Although this text is actually one of the lectionary texts for October 18, it seems especially appropriate for the celebration of World Communion Sunday. It offers a great opportunity to talk about the sacrificial meaning of Holy Communion.
Although all baptized followers of Jesus Christ are members of the priesthood of all believers, in the United Methodist Church certain people are set apart by ordination for certain roles in the church. Specifically, ordained elders are set apart for service to Word and Table.
Presiding at the Lord’s Table is historically related to the priestly role in the Old Testament. In the Jewish Temple, it was the priest who oversaw the sacrifices and offerings made in the Temple. Only priests were believed to possess the level of holiness sufficient to approach the holy of holies where the altar of the Lord was located. In their ritual capacity as “ministers of the altar” (Joel 1:13), priests performed certain rituals, including the sprinkling of blood before the divine presence and making burnt offerings. They offered these items as sacrifices to God on behalf of the people, and they were allowed to consume a portion of the grain and animal offerings in compensation for their services.
I am always amazed at how many blood-sacrifice hymns for Holy Communion we have in the United Methodist Hymnal. It makes it seem as if United Methodists have only one theological understanding of Holy Communion: it is related to remission of sins bought by the blood sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Many people translate this to mean that in the holy meal, we are sacrificing Jesus over and over again on our table, much like the priests in the Jewish temple “offered gifts and sacrifices for sin” on the altar (Hebrews 5:1). I know this may come as news to some, but in spite of this widespread “misunderstanding” of the meaning of the sacrament that continues to prevail in the minds in many in our congregations, our United Methodist theology of Holy Communion is not particularly blood-sacrifice oriented. Further, understanding our holy meal as a repeated enacting of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for our sins is not only woefully incomplete, but also erroneous.
The writings of both John and Charles Wesley reveal a complex theology consistent with the Anglican tradition, but also distinctive to particular Methodist commitments and practice. United Methodist eucharistic theology holds many dimensions, including:
- a memorial meal
- a symbol and means of grace
- a proclamation of the eschatological hope achieved for all through the salvific work of Christ
- a commemoration of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross
- a sacrificial oblation of both the individual and the church
So even though our theological understanding of the Table is very broad and complex, I guess that if you asked the people in your congregation what is being offered to God as a sacrifice in the Lord’s Supper, most would answer “The body and blood of Jesus Christ.” United Methodist pastors (or “priests,” if you want to use the language of Hebrews) do not offer blood sacrifices for the atonement of our sins. Our theology teaches that Jesus’ “once and for all” sacrifice on the cross has removed the need to offer sacrifices in the Temple.
Prior to the Middle Ages, worshipers understood that what was being “offered” to God through the celebration of the Holy Meal was not a reenactment of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, but rather, an offering of the people of God, the body of Christ, for the transformation of the world. Wesley sought to recapture this theology from the early church. For Wesley, by gathering around the Lord’s Table, the worshiping community—the body of Christ—was nourished and sanctified. Through the breaking of bread and the pouring of wine, the congregation was renewed, unified, and enabled to offer itself in sacrificial actions for the sake of the world. This is the reason John Wesley called the Methodists to the duty of “constant communion.” He really believed that followers were transformed, both as individuals and as a congregation, by the sharing of bread and wine around the Table of the Lord. The language of our current liturgy for Great Thanksgiving reflects this intent when we pray, “We offer ourselves as a holy and living sacrifice in union with Christ’s offering for us as we proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.”
So this text is not about Communion, even though it uses the language of priests and sacrifices. It is about the nature of Jesus Christ, who “did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest” but was appointed by God. During his time on earth, Jesus took on some of the roles assigned to priests: he “offered up prayers and supplications,” he “learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:7, 8-9 NRSV). In essence, Jesus takes on the role of the high priest for all. He has already acted on our behalf through his death on the cross. His actions have purified us, making it possible for each one of us to approach God ourselves. Therefore there is no need for him to be ritually sacrificed over and over on the altars in our sanctuaries.
If Communion isn’t a ritual enactment of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, then how can we help our members better understand what it is? What can we do to deepen our understanding of the meaning of this Holy Meal for United Methodists?
As you work on this text, I would urge you to consider not just the narratives associated with the Last Supper in the context of the Passover meal (Exodus 12:1-28, Matthew 26:17-20, Mark 14:12-26, Luke 22:7-23, and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26), but also the feeding miracles (Matthew 14:13-21 and 15:32-39, Mark 6:30-44 and 8:1-10, Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:1-4), the post-Resurrection meals (Luke 24:13-35, Matthew 16:12-13, John 21:4-14) and the witness of the early church (Acts 2:42-47).
Consider also looking at the texts to the 166 Eucharistic Hymns written by John and Charles Wesley.
Finally, I would invite you to read the official United Methodist document on Holy Communion, This Holy Mystery, and commit to study with your congregation the new publication The Meaning of Holy Communion in the United Methodist Church by E. Byron Anderson, available as a free PDF download from Discipleship Ministries.