In my experience, it mattered not what region of the U.S. I was in, who the pastor was, or where the pastor prepared for ministry. Regardless of those factors, each communion service had three distinct characteristics: they were infrequent, somber, and had a short guest list. The term “quarterly communion” seemed to set a maximum frequency rather than a minimum. If questions arose about why we did not observe the Lord’s Supper more often, the standard answer was that we were preserving its significance. I remember a mixture of disdain and pity for churches that had weekly communion, as if that fact doomed them to the loss of “meaningful” communion experiences. Our dogged determination to partake infrequently served a higher purpose: keeping communion meaningful.
Back before the organ had obtained such notoriety in the worship wars, it was the Nazarene’s default instrument for communion music. The organ was always played softly enough that it might not even be noticed— like a Christian version of the ubiquitous “Muzak” of the 1970s. A truer description, however, was that it sounded like funeral home music, played in a way that invoked a hushed silence, whether or not there was an accompanying sense of awe. Even apart from any words spoken, the music created a somber tone. When the invitation was given to partake of the elements, a strong emphasis was placed on not receiving the elements “unworthily.” This emphasis was so strong that if you had argued with your spouse or siblings on the way to church that morning (or committed any of a hundred other more grievous offenses) your worthiness was questionable. Refraining from partaking, as I remember those services, was a common occurrence.
There was no specific teaching that things should be this way. But there was such a remarkable similarity in all my experiences that I assumed this was the “Nazarene” or “holiness tradition” way of enacting a communion service: infrequent, somber, and with a short guest list.
In my mid-20s, I dug into John Wesley’s sermons and writings and read secondary works on Wesley2. I discovered a remarkable incongruity between the “Nazarene” way of communion and Wesley’s approach. Wesley’s perspective was different on every count.
Far from making communion a somber event, it was frequently a celebration for Wesley.
Wesley argued for “constant communion,” which for him meant weekly, at a minimum3. Far from making communion a somber event, it was frequently a celebration for Wesley. John and Charles Wesley compiled a collection of “Hymns on the Lord’s Supper,” organized under six different headings. Some lyrics lend themselves to a somber, reflective tone, but the vast majority of songs are celebratory. In contrast to 27 hymns under the heading, “As it is a Memorial of the Sufferings and Death of Christ,” 65 of the 166 hymns were in the section titled “As it is a Sign and Means of Grace,” 23 were under the heading, “The Sacrament a Pledge of Heaven,” and nine were triumphant songs of praise under the heading “After the Sacrament.”4
Wesley encouraged broad participation in the Lord’s Supper. Christians who were afraid of eating and drinking unworthily were warned of a much greater danger in not eating or drinking at all5. Furthermore, not only the converted, but sinners, too, were invited to partake.6
How did congregations that self-consciously identified themselves in the Wesleyan tradition end up with views on communion that diverged so widely from Wesley’s own? The full answer is a long one, tracing a series of shifts in practices and perspectives over more than two centuries. Francis Asbury was a key “culprit” early on, as he never embraced Wesley’s perspectives on the Lord’s Supper. Along the way, the richness of the eucharistic hymns of Wesley, and a host of other factors, were lost7. But there is a much more concise summary of what happened: simply put, the Nazarene communion worship of my childhood was based on a memorialist view and did not view communion primarily as a means of grace.8
Some may argue that this transition signifies no great loss. Perhaps Wesley’s views on communion can be put into the same category as his track record in romantic relationships: of historical interest, but not worthy of emulation. I would argue that it is of great importance for us to recover Wesley’s perspective on communion as a means of grace because those views are part and parcel of his views on the pursuit of the holy life. To jettison John Wesley’s views of the means of grace (with the Lord’s Supper being the “grand channel” among those means) is to leave us with a seriously truncated version of Wesley’s theology. For Wesley, the pursuit of the holy life was initiated and sustained by the grace of God. Although God could choose any way God desired to extend grace to humanity, there were specific ways in which we could be confident that God’s grace was active. These means were not “divvied up” into certain means of prevenient grace, other means of justifying grace, and yet other means of sanctifying grace. Rather, each of the means could convey each of these “types” of grace. In Wesley’s own words, “By ‘means of grace’ I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing [prevenient], justifying, or sanctifying grace.”9
What is needed is not “more of the same,” but a refreshed vision of communion as a means of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace that will nourish all who partake.
As scholars and pastors become more aware of the incongruity between Wesley’s views and typical practice in churches that identify themselves as part of the “Wesleyan tradition,” we face a conundrum. Is our first move to increase the frequency of communion services in local congregations, so that our practices parallel Wesley’s own practices? Or do we work first to re-introduce the view of communion as a means of grace? It need not be an “either/or” proposition, yet I think the first order of business is to recover Wesley’s view of communion as a means of grace. I agree with James White’s assessment more than 25 years ago, that “to institute a weekly celebration of the eucharist under the spirit and form in which it is now performed . . . in most Protestant churches would be an unmitigated disaster.”10 What is needed is not “more of the same,” but a refreshed vision of communion as a means of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace that will nourish all who partake.
Recovery of a robust view of communion as a means of grace would open the door for congregations to embrace more frequent communion. Indeed, if our primary perspective on communion is as a means of grace, rather than a strict memorialist view, the whole discussion about communion is framed in new ways. All three of the characteristics of my earliest experiences of communion services (infrequent, somber, and with a short guest list) could be reformed.
If communion is viewed primarily as a means of grace, the discussion about the appropriate frequency for communion is based on a very different set of assumptions. If we avail ourselves of some means of grace daily (reading Scripture, prayer, etc.), and avail ourselves of some means of grace weekly (the ministry of the word, public prayer, Christian fellowship, etc.), why would we not offer communion as a means of grace each week? While it is likely true that we do not need 52 weeks of somber, overly penitential observances of communion, the problem is with the tone of the observance rather than with the sacrament itself. The argument that greater frequency leads to less significance is not typically made for the other weekly components of worship (prayer, sermon, offering, etc.). Nor is that argument made, outside the sanctuary, for other activities in which we are engaged. If someone loves to play golf, for instance, would we try to convince them to only play four rounds per year so that golf doesn’t become a dull, meaningless routine? Some activities would grow tedious if practiced weekly (remembering our high school graduation, for example, or memorializing the death of a loved one), but it does not follow that any activity performed weekly loses its meaning. Would we imagine making that argument for any activity that brings joy—sports, reading, connubial relations— that to do it frequently makes it less meaningful? As nothing more than a memorial of the death of Christ, perhaps weekly communion is too frequent. But as a means of grace, how can it be received too frequently? Here’s how Wesley framed the issue:
Why do you not accept of his mercy as often as ever you can? God now offers you his blessing; — why do you refuse it?
As God, whose mercy is over all his works, and particularly over the children of men, knew there was but one way for man to be happy like himself; namely, by being like him in holiness; as he knew we could do nothing towards this of ourselves, he has given us certain means of obtaining his help. One of these is the Lord’s Supper, which, of his infinite mercy, he hath given for this very end; that through this means we may be assisted to attain those blessings which he hath prepared for us; that we may obtain holiness on earth, and everlasting glory in heaven. I ask, then, Why do you not accept of his mercy as often as ever you can? God now offers you his blessing; — why do you refuse it? You have now an opportunity of receiving his mercy; — why do you not receive it? You are weak: — why do not you seize every opportunity of increasing your strength? In a word: Considering this as a command of God, he that does not communicate [receive communion] as often as he can has no piety; considering it as a mercy, he that does not communicate as often as he can has no wisdom.11
In our denomination’s first 20 years of existence, the Aticle of Faith on the Lord’s Supper included the phrase, “Of the obligation to partake of the privileges of this sacrament, as often as we may be providentially permitted, there can be no doubt.”12 Recovery of Wesley’s view of communion as a means of grace would allow us to embrace our own Nazarene roots that emphasize frequent communion.13
The tone of communion is given a fresh perspective if communion is considered primarily as a means of grace. While there are appropriate times for communion to draw our attention to Christ’s death on the cross, that focus does not exhaust all the meanings of communion.14 If another specific meaning is the focus (foretaste of the heavenly feast, meal of Christian unity, thanksgiving, etc.) the tone can be shaped by that specific focus. Regardless of the specific emphasis, however, if communion is approached as a means of grace, the celebration of that grace itself is always appropriate. Both the words of institution and the music that accompanies the distribution of the elements can be rescued from being somber and communion can be truly celebrated, not just “observed.”
Communion as a means of grace offers the potential for a dramatically different understanding of who is invited to the table. If communion is solely a “confirming” ordinance, then it is offered only to those who have previously experienced justifying grace. If communion is more broadly viewed as a means of grace, however, it is offered to all who earnestly seek God’s grace—at any stage of their journey. Wesley insisted that communion was a means of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace. Therefore, unbelievers were invited to receive communion. Wesley clearly articulated this view in 1740 in the midst of his conflict with the Moravians at Fetter Lane. The “stillness” teachings of the Moravians said that the means of grace should only be pursued by those who were not only justified, but who had also experienced “assurance” of their salvation. This teaching so rankled Wesley that he gave daily discourses for a week at Fetter Lane on the means of grace. Here is his journal summary of his teachings on the final day of that series:
I showed at large, (1) that the Lord’s Supper was ordained by God to be a means of conveying to men either preventing or justifying, or sanctifying grace, according to their several necessities; (2) that the persons for whom it was ordained are all those who know and feel that they want the grace of God, either to restrain them from sin, or to show their sins forgiven, or to renew their souls in the image of God; (3) that inasmuch as we come to his table, not to give him anything but to receive whatsoever he sees best for us, there is no previous preparation indispensably necessary, but a desire to receive whatsoever he pleases to give; and (4) that no fitness is required at the time of communicating but a sense of our state, of our utter sinfulness and helplessness; every one who knows he is fit for hell being just fit to come to Christ, in this as well as all other ways of his appointment.15
Over 30 years later, Wesley addressed the issue of the unconverted being invited to the table even more directly, in a letter to John Simpson:
Ought every unbeliever to pray or communicate? Yes. “Ask, and it (faith) shall be given you.” And if you believe Christ died for guilty, helpless sinners, then eat that Bread and drink of that Cup.16
Clearly, Wesley’s views on communion as a means of prevenient grace did not diminish as he grew older.
As I read Wesley’s perspective on communion, I received a vision of an act of worship that we would long to participate in, as opposed to “having” to participate in. I also saw an act of worship approached with great anticipation and joy. And I no longer saw communion as something we do, either in obedience to a command of Christ, or as a means to some vague spiritual end. It became something God does, as a means to a particular end—offering grace that will draw us to God, justify us, and sanctify us. In short, communion is one of God’s means to the end of renewing us in the image of Christ; making us holy.
I offer this message as one more encouragement to move us in the direction of more frequent communion— not only for frequency’s sake, but as an effort at “reconnecting the means to the end.”17 I hope that we might be captured by the vision of this wondrous means (of grace) that God has provided in order to achieve God’s end of renewing us in the image of Christ. The Lord’s Supper is more than just a memory. God truly does something in us when we come to his table. At his table, we not only remember, but we actually receive “life and salvation and promise of all spiritual blessings in Christ.”18
JIM FITZGERALD is senior pastor of Trinity Church of the Nazarene in Duncanville, Texas
1. “Soft organ music or silence should accompany the serving” was the instruction given in one article in the Herald of Holiness. Fletcher Galloway, “The Ordinances of the Church,” Herald of Holiness, 35 (August 12, 1946): 10.
2. My journey into Wesley’s writings did not begin on my own. I didn’t stumble into it, but I was led there, primarily by Rob Staples in his seminary course, “Wesley’s Theology.” His work, Outward Sign and Inward Grace: The Place of Sacraments in Wesleyan Spirituality (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1991), had not yet been published, but the message had already been well-crafted.
3. In his sermon, “The Duty of Constant Communion,” John Wesley writes, “It is the duty of every Christian to receive the Lord’s Supper as often as he can.” The Works of John Wesley, Thomas Jackson, ed., 1872. Reprint edition (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1979), 7:147]. In the sermon “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse VI,” Wesley asserts that the sacrament was “daily received in the beginning by the whole Church of Christ, and highly esteemed, till the love of many waxed cold” [Works (Jackson), 5:338]. Wesley’s journals record that he began the practice of weekly communion in 1725 [Works (Jackson), 1:99]. John Bowmer calculates that from that year until Wesley’s death in 1791, he received communion an average of once every four to five days [The Lord’s Supper in Methodism, 1791--1960 (London: Epworth Press, 1961), 55].
4. J. Ernest Rattenbury, The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley, Timothy J. Crouch, ed., American reprint ed. (Cleveland, OH: Order of St. Luke Publications, 1990).
5. Works (Jackson), 7:147.
6. The invitation for sinners to come to the table shows up clearly in the Eucharistic hymns. These lyrics are illustrative: “Come, to the supper come, sinners there still is room” (Hymn 8, v. 1); “Sinner, with awe draw near, and find thy Savior here” (Hymn 39, v. 1); “On all who at His word draw near, In faith the outward veil look through; Sinners, believe, and find Him here; Believe, and feel He died for you” (Hymn 73, v. 4), Eucharistic Hymns, H-3, H-13, H-23.
7. For a fuller discussion of the changes that occurred, see James N. Fitzgerald, Ph.D. diss., Weaving a Rope of Sand: The Separation of the Proclamation of the Word and the Celebration of the Eucharist in the Church of the Nazarene (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1999).
8. The “memorialist” view of communion has its roots in the teachings of the Reformer Ulrich Zwingli. For Zwingli, the bread and wine are visible reminders of Christ’s death on the cross, which believers meditate on. As a reaction against medieval abuse, “which seemed to turn the sacrament into magic and which quantified grace, so that the Mass achieved saving action simply by being performed,” Zwingli suggested that “the Eucharistic action was directed from the church to God, not vice versa. Thus at the Lord’s Supper believers affirm their faith by contemplating the central act of salvation” [Laurence Hull Stookey, Eucharist: Christ’s Feast With the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 57].
9. Works (Jackson), 5:187.
10. James F. White, Sacraments as God’s Self-Giving (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983), 128. White’s fuller statement is this: “The recovery of a weekly eucharist is the highest priority for the reform of worship in most Protestant churches. Nevertheless, it must be said distinctly that to institute a weekly celebration of the eucharist under the spirit and form in which it is now performed monthly or occasionally in most Protestant churches would be an unmitigated disaster. As usually celebrated (if that is, indeed, the proper term), it is unduly long, unduly lugubrious, and unduly penitential. Hence, careful rethinking of the meaning of the eucharist and thorough restructuring of the way it is celebrated is essential. In most cases, the significance of the eucharistic prayer especially needs study and the method of distributing communion particularly demands retooling. Much other work must be accomplished before a recovery of a weekly eucharist would be beneficial.”
11. Works (Jackson), 7:150-151.
12. Manual of the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene (Los Angeles: Nazarene Publishing Company, 1908), 31. The phrase remained, unchanged, through the 1923 version of the Manual. It was dropped from the Manual in 1928, apparently in editorial revisions (by an editor with a Quaker background).
13. Prior to the founding of the denomination in 1908, Bresee’s Los Angeles congregation observed the Lord’s Supper every other month. In the Northeast, The Association of Pentecostal Churches had monthly communion services. For a brief overview, see my Weaving a Rope of Sand, 151-153.
14. A fuller discussion of the variety of meanings of communion is forthcoming in the second article in this series.
15. The Works of John Wesley. Bicentennial edition. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984), 19:159 (emphasis in original).
16. The letter was dated November 28, 1774. The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M., Standard Edition, ed. John Telford, 8 vols. (London: Epworth Press, 1931), 6:124.
17. The phrase comes from Randy Maddox’ article of the same title, “Reconnecting the Means to the End: A Wesleyan Prescription for the Holiness Movement,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 33:2 (Fall 1998):29-66.
18. The phrase is from the Articles of Faith, “XIII. The Lord’s Supper.” Manual of the Church of the Nazarene: 2009-2013 (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 2009), 36.