The United Methodist Church has an amazing document entitled This Holy Mystery that outlines our doctrinal and practical understanding of the sacrament of Holy Communion. Maybe you’ve heard of it or even participated in a class where it was taught. I have the privilege of leading a small group in studying this document over the next six weeks.
One of my initial thoughts in approaching this series with a group of lay people is that it might be helpful to blog about it and share it with the wider United Methodist community. Therefore, I invite you to join me for the next few blogs as I process my experience in both studying anew and teaching this fantastic United Methodist resource on sacramental theology.
Spoiler alert: I think it will have a lot to say not only about how we celebrate Holy Communion, but also how we seek to form and be formed as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Session 1: Hungering for the Mystery
An excerpt from the teaching resource written by Gayle Felton:
The story is told of a little girl whose parents had taken her forward to receive Holy Communion. Disappointed with the small piece of bread she was given to dip in the cup, the child cried loudly, “I want more! I want more!” While embarrassing to her parents and amusing to the pastor and congregation, this little girl’s cry accurately expresses the feelings of many contemporary United Methodist people. We want more! We Want more than we are receiving from the sacrament of Holy Communion as it is practiced in our churches.
The resounding response from our group in hearing this story was, “YES!!!”
We began our session by going around the room and naming 1 or 2 words they think of when participating in the sacrament. Some said, “renewed.” Others said, “forgiven.” Still others said, “strengthened and nourished.” Oddly, no one said, “bored.” I wonder how many lay people are sitting in our pews wishing we could celebrate Holy Communion more often. Where I serve, the Walk to Emmaus has served as a great source for helping people find new love for the Holy Communion. A couple of Emmaus alums in our group noted how let down they were in finding that after a wonderful weekend away where Holy Communion was so prominent, they realized just how much their local church kept it off to the side as though was not central to worship.
Frustration was expressed when clergy rush the liturgy, when the table is not carefully and lovingly prepared, when the theology expressed is questionable, and when clergy do not teach on the rich meaning and mystery in the sacrament. The laity all said they wished they heard more about the sacraments. They wished practices matched the deep meaning the sacrament had in their faith lives.
I wonder, too, if the disconnect felt has more to do with what we see as the primary focus of our worship — do we see the sermon as the primary turning point of worship or do we see the Table? For our Anglican brothers and sisters it’s the Table. Sermons are short and normally lead straight to the Table. But we’re United Methodists (and I’m in the South) so preaching and revival-style worship holds a special place in our cultural imagination. Legends are told of the great preachers of our past. Preaching is viewed as a primary skill for the ministry (and it should be).
I wonder if our emphasis on preaching has come at the expense of emphasizing the importance of the sacrament of Holy Communion?
A couple of years ago I did a very informal, unscientific poll on Facebook asking whether or not Communion would lose its meaning and importance if it were celebrated weekly instead of monthly or quarterly. Interestingly my responses were split into two categories — everyone who voted for celebrating MORE often were laity and everyone who noted the difficulty in celebrating more often were clergy. Now I’m drawing my own conclusions but I wonder if that doesn’t have a little something to do with our emphasis on preaching. In other words, do we preachers secretly enjoy knowing that our sermons are the pinnacle of the worship service? Another thought could be that with more observances comes more planning and responsibilities — is it just easier on preachers and worship teams to stay with fewer observances?
But it’s not just a critique of the place and priority we give preaching. Emphasizing the sacraments calls into question how we view worship as a whole. Giving the sacraments a primary place in worship means not only allowing, but inviting mystery to be primary in our worship. This means we have to be okay with not being able to explain our the0logy and rituals in neat, compact ways. It means being okay with allowing the Spirit to move without our putting a formula on how it moves. And it means seeing worship as something more than just entertainment or comfort where style trumps content and we think we can become full off of a steady diet of thin, shallow meaning.
Don Saliers notes that emphasizing the sacraments in such a way as to make the link between ritual, mission, and discipleship will require some change in how congregations approach the sacraments. First, he says, congregations would be forced to teach and learn more about the sacraments on an ongoing basis. We need to teach worship instead of just doing it and expecting that folks get something out of it. But we cannot marginalize the sacraments just because they’re cloaked in some mystery and not easily understood. We can still teach in the midst of mystery. Secondly, Saliers notes, preaching would need to root itself in a sacramental sense of church and world. We cannot simply preach that salvation is found in Jesus’ death. The entirety of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is the foundation for our preaching and worship. The liturgy of Holy Communion covers the spectrum of this foundation, invites us to “taste and see,” and then sends us forth in mission as we participation in the fullness of life in Christ. Thirdly, congregations would have to celebrate the sacraments with more vitality and enthusiasm. Baptisms are not meant to be rote and routine. Holy Communion is not a funeral service. We offer ourselves in thanks and praise as we participate in the very life of God’s redeeming action every time we celebrate one of the sacraments. Why would we not want to do this as often as possible???
Question: How does your congregation celebrate Holy Communion? Do you wish you could celebrate more often? How are the sacraments taught in your congregation? Do you wish they were taught more?