World Communion Sunday: When Christ Makes Us Know We Are His Own
By Taylor Burton-Edwards
Text: Philippians 3:4b-14
On this World Communion Sunday it might be good to reflect on Paul’s encouragement to the Christian community in Philippi to know for themselves the peace that comes from knowing Christ has “made me his own.”
Paul begins by talking about his worldly accomplishments. He’s a great success story on paper. He is Jewish, a blood member of God’s chosen people, born into tribe of Benjamin. Further, he is a Pharisee and has spent most of his life zealously defending the law. He was even a persecutor of Christians, completely righteous and blameless under the law.
But, he says, all of that means nothing when he compares it to what he has found in Christ. It is all considered rubbish to him now, because knowing Christ, being found in Christ, is all that matters. It is the only prize he seeks or wants or desires. He is willing, even eager, to bear these worldly losses “in order that [he] may gain Christ and be found in him, ” he writes in verse 9.” Knowing Christ” and “being found in him” are claims of personal knowledge, personal experience, with in Christ.
And of course, we who follow Christ can understand what Paul is talking about here because we’ve all experienced it, too. Probably most of us have personally known what it means to "be Christ's own" at some point in our lives.
Knowing we are Christ's own refers to those moments when we feel Christ’s presence, feel Christ’s grace, and know Christ’s assurance deep down in our very hearts.
The experience of knowing Christ has made us his own is almost never a sustained thing. It is usually momentary. Still, its effects may be permanent.
John Wesley speaks of his own personal experience of “knowing Christ had made him his own" in an entry from his journal for May 23, 1738. He writes,
"In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."
What a powerful testimony!
Yet, even for John Wesley, that initial moment of assurance was fleeting, even if some of its effects were lasting. As Wesley wrote later in the same journal entry, “After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations, but I cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again.”
Though such moments are fleeting, there are things we can do as disciples to remind us of such moments along the way and continue to drawn strength from them.
In the case of Wesley, the memory of that night on Aldersgate Road burned constantly before him like a beacon in the night. It gave him a newfound sense of his own strength. “I as often lifted up my eyes, and He “sent me help from his holy place.” And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yea, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now, I was always conqueror.”
Likewise, we too can engage in practices that help us to recall our own individual moments of “knowing Christ has made us his own.” We can be reminded of how good we felt, and the more we are reminded the more we desire that feeling of God’s holiness. Just like Paul, the desire for knowing God’s overwhelming love and grace can become the prize that we seek. And Paul is right: it is a prize more important than any accomplishment the world has to offer. It is a prize more important than power, fame, wealth, or status. When living in the light of Christ becomes our primary goal, the greatest desire of our lives, the things of this world become more and more like rubbish compared to this desire.
John Wesley reinvigorated an Anglican method for helping to keep the Methodists’ eyes on the prize. It was called “using the means of grace.” He wrote a sermon on this topic ("The Means of Grace") that makes clear the relationship between the means of grace (especially the sacraments) and such profound experiences of knowing Christ has made us his own.
Wesley identifies the means of grace this way: “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, justifying, or sanctifying grace” (John Wesley, “The Means of Grace,” in The Bicentennial Edition of The Works of John Wesley, vol. 1, ed. Frank Baker and Albert C. Outler, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1984), 376-397).
The chief “ordinary channels” Wesley identifies are prayer (private and public), searching the Scriptures (reading, hearing, and meditating upon), and sharing in the sacrament of Holy Communion. It is not the means themselves, but rather the power of God working on a person’s heart through these ordinary means that, over time, brings a person to fullness of faith. It is possible to practice these means and not grow in faith. Wesley suggests that this is precisely what had happened for many in the Church of England in his day.
For Wesley, participating in the means of grace inattentively puts the person in danger of “abusing the means of grace to the destruction of their souls. By "inattentive" use of the means Wesley meant practicing them with no attention to their meaning at the time, or with a false understanding of their meaning, including notions that the practices themselves had some sort of magical power. Inattentive practice shows a fundamental failure to understand the nature of grace.
Grace, for Wesley, is a free gift from God, and, as such, there is nothing that God requires in order to bestow it upon God’s children. If, asks Wesley, it is a gift, how do we find assurance that we have received it? Is simply saying we believe enough? And if we do not yet really feel in our hearts that God’s saving grace is for us, what are we to do in the meantime? Should we simply wait quietly for God to send a confirmation?
No, says Wesley. He argues that God has given us, through the Scriptures, clear directions, or a way we are to follow while we await or to recollect those moments of knowing Christ has made us his own. It is a way that not only helps us be patient while we wait, but it also trains our spirits to be ready to receive Christ when he makes himself known to us.
First, he says, all who desire assurance of the grace of God are to pray while they are waiting.
Second, all who desire assurance of the grace of God are to search the scriptures.
And third, “all who desire an increase of the grace of God are to wait for it in partaking of the Lord’s Supper.”
Wesley says the way it generally works is people are going about their business, mostly unaware of God’s presence (pretty much as Paul describes his life prior to his encounter with the living Lord), until suddenly Christ comes to them, is made known to them, and helps them know they are his own.
Perhaps they experience his presence from hearing a sermon, or from a conversation they have had. Maybe Christ comes to them because of a tragedy. However it happens, in that moment God convinces them of the need to “flee from the wrath to come.” This, says Wesley, compels persons to seek out a preacher or teacher who can tell them how to do that.
Upon hearing an explanation from a preacher who “speaks to the heart,” most often there grows a desire to search the Scriptures. The more persons hear and read and search, the more convinced they become, so they cannot help but meditate upon the words day and night. This compels them to think, read and pray even more, and the conviction sinks deeper into their souls.
Then comes the desire to join with others in prayer and become part of a worship service where they are invited to the Lord's table. They hear Christ said, “Do this,” and enter into an inner struggle: “Does Christ mean the invitation for me? Am I too great a sinner? Am I fit? Am I worthy?” But if they are obedient, they do receive, and “continue in God’s way—in hearing, reading, meditating, praying, and partaking of the Lord’s Supper—till God, in the manner that pleases him, speaks to the heart, ‘thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.’”
That’s it! That’s the moment that Paul is talking about when the person knows that Christ has made us his own. It’s that moment that changes everything. It is that feeling which makes all else seem like rubbish.
The regular celebration of the sacrament of Holy Communion is this essential in this process. One of the places Christ invites us, reaches to us, meets us, and makes know we are us his very own most regularly is at his table. This is why the sacrament is central not only to United Methodist worship, but the majority of Christian denominations and communions around the globe. It is why sharing in Holy Communion (rather than the sermon) is the central act of worship in many traditions. It is, according to Wesley, the primary means through which Christ makes us know we are his own.
What are some ways you have known Christ and experienced him making you his own?
What about the people in your congregation? Might you invite a few people to give a witness of how Christ has come to them and made them his own? Perhaps for one it was on a Walk to Emmaus. For another it may have been when she witnessed the birth of her first child or the death of a beloved grandparent. Someone might speak of knowing the peace of Christ that passes all understanding as he stood on a mountaintop and observed the beauty of God’s creation, or marveled at the way a flower is formed, or the way year after year God brings the harvest, or the moment she was brought into the body of Christ in baptism. Whatever way or ways Christ has made us know we are his own, it is important to claim them and celebrate them.
On this World Communion Sunday we might consider how sharing in the sacrament is, for many people, the most regular way in which Christ draws people to him and makes them his own. As we join with our brothers and sisters around the global table of our Lord today, let us join Paul in rejoicing that Christ has come to us and made us his own... even ME!