“The main intention of Christ herein, was not, the bare Remembrance of his Passion; but over and above, to invite us to his Sacrifice, not as done and gone many Years since, but, as to Grace and Mercy, still lasting, still new, still the same as when it was first offer’d for us.”
-Wesley’s extract from Daniel Brevint
We often forget that the Wesleyan arm of the Evangelical movement was a revival of the heart and also a revival of the sacrament. In Wesley’s mind, the two went together. Part of what it meant to be made holy was to partake of the holy meal that God has offered to his people. And so while we often imagine hymns sung at Methodist societies or picture the bustling crowds at open-air sermons, when we think of early Methodism we should also think of eucharistic festivals and Wesley’s call to “constant communion.”
Sacrament of Presence
Wesley’ spoke of the Eucharist as a place or even an event where the believer encounters God. To him, it was much more than a memorial – although it was also that – but really an encounter with God’s very presence. He wrote, ““I want to seek my Saviour, and I haste to this Sacrament for the same purpose that SS. Peter and John hasted to the sepulcher – because I hope to find Him there.” This hope was based on the promise and declaration of Christ when he said, “This is my body.” But for Wesley, this meant that we need to run to it, like those who were seeking the Lord on that first Easter morning.
We can find God in the Eucharist. The image of running to the embrace of God is a beautiful image, and fits the pattern of how God continually finds ways to meet each and every one of us exactly where we are. In this case, God finds us in something so common to us all, so everyday, that it’s humbling to even think of it.
Sacrament of Relationship
Wesley’s call to “constant communion,” made plain in his sermon The Duty of Constant Communion, was a call to relationship, and a constant or “vital” one with the Christ we meet in this holy mystery. At it’s core, Wesley’s eucharistic theology is one of encounter. He described Holy Communion as a dynamic and transformative experience of the Risen Christ. It wasn’t about the means themselves nor even about the ritual, nor was it a work that we do. It was a gift, even a divine one. And so he pleaded with the early Methodists to take full advantage of Christ’s offer. Wesley wrote:
“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: This gives strength to perform our duty, and leads us on to perfection. If, therefore, we have any regard for the plain command of Christ, if we desire the pardon of our sins, if we wish for strength to believe, to love and obey God, then we should neglect no opportunity of receiving the Lord’s Supper; then we must never turn our backs on the feast which our Lord has prepared for us.”
In one of Charles Wesley’s hymns, he wrote that that elements of the Eucharist “convey a power not theirs to give.” The beauty is in what they convey, however, for the Eucharist “fills his faithful people’s hearts with all the life of God.” That the creator of all things would make himself, his very life, available to us in this way speaks to God’s character. The Eucharist is an act of love. And the One who is conveyed by such common elements desires to be in relationship with you and with me.
Sacrament of Sanctification
In Wesley’s day, the average member of the Church of England had access to the Eucharist about once a month. However, this doesn’t mean that they partook of it. Some thought that they weren’t worthy of it and stayed away. In some parts of England – in London or at the chapels of Oxford or Cambridge – it was more common to have weekly communion services.
Wesley had the Eucharist on average once every four days of his life.
“Let every one, therefore, who has either any desire to please God, or any love of his own soul” take full advantage of this divine gift at every possible opportunity. There’s a reason why the earliest Methodists were also called “Sacramentarians,” although we can be thankful for the nickname that stuck. There was no doubt in Wesley’s mind that the minimum for reception of the Eucharist should be at least every Sunday. This can be seen explicitly in “The Duty of Constant Communion,” but also in the Sunday Service, his 1784 revision of the Book of Common Prayer for the nascent Methodist church in North America. The expected norm was weekly Eucharist for the Methodist people.
When he described the Eucharist, Charles Wesley wrote, “see him set forth before your eyes, behold the bleeding sacrifice, his offered love make haste to embrace, and freely now be saved by grace.”
The reason that Wesley wanted the Methodists to partake of the Eucharist so regularly is that Wesley followed much of church tradition and saw the Eucharist as a meal specifically ordered to the sanctification of the believer. And how could it be anything otherwise? If God is present through it, and uses it as his “grand channel” to communicate his transforming power, it can be little else. Holiness is founded on the reality of God’s transforming and relational presence in our lives. And Holy Communion is the common means by which this takes place. Let’s not say the only means, but it is a specific means identified by Christ himself in which the believer, by faith, can encounter the living God. This was one of the keys of the Wesleyan revival. May we take advantage of this gift in our own day, not only as it was the dying command of our Savior, but as it is a gift, an offering, for full salvation here.
The resources on the Eucharist from the Wesley brothers include both hymns and sermons, but also John Wesley’s extract of Daniel Brevint’s work on eucharistic theology which served as a preface to he and Charles Wesley’s collection of eucharistic hymns, a devotional document meant to be used in the home after having received communion in the local parish church. The principle documents include:
- The Means of Grace
- The Duty of Constant Communion
- Hymns on the Lord’s Supper
- The Sunday Service for the Methodists in North America
Ryan N. Danker