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Holy Communion

John Wesley referred to the Lord’s Supper as the chief of the ‘means of grace’, an outward sign of God’s saving grace.

Jesus gives the bread to a beggar on beige background

In the second of a two-part series on the topic of Holy Communion, we address deeper questions about the who, what and when of Holy Communion for Methodists.

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What is meant when we say that Holy Communion is a sacrament?
Methodists affirm that God uses certain physical means for bestowing divine grace. Holy Communion is one of two official sacraments, the other being baptism. Both were specifically instituted by Christ.

John Wesley referred to the Lord’s Supper as the chief of the ‘means of grace’, an outward sign of God’s saving grace. Those preparing for Communion should take it seriously by repenting of their sins and being at peace with their neighbours.

Is Jesus really present in the bread and wine or juice?
Methodists do not believe in ‘transubstantiation’, a medieval doctrine that when the priest says the words of institution, the elements of bread and wine actually become Jesus’ body and blood. We do believe, though, that for those who come in faith, the sharing and receiving of the elements have the saving and healing power of Christ’s broken body and shed blood.

Why do we have to go forward to kneel for communion, while in some churches the people remain seated?
Until the 14th century, standing throughout the service was the norm because churches didn’t have seats for everyone. In the early centuries, the norm was to approach the communion table and receive the elements standing. With the late medieval period, Catholic churches began adding kneeling rails to emphasise the penitential quality of communion. This trend continued in many Protestant churches after the Reformation. While some churches choose to remain seated for communion to recall the disciples sitting around the Lord’s table, Methodists have largely continued the old Catholic and Anglican practice of going forward to kneel at the rail.

Today, many worshippers go to the front, but receive the elements standing as they recognise that Holy Communion is as much a celebration of Christ’s resurrection as a memorial of His death.

What do the Holy Communion prayers mean?
The main prayer before partaking the Lord’s Supper is called the Great Thanksgiving. Traditionally, this Trinitarian prayer is offered by the Bishop or by an ordained clergy because of its sacramental nature. The Great Thanksgiving begins with a dialogue in the tradition of common biblical greetings (Ruth 2:4; Philemon 1:25). The pastor then gives thanks for God’s gifts: for the Father creating us in love, for the redeeming work of Christ the Son, and for the unifying and empowering work of the Holy Spirit. The thanksgiving for the Son includes the ‘words of institution’ which Jesus spoke at the Last Supper, sometimes called the Prayer of Consecration. The thanksgiving for the Holy Spirit includes the ‘epiclesis’ or prayer for the Spirit to be ‘poured out’ on the people and on the elements so that the partakers may have the faith to receive them as Christ’s body and blood.

Traditionally, there are two congregational responses, either spoken or sung in unison: the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) and the Memorial (Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again).

The Great Thanksgiving is often concluded with the Lord’s Prayer. After the distribution of the elements, a closing thanksgiving prayer is offered.

The Rev George 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.

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