sacrifice while the hymns on the Lord’s Supper speak of “pleading” that sacrifice (ECS ¶195). Both Catholics and Methodists recognize that Christ’s self-sacrifice on our behalf calls forth our own self-sacrifice. As the dialogue report states: “We are called to be a sacrificial people, in communion with Christ’s sacrifice in a way that transforms our life into one of humble and self-giving love for God and our fellow human beings” (ECS ¶96).

One matter over which it would seem that there is an important disagreement between Catholics and Wesleyan Methodists would appear to be transubstantiation. John Wesley’s revision of the Articles of Religion (which serve as doctrinal standards for many Methodists) treat this idea rather harshly. Even here, though, the Catholic WMC dialogue has found some common ground. Because Wesleyan Methodists use language of “real presence,” the report can say that both traditions agree that Christ’s presence is “mediated through the elements of bread and wine” so they become the “’sign par excellence of Christ’s redeeming presence to his people’” (ECS ¶81).

Although Christina does not mention frequency, it does seem important to note that Eucharist is not always received by Wesleyan Methodists every Sunday. Many congregations receive monthly, others receive quarterly, while some do receive every week. The reason for this variety is rooted in our history of being a movement with preachers who itinerated, preaching to people outside parish churches. Even after Methodism became a church, pastors, instead of being stationed in congregations, often remained “circuit riders,” serving several churches on a circuit, so it was not possible to be at every church every Sunday. With this history, it has been Word rather than Table that has often been stressed in my tradition. In recent years, though, with ecumenical dialogues that help us look at our own tradition from the perspective of other Christians, some Wesleyan Methodist congregations have been moved to offer Eucharist weekly so that we can follow John Wesley’s advice to receive the Lord’s Supper “constantly,” in order to be formed as followers of Jesus more deeply. At this point in time, the actual practice of receiving Eucharist is quite varied in my tradition.

The understanding of Eucharist that is being articulated by Wesleyan Methodists and the desire to receive the sacrament more frequently shows how much my tradition has already been enriched by conversation with Catholics. It helps us draw from our own past in intentional ways to use the sacrament more effectively to help us follow Jesus.

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