About that bread and wine

Despite the ecumenical progress that Christian churches, communions, and denominations have made over the past 75 years or so to become more unified, our understanding of Holy Communion—including what to call it (Mass, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, Divine Liturgy)—and who may participate in it remains a large and heartbreaking obstacle to greater Christian unity.

This shouldn’t surprise us: at the very least, we are talking about powerful symbols—the most powerful symbols I know of. I’m often surprised when someone trivializes a controversial subject by saying something like, “It’s only a symbol,” or, “It’s only a symbolic gesture.” In other words, “Why get bent out of shape? A symbol isn’t a real thing.”

Of course that’s exactly opposite of the truth: Symbols aren’t only anything; they are everything. We need only think of the recurring debate over the legality of flag-burning in this country to be reminded of the power of symbols and the visceral reaction they often provoke. Needless to say, if Christians are going to disagree over such a central act of Christian worship, which at the very least is highly symbolic, that disagreement will tend to be passionate, highly charged, and divisive.

Notice I say “at least” symbolic. If the Lord’s Supper were only symbolic, as in Baptist and some Reformed traditions, it would still be a significant act of worship. Most Christian churches, however, believe that the Lord’s Supper is more than symbolic. Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Lutheran Christians believe that the bread and wine are transformed during the liturgy itself into the body and blood of Christ (although the understanding of how and when this transformation takes place differs between them).

We Methodists, as spiritual descendants of the Church of England, are greatly informed by the Anglican understanding of Communion. (Remember that John and Charles Wesley lived and died happily as Anglican priests.) We believe that while nothing happens, physically or spiritually, to the bread and wine (or in the Methodist case, “pure, unfermented juice of the grape”), Christ is present in a special and unique way through the bread and wine. Exactly how Christ is present, however, remains a mystery.

In my view, this is as it should be. Answering “how” when it comes to the infinite and eternal are usually far less important than “why” and “what does it mean.” At the very least, we should approach these answers with great humility and generosity of spirit toward our brothers and sisters who disagree with us.

Methodists have always been on the front line of ecumenical dialogue, and they are, I hope, helping to teach the rest of the Church how to get along with one another. The theological differences between the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S. and the United Methodist Church over the question of the Lord’s Supper, for example, didn’t prevent our two churches from officially entering into “full communion” with one another in 2008. (“Full communion” means we recognize the validity of one another’s sacraments and clergy.)

In other words, despite our theological differences, Methodists and Lutherans are welcome at each other’s Communion tables. That’s a step in the right direction! A similar full communion agreement is in the works between the UMC and the Episcopal Church.

When we pray during the Lord’s Supper liturgy that the Spirit would “makes us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world,” let’s learn to say these words with less irony: this meal of unity shouldn’t be something that so badly divides us!

Methodists practice “open” Communion, which means that Lutherans and anyone else have always been welcome to come to the Lord’s Table in a Methodist church. This agreement, however, is a deeper—um—symbol of Christian unity.

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