4/26/13

A Wesley Catechism on "Real Presence"

A much-debated topic among Christians has been in what sense (if any) is the Risen Christ - and the body and blood of Christ - present to us in and through the bread and wine of Holy Communion? 

While many have been (wrongly) taught that Catholics believe in Real Presence and Protestants do not, the truth is that different Protestants have a diversity of views on the matter and some are quite a bit closer than others to Roman Catholicism (and to the Early Church) in affirming that we truly receive Christ's body and blood; so Martin Luther, the "Father of the Protestant Reformation" once said (in rejection of the "Radical Reformers"):
"Before I would have mere wine with the fanatics, I would rather receive sheer blood with the pope."

What is the Wesleyan or Methodist view of Real Presence?

A few months back I published A Wesley Catechism on Grace, that explains (in Q & A form) what saving grace is and how grace is received using entirely quotes from John Wesley (and some related Scripture).

So now seminarians and candidates for ordination take note: Here is John Wesley's theology of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper (Holy Communion, Eucharist), and the mysterious but real presence of the Body and Blood of Christ, in two short quotes:

What is a Sacrament?

"...a sacrament is 'an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we recieve the same.'"

(Sermon XII, The Means of Grace, II.1)

What are the outward signs of Holy Communion and what is the inward grace we receive through those signs?

"...we learn that the design of this sacrament is, the continual remembrance of the death of Christ, by eating bread and drinking wine, which are the outward signs of the inward grace, the body and blood of Christ."

(Sermon CI, The Duty of Constant Communion, I.5)

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In these quotes, Wesley simply and deliberately re-states the Anglican doctrine, which itself is a restatement of the classical understanding going back at least to St. Augustine (usually cited from "De Catechizandis Rudibus"). The outward physical signs of bread and wine convey to the believer (see below) an inward reality or spiritual grace, namely, the body and blood of Christ.  This Early Church understanding, also held by the Anglican tradition, is likewise affirmed in Wesleyan theology.  We Methodist Christians have a very thick and rich understanding of the sacraments in our Wesleyan theology, though it is often missed in popular teaching. 

Our Wesleyan understanding of Holy Communion is also quite "catholic" in the broad sense of the word: it reflects the understanding of the Ancient Church that has been maintained across the universal church through the ages.  A review of some popular UMC curriculum suggests that many United Methodists are comfortable speaking about our receiving the "grace of the Passion" or even the "benefits of the body and blood" but fewer of us actually say what Wesley says: that the inward grace we receive through the outward signs is the Body and Blood of Christ (see also 1 Cor. 10:15-17), which also implies a union with his Risen Life as well as all the benefits of his passion.  It may be that we are more influenced by generic American Evangelicalism than by our Methodist theology and liturgy at this point.

The same definition of sacrament applies to baptism as well, though Wesley does not discuss it much: the outward sign is water, the inward grace is spiritual cleansing (Eph. 5:26), union with Christ's Risen Life (Rom. 6:1-5) and with his body, the Church or covenant people (1 Cor. 12:13).  With both sacraments the grace is given by God through the sacrament as a "means of grace" and received on our part by our faith in Christ (see Romans 5:2, Ephesians 2:8, etc.).  This is why the Anglican article on Communion (retained by Wesley as Article XVIII of our Methodist Articles of Religion) states that "the mean whereby the body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is faith."  The implications of that sentence are worth meditating upon: it affirms that, for those who have faith, it is the body of Christ that is received and eaten.

For more see the previous post: Wesley Catechism on Grace, and also Charles Wesley Eucharistic Meditation.
May God help us all to gratefully grasp the marvelous gifts that he so lovingly gives.

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