Holy Communion

still life with Bible chalice and bread
** Note: Shallow depth of field

In the first of a two-part series on the topic of Holy Communion, we explore its meaning, and the who, what and when of Holy Communion for Methodists. Part two will address deeper questions about communion.

What is Holy Communion?
Holy Communion is a sacrament which Christ instructed His followers to practise regularly. Also known as the Lord’s Supper or the Last Supper, it re-enacts the fellowship meal that Jesus had with His disciples on the night before His crucifixion, where He equated the bread to His own body that would be broken on the cross and the wine to His own blood that would be shed.

We call this meal ‘Communion’, because we are communing with God and with other Christians, or the ‘Eucharist’, after the Greek word for thanksgiving. The Roman Catholic Church refers to it as ‘Mass’ and in the Orthodox churches, the ‘Divine Liturgy’. We share the meal in remembrance of Jesus’ death, and confess our sins for which He died.

Communion also celebrates Christ’s resurrection and continuing Lordship over the church, until He returns and together we feast at His heavenly banquet. The meaning can be summed up in the acclamation, “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again!”

Is communion in the Methodist Church very different from that in other Christian churches?
No. However, some doctrines and practices are common to Methodist congregations – using grape juice rather than wine; coming forward to receive the elements rather than receiving them while remaining seated; and practising the ‘open table’, where Christians of any denomination may commune with the Methodists.

Doctrinally, Methodists affirm that Holy Communion is a ‘means of grace’ – an outward sign, word or action through which we experience God’s grace. Methodists also recognise that for those who receive in faith, Christ is truly present in the meal.

Why do we have communion only once a month?
John Wesley encouraged the Methodists to observe communion weekly, like early Christians did. But he also insisted that only
a duly ordained pastor could offer communion. As Methodism spread, there were not enough clergy, so the ordained pastor might only get to the local congregation once a month to serve communion. Hence, the practice has stuck. Many Methodist communities are now seeing the value of serving communion more often.

Can just anyone receive communion?
No. The invitation to the Lord’s Table is to all who love Christ, who sincerely repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another. Traditionally, those who come for communion should be baptised believers, but the pastor may, at his or her discretion, receive non-baptised persons who come in faith to communion. However, they should be counselled afterward to prepare for baptism.

My church uses individual wafers and cups for communion, but others use a single cup and a loaf of bread. Why the difference?
The difference springs mostly from practicality and perceived hygiene. In the New Testament, Jesus broke bread (a single loaf) and passed the pieces around to the disciples, followed by a single cup or chalice He shared among the disciples. Individual wafers were later used because of crumbling bread, and the individual cups out of concern for drinking out of the same cup. Alternatively, some use intinction, where the piece of bread is broken from a single loaf and dipped in the chalice.

The Rev George R. Martzen is a United Methodist clergy and missionary under the General Board of Global Ministries. Currently assigned to the Chinese Annual Conference in Singapore, he is a pastoral staff with Paya Lebar Chinese Methodist Church.