The Greek word used in the early church for sacrament is mysterion, usually translated mystery. It indicates that through sacraments, God discloses things that are beyond human capacity to know through reason alone. In Latin, the word used is sacramentum, which means a vow or promise. The sacraments were instituted by Christ and given to the church. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, defines a sacrament, in accord with his Anglican tradition, as “an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same” (“Means of Grace,” II.1).
Methodists have always taught Holy Baptism and Holy Communion as “sacraments.” They have been chosen and designated by God as special means through which divine grace comes to us. In a sacrament, God uses tangible, material things as vehicles or instruments of grace. Holy Baptism is the sacrament that initiates us into the body of Christ “through water and the Spirit” (“The Baptismal Covenant I,” UMH; page 37). In baptism we receive our identity and mission as Christians. Holy Communion is the sacrament that sustains and nourishes us in our journey of salvation.
In the New Testament, at least six major ideas about Holy Communion are present:
- action of the Holy Spirit, and
Let’s look at each of these ideas briefly.
Holy Communion is Eucharist, an act of thanksgiving. The early Christians “broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:46-47a, NIV). As we commune together, we express joyful thanks for God’s mighty acts throughout history—for creation, covenant, redemption, sanctification.
Secondly, Holy Communion is the communion of the church—the gathered community of the faithful, both local and universal. While communion may be deeply meaningful to the individuals participating, the sacrament is much more than a personal event. The sacrament of Holy Communion is first and foremost, a corporate experience. Notice that the first person pronouns throughout the ritual are consistently plural—we, us, our. The shared experience at the Table exemplifies the nature of the church and models the world as God would have it be.
Third, Holy Communion is “remembrance”, “commemoration”, and “memorial”, but this remembrance is much more than simply intellectual recalling. “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24-25) is anamnesis (the biblical Greek word). This dynamic action becomes re-presentation of past gracious acts of God in the present, so powerfully as to make them truly present now. If you have heard me talk about worship, you have heard me say that in worship, we tell and enact the story of the Good News of Christ. Anamnesis is the remembrance – the enacting in worship.
Fourth, Holy Communion is a type of sacrifice. It is a re-presentation, not a repetition, of the sacrifice of Christ. Christ was sacrificed “once for all” so Christ’s atoning life, death, and resurrection make divine grace available to us. In Holy Communion we present ourselves as sacrifice in union with Christ (Romans 12:1; 1 Peter 2:5) to be used by God in the work of redemption, reconciliation, and justice.
Fifth, Holy Communion is a vehicle of God’s grace through the action of the Holy Spirit. The epiclesis (biblical Greek word meaning calling upon) is the part of the Great Thanksgiving that calls the Spirit: “Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine.” The church asks God to “make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood. By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world . . .”
Finally, Holy Communion is eschatological, meaning that it has to do with the end of history, the outcome of God’s purpose for the world. We commune not only with the faithful who are physically present but with the saints of the past who join us in the sacrament. To participate is to receive a foretaste of the future, a pledge of heaven “until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet”. When we eat and drink at the Table, we become partakers of the divine nature in this life and for life eternal (John 6:47-58; Revelation 3:20). We are anticipating the heavenly banquet celebrating God’s victory over sin, evil, and death (Matthew 22:1-14; Revelation 19:9; 21:1-7).
Though there may be occasions when one or more of these “major ideas” will take precedence (i.e., remembrance on Maundy Thursday, for example), each one of these meanings are present every time we take together Holy Communion. While I never want you to miss the spiritual moment of Holy Communion in your life, the next time we as a church celebrate Holy Communion, see if during (or after upon reflection), you sense all of these major ideas about Holy Communion in your life.