After witnessing the terrible events of Good Friday, two of Jesus’ disciples found themselves walking dejectedly away from Jerusalem toward the village of Emmaus. They believed that what they had witnessed with their own eyes, the death of their rabbi on a Roman cross, meant the death of the movement which held their hopes and, thus, the death of any future they had imagined. Although the risen Christ himself walked alongside them on that road, they did not recognize him. He asked them questions, pastorally heard the story of their pain, even preached to them, explaining to them “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Still, they did not recognize him until they reached their destination and “he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight” (Luke 24:30–31).
It is no secret that Methodism is in crisis. Faced with the current crossroads of the movement they have called home, many are contemplating walking away from a connectionalism they never expected to crumble around them. But like the pilgrims of Emmaus, these dejected disciples may once again find that what appear to be the darkest hours are actually a turning point. One vital key to Methodism’s rebirth will be found in parallel to the Emmaus revelation: the lifeblood of Methodism will return only with the centrality of the Word and the Table.
Perhaps the greatest temptation for emerging Methodism will be to react rather than to rebuild. A renewed movement that believes it will heal and thrive solely by cancelling out the mistakes of the most recent errors in its difficult history will ride the pendulum swing in a direction that will not be healthy or balanced. Where the sacraments are concerned, simply reacting to the errors of recent history may lead Methodists to throw the baby out with the baptismal water and the sacred wine out with the shattered chalice.
Building Rather than Reacting
Instead of reacting, we must seek to rebuild from the ground up, including the solid foundation of our sacramental heritage. If we seek to rebuild rather than react, our foundation is clear. The groundwork has already been laid for us in the same place the Wesleys stood resolute during times of crisis in the church: not in spinning off into a newly invented vision, but in returning to our Wesleyan roots of Word, sacrament, and holy conferencing.
Because the sacraments enable us to enact and participate in the crucial acts of salvation in Jesus Christ, it is vital that we return to the centrality of the sacraments with a renewed hunger for the transforming grace found there. Our foundation in the Eucharist comes to us from the Word, the Word made flesh, and the eager example of liturgical revival led by the Wesleys themselves.
The feast that awaits us in the Eucharist can be summarized by the words of our epiclesis, the central section of our Communion liturgy that contains the transforming blessing of the Holy Spirit over both the elements on the Table and community gathered at the Table. In these powerful words we, as the body of Christ washed in the Spirit-filled, unifying waters of baptism, cry out to God and ask that we would be made:
One with Christ
One with Each Other and
One in Ministry to All the World
One with Christ
While there are many means of grace, Wesley called the Eucharist “The Grand Channel through which God imparts His grace to us,”1 allowing us to meet with Christ at the Table. If we desire to meet with Christ and become one with him, the Table provides a unique opportunity to do so.
The entire Trinity is involved in the Eucharistic event, lifting up and enlivening the events of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. We are meant not only to gather and remember these events, but through the great mystery of the Table, to participate in them.
Daniel Brevint2 explains it this way:
The main intention of Christ was not here to propose a bare image of his passion once suffered, in order to a bare remembrance, but, over and above, to enrich this memorial with such an effectual and real presence of continuing Atonement and strength, as may both evidently set forth Christ Himself crucified before our eyes and invite us to his sacrifice, not as done and gone many years since, but, as to expiating grace and mercy, still lasting, still new, still the same that it was when it was first offered to us.3
The Wesleyan Tradition and the Means of Grace
Wesleyans are a people who seek to live our lives steeped in the grace of God that is offered so generously to us. We long to not only read about or hear about Christ, but to be transformed by the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. The Wesleys studied the various ways that God meets us, but it was the way they methodically maintained the practice of the means of grace (such as prayer, fasting, attending worship, receiving Communion, visiting the sick, and giving to the poor) that caught the attention and tongue-in-cheek mocking of those who observed them. The methodical nature with which they practiced both communal and personal means of grace won them their nicknames “Methodists” and even “sacramentarians” for their dedication to observing the sacrament of Holy Communion as often as possible.
Christ has given us a way to encounter his living presence and participate in his acts of salvation. By participating in the liturgy, we are joining in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection from the dead, thus fulfilling the promise of Philippians 3:10–11: “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”
We live in an age where people once again long to be transformed by God, not just to hear about him. The sacraments are a gift of grace from God where we meet God and encounter divine love through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
Opening our liturgy with confession communicates that our connection with Christ is attained not in worth or act or worthiness of our own, but in the worth of Christ. Repeating that liturgy over time shapes us to remember that we place before Christ the sins that are separating us from him and receive pardon and grace, thus entering unfettered into his presence. There is no way to become one with Christ without the grace of Christ, and nowhere is that more on display than at the Table.
Christ’s power over sin encountered at the Table can also bring about the healing and reversal of the poisonous effects of sin. John Wesley, in his sermon “The Duty of Constant Communion,” says, “The grace of God given herein confirms to us the pardon of our sins, by enabling us to leave them. As our bodies are strengthened by bread and wine, so are our souls by these tokens of the body and blood of Christ. This is the food of our souls.” The Table signifies that Christ not only offers forgiveness for past sin, but enables us to become holy and fight against sin on all fronts, inward and outward.
A Royal Waste of Time
The amount of time the Wesleys invested in the means of grace sometimes seems shocking or unrealistic to our generation. When we hear of the hours spent in prayer and studying Scripture, it may cause us to feel inadequate, or even superior that we spend more time in what seem to be more practical or productive pursuits. Giving time regularly in worship services and to the act of receiving the Eucharist may even seem, as Marva Dawn wrote in the title of her book on worship, like a royal waste of time.4 But Wesley believed that the observance of Holy Communion was a direct command of Christ and neglecting to receive it as often as possible was in violation of his teachings. The weight of this command is illustrated by Wesley when he writes that it was “given by our Lord when he was just laying down his life for our sakes. They are, therefore, as it were, his dying words to all his followers.”5
The Table is the perfect place to remind us that we don’t spend time with God to attain practical outcomes, like a slot machine where we put in our devotion and get out our desired results. We spend time with God in the manner of someone who has fallen in love, because we would rather be with them than anyone else. While sacramental worship does form us and offer opportunity for Christ to heal us emotionally, spiritually, relationally, and even physically, those are the secondary effects, not the primary reasons we meet with God in Word and Table.
Worshiping at the table of pragmatism has poisoned the well of the Methodist movement in recent generations. Changing our spiritual habits and even our theology in order to bring quick, outward results or human admiration and attention has not brought about sustainable growth or spiritual health. In fact, it has done quite the opposite. The means of grace, particularly those practiced in corporate worship, force us to slow down and ruminate on God. Sometimes such acts may seem to be wasted time, but often they are exactly what we need to remind us that we love God first for who he is and not what he does for us.
Focusing on coming to the Table to become one with Christ helps to take our modern expectations of what the sacraments are for and turn them on their head. Just as we practice the daily habit of kissing children on their way out the door as they leave for school or telling a spouse we love them, these are repetitive acts of love that wear deep grooves of lasting love that outlast what we can express by following our heart to the Table or other means of grace only when we feel like it. God continually offers constant signs of divine love, while the means of grace bring us to a place of awareness and receptivity in his presence.
One with Each Other
When we commune at the Table, we are meeting with and seeking unity not only with God but with the other believers: the body of Christ washed in the waters of baptism and marked with the Holy Spirit.
Western Christianity has often tended to focus on the personal aspect of our relationship with God, often neglecting the corporate and connected ways in which we are a corporate body fully alive in Christ. The personal aspect of faith is important. Our personal confession and justification are important but unlikely to occur without support of the body of Christ. Our sanctification through the Spirit is both personal and communal.
Faith in Christ is always personal, but never individualized. Individualized faith was a contradiction in terms to Wesley, who clearly stated that all holiness was social, derived and lived out in relationship with others.6
Since the beginning of Christianity, the church has been celebrating the sacraments in community because sacraments are a gift of God to the church, to be celebrated communally. The sacraments allow us both personally and corporately to encounter the grace of God, communing with God, with other believers, and with all the saints. The communion of saints is a paradoxical mix of those we can see and those we cannot see. When we come to the Table and ask Christ to make us one with each other, who do we mean by “each other”?
Certainly we mean those that are gathered together in the same space, presently seeking to come to the Table of the Lord together. To become one with each other in a local church community requires the habit of putting aside preferences, dislikes, and differences of opinion. It requires us, as Paul writes in Ephesians 4:3–6, to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
At the Table we reaffirm who we are as the body of Christ and remember our baptism in the unity of the Holy Spirit. The real presence of Jesus Christ and the grace of God can be a healing balm for the ways that being the church together often tries our patience with those in the same fellowship. If there has ever been a season of Methodism with plenty of need to offer forgiveness and grace between brothers and sisters in Christ, it is our present age. The Table offers a regular place to experience that balm.
When we say we desire to be one with each other, we also mean those who pledge to live in unity with Christ’s holy, catholic church. Connectionalism may be one of the most hyped and least understood claims of Methodists. True bonds of connectionalism do not find their roots in our apportionments, our agencies, our pensions and insurance, or our name or symbols, but is found in our common baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection. Coming to the Table as a common act of worship can remind us continually where our unity is found—in Jesus Christ—lest we place our trust and find our connection in lesser things.
The presence of Christ at the Table also includes those in the church we cannot presently see, both the church global as well as the communion of saints. Because the Table belongs to a Christ who is not bound by time or space, the Table itself reaches beyond the boundaries of nations, the limits of time, or the barrier of death.
From time to time, a family who has suffered a recent loss rushes with new urgency to the Table for Communion. There is something striking about realizing that this is the space in which they are most able to commune with their loved one, who is not truly lost but in the presence of Christ. The power of the Holy Spirit joining us with Christ and his church triumphant at the Table to make us one with each other is a profound and marvelous mystery.
Despite the beautiful benefits received at the Table, the Communion liturgy has at times been led with all the enthusiasm of someone reading the phone book aloud. Some Methodists have come to associate a monthly “Communion Sunday” with a droning intonation that implies that what is happening here is uninteresting and unable to have any real effect on our everyday lives. There are even those who suggest that we might hold Communion less frequently or that we should drop the use of liturgy for more modern, conversational expressions. If the liturgy has been delivered in ways that are less than enthusiastic and do not communicate the power, urgency, and validity of the events that they describe, perhaps the liturgy itself is not to blame but those who have presided without understanding or appreciating the true dunamis, or power, of the elements they handle.
If we had a grasp of the power and presence of Christ present at the Table and the incredible honor of declaring and participating in the pivotal acts of Jesus Christ, we might preside in the reenactment of those events and the blessing of the elements before us with such enthusiasm that passersby might once again, as at Pentecost, assume a raucous party has broken out in church!
One in Ministry to All the World
Last, we petition Christ at the Table to make us one in ministry to all the world. The scope of such a request is hard to imagine. To say that we come to the Table desiring for God to unleash power that would allow us to minister to the whole world stands in the bold tradition of John Wesley’s declaration, “the world is my parish!”
There is an incredible power through Christ’s work in the sacraments to unite us with Christians around the world. In the sacrament of baptism, new believers confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” and vow to serve him “in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.”7 Those who have attended worship services while traveling in countries other than their own know that while there are many cultural differences and linguistic barriers, the moment of coming to the Table together for the sacrament of Holy Communion holds a remarkable moment of familiarity and unity. When we wash new believers in the name of the triune God or hold aloft bread and cup and declare the words of institution, we should take a moment to realize that Christians in vastly different circumstances and settings around the world are performing the same act, unifying us in the presence of Christ. The Table provides a place where we tangibly and regularly become one with all the world in a beautiful way. The emerging Methodism must seek the health of the global church to flow to the places that need its renewal the most. To be a thriving church we must be global.
And what of the ministry we desire to circle the globe? There is a cry rising in Methodism today for a return to a ministry of power that will reach the lost, the hurting, the needy, the marginalized and disenfranchised everywhere from around the corner to all the way around the world.
In words that could have been prophetically written to Methodists of the twenty-first century, Leonard Ravenhill declared: “there is no greater tragedy than a sick church in a dying world.” For the church to reach the world, it must be prepared to spread the health and wholeness of Christ, not the sin-sickness that often makes us indistinguishable from the world. Becoming well again will include the repeated inoculation offered to us through Christ at the Table, a place that shapes and forms us in the image of Christ himself.
To become a people of Pentecost power, we need to recall that, following Pentecost, they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42, italics added). Perhaps as we embrace the means of grace, including this powerful sign-act at the Table, we will return to the days when “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (v. 47). Many parts of the church around the globe are already living in these days once again, praise God!
For the portions of the body of Christ that have been sick and declining to join the global church in vitality and evangelistic fervor, we will need to follow them to our foundations in faith, including the Table, where we discover our past, Christ’s presence, and a preview of God’s grace in the age to come.
A specific understanding of our past, present, and future is crucial for emerging Methodism. As we begin to unpack what Methodism will be in this new age, we will constantly be asking: How are we connected to our past? How are we living into our future? We don’t need to cut ties with the past. We need to find ways for the passionate and living heritage of Methodism to live again in vital ways in the church.
Jessica LaGrone is the dean of the chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary and an ordained pastor in the Eastern Texas Conference of the Global Methodist Church.
Tesia Mallory is the dean of the chapel at United Theological Seminary and a is an elder in The Global Methodist Church.
This is an excerpt from The Next Methodism: Theological, Social, and Missional Foundations for Global Methodism (Seedbed 2022). This book invites readers on a journey to discover the vitality, richness, and sheer goodness of the broader Wesleyan tradition. Get your copy from our store here.
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1. John Wesley, Sermon 26: “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount IV.”
2. The Anglican priest and theologian whose words John Wesley included in an edited form in Hymns on the Lord’s Supper.
3. John Wesley and Charles Wesley, Hymns on the Lord’s Supper: with a Preface Concerning the Christian Sacrament and Sacrifice, extracted from Dr. Brevint (London: J. Kershaw, 1825), 6–7.
4. Marva J. Dawn, A Royal “Waste” of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).
5. John Wesley, Sermon 101: “The Duty of Constant Communion.”
6. John Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems (repr., London: William Strahan, 1739), viii–ix.
7. “Baptismal Covenant I,” in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 34.