By Rev. Dr. Brent Russett – Asbury Free Methodist
May 21st, 2023
Last week I spoke on Baptism. We are having a baptismal service on June 11th, and I am expecting to baptize six people. If you want to be baptized, talk to me after church today.
The Free Methodist Church has two sacraments. Baptism and Lord’s Supper. Since I spoke on Baptism last week, I thought I would round it out and speak on the Lord’s supper today. Sometimes we refer to it the Lord’s supper as communion. If you were in the Anglican church, they would refer to it as the Eucharist.
The church, throughout history, has fought about the meaning of communion. The Roman Catholic church believes that when the priest blesses the bread and the wine, it becomes the actual body and blood of Christ. For you theological wonks, the word for that is transubstantiation.
Many stories came out of the middle ages where farmers would sneak the wafer out of the church and feed it to their sick cow because it was supposed to have magical properties – and they hoped their cow would be healed. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t believe that. For them, faith is a significant part of communion.
The Roman Catholic church takes communion very seriously. You cannot participate in communion unless you have been baptized in the Catholic Church. If you, like me, have not been baptized in a Catholic church, and you find yourself at a Catholic service where communion is being served – what you do is you go forward during communion and cross your arms like this – the priest will then know not to serve you communion – but pronounce a blessing on you. And who doesn’t want a blessing?
The Baptist Church, on the other hand, would not call communion a sacrament. They would call it an ordinance. A sacrament is a means of divine grace. An ordinance is following a command of God. In the Baptist Church – the words that Jesus spoke, “Do this in remembrance of me” very seriously. By taking part in communion, they are fulfilling Christ’s command – and it functions as a memory aid. We remember the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross.
I tell you all this because I am going to talk about communion from a Free Methodist perspective. We fall somewhere in the middle. It is my hope that as I speak, it will help make communion deeply meaningful to you.
If you know anything about the Eastern Orthodox Church, whether it is the Greek Orthodox, the Russian Orthodox, or the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, you will know that they use icons in worship – pictures. They use them as aids to prayer. If you go to their churches, you will see all kinds of iconic paintings.
Some protestants have wrongly thought that they are using these pictures as idols and are praying to the picture. But what these icons are supposed to do is act like a window into the spiritual dimension. You look at them and contemplate them as windows into the spiritual realm. They use them as a way of contemplating Jesus and the stories of scripture.
We are not going to start to use icons in our worship. Our history is much less ornate than that. But the spiritual window we regularly use to peer through the spiritual dimension is communion. If you contemplate what is going on in communion, it shows God reaching out to us on so many different levels. By participating in communion, we are also reaching out to God.
Come with me to the night Jesus was betrayed. It was the time of the Passover celebration. That is when the people of Israel celebrated their deliverance from Egypt. There is a whole meal involved in Passover.
Jesus takes two elements from that meal, and he institutes communion.
Here is what Luke records.
Luke 22:14–20 (NIV)
14 When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15 And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”
17 After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. 18 For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”
19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.
Jesus says to his disciples – I have been looking forward to this Passover meal. He says this is my last meal with you until the kingdom of God comes. We see the kingdom of God breaking in when he is raised from the dead. But at the end of these verses, he talks about a new covenant. He says – I wanted to celebrate this with you because I am doing something new.
We don’t use covenant language all that much. I think the best way to describe it is that it is like a contract. In a contract, we say this is what I am going to do for you, and this is what you are going to give me. The difference between a contract and a covenant is that a contract is based on law. A covenant is based on the people making the covenant and their relationship.
We talk about a marriage covenant because we make a promise to each other to love each other. There is a contract connected to that in our word, but as a Christian, it is about fulfilling your part of the relationship.
Jesus is saying I am making a new covenant. I am signing that covenant in my blood. My blood is poured out to you.
The old covenant was that you would be my people by keeping my laws. The new covenant is that if you will believe in me And give me your sin, I will give you my righteousness. If you will give me your life, I will give you my Spirit, and I will give you real life. I want to walk in relationship with you. I want you to know God and be connected to God.
In fact, what I am going to do is give you a new heart. You are going to love me by doing what is right – not because of the law, but because I am changing your heart. It is about our relationship together.
I have done all the work in this relationship; your job is to receive me and believe in me and follow me. When Jesus says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood –
He is saying remember the covenant that we have together. I died for you, and you have chosen to live for me.
So, in communion, we remember the covenant we have made with God.
Now if you haven’t made that covenant with God – If you haven’t said, Lord Jesus, I believe in you, and I receive you, and I am going to follow you – then communion is not yet for you. Communion is for those who have chosen to be followers of Jesus.
A little later on, we are going to take part in communion. If you are here and you have never given your life to Christ but you would like to – then I would invite you to take part in communion as a way of saying, Jesus I believe that you died for my sin; I give you my life. I invite you to come into my life – I want to follow you.
That is what anyone who takes part in communion is saying.
Come with me to
1 Corinthians 10:15–17 (NIV)
15 I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.
If you were here last week, you might remember how when I spoke about Baptism, I talked about when the person went under the water, they are identifying with Christ’s burial. When they came up out of the water, they are identifying with Christ’s resurrection.
In many ways, communion is saying some of the same things. When we take part of the cup and bread – we are saying I was crucified with Christ – but I live. Jesus died for me, and I died with him, but I have new life because Jesus gave his life for me.
The Corinthian Church was really alive and really dysfunctional at the same time. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to correct what was going on. One of the problem areas was communion.
Now let me give you the setting. Church, at that time, met in people’s homes. Part of their church service, every week, was to take part in communion. So the host would set up the communion table with a big loaf of bread and a big glass of wine. Here is what would happen.
1 Corinthians 11:20–22 (NIV)
20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!
People would come in, and they would see communion – and they would know it was communion – but they would wait for anyone else. They would celebrate communion by themselves. They would eat a pile of bread, and they would drink a good portion of the wine. Consequently, people who were late didn’t get any. Paul says that isn’t the way the church works. It is about the whole church, the whole body of Christ – not just you.
Then he goes on to say
1 Corinthians 11:23–26 (NIV)
23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
You hear us quote that every communion.
Then Paul goes on to say this
1 Corinthians 11:27–31 (NIV)
27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment.
Some people look at this passage and say – I am not going to participate in communion because I am not worthy.
That is not what it is saying. None of us are worthy. He is saying you are eating and drinking without discerning the body of Christ. He is talking about those people who were being bread and wine hogs. They took no thought for the rest of the body of Christ. It was all about them. It wasn’t about celebrating together. It was about what Jesus had done for them. It was about them getting the bread and the wine before anyone else. Not good.
Paul goes on to say
1 Corinthians 11:33–34 (NIV)
33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.
I’ve spent time on this because I sometimes run into people who won’t take communion because they don’t think they are worthy. It is the people who know they are not worthy that should be taking part in communion. Lord, I know I am not perfect. In fact, I feel my imperfections keenly. But my heart is that I want to follow Jesus. I want to walk with him well.
It is proper and right to do a heart check before we take part in communion. If there is something that we need to confess to the Lord, then we need to do that because that is what people who are followers of Jesus do. We don’t want anything between Jesus and us. It is good to be reminded of the power of the cross to take care of all our sins. But we don’t come to communion because we are perfect; we come because we need grace.
So let me take some time to answer the questions I hear about communion.
Does communion save us? No you are saved by grace through faith. It is the gift of God, not a result of works.
What do we believe about the bread and the cup? We do not believe that they transform into something different. We believe that they are physical symbols of a spiritual reality. A symbol is something that represents something else. The bread represents Jesus’ body, and the cup represents his blood.
Why do you not use real wine for communion? It is obvious that the Corinthian church used real wine, or Paul would not have to chastise those who came early and drank all the wine for getting drunk.
But we choose to use unfermented grape juice rather than wine. The Methodist Church comes out of a long history of helping those who are addicted to alcohol. In fact, for a long time, you couldn’t drink alcohol and be a member of the Methodist church – because we did not want to cause those who were tempted towards alcohol to stumble. You do not have to be an abstainer to be a member now, but we still choose to offer communion in a non-alcoholic way. This is part of us discerning the body.
Then why should I take part in communion?
Two reasons. One it is commanded of us. “Do this in remembrance of me.” But the second reason is that we believe that it is a means of grace.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists, called communion the grand channel of his grace. As we walk through the time of communion together, we confess our sins. We consecrate the bread and the cup. We ingest physically something that is true spiritually. Jesus died for our sins. We are forgiven. Jesus shed his blood; he gave his life that we might have life.
And somehow, in that physical act, God does something spiritually to us. He empowers us. We believe that something good happens to us spiritually as we partake of communion. John Wesley talks about it as food for our souls. If you want to strengthen your spiritual life take part as often as you can of the means of grace.
How often do we celebrate communion at Asbury
We aim to celebrate communion at Asbury. The Free Methodist Church dictates that it must happen once every three months. But we choose to do it once a month. Some churches celebrate communion every week. We choose not to do that because we don’t want it to become just a ritual that we take part in. We don’t want it to become so common that we do it without thought.
This morning we are going to take part in communion. I started out by saying that for us, communion is a window into the spiritual realm. Let me describe what I see.
As I look upon the bread and the cup, I see what happened to Jesus on the cross. He was whipped and beaten, and then nails were driven into his hands and his feet. It is a most horrible way to die. I remember that he is God and could have called 10,000 angels. He chose to go through it. He chose to go through it for you and for me.
When I look upon the bread and the cup, I see what happened spiritually. Although the physical pain was awful, the spiritual pain was worse. I see the lamb of God, who took upon himself the sin of the world. We have the one, who from eternity had been in fellowship with God, who was perfection incarnate, took upon himself the sin of the word and felt his father in heaven turn away from him.
When I look upon the bread and the cup, I see that he did what he did for me and you. I am very aware that it is my sin that sent him to the cross. It was our sin that nailed him to that tree.
I look upon the bread and the cup, and I see that I am not worthy. I don’t deserve what was done for me. You don’t deserve what was done for you. We are completely unworthy.
I look through that window of the bread and the cup, and I see the love of God. Although we are unworthy of his love, he still loved us. It is the definition of grace. Undeserved favour. He died for us, although we did not earn it or deserve it. I see the love of the Father and the Love of the Son, and I don’t understand why he would love us – but I am so thankful he did.
I look upon the bread and the cup, and I see in it this invitation to walk in relationship with the God of the universe. I see that he did everything that needed to be done so that we might have a relationship with him. My only job is to receive it. It is as simple as eating the bread and drinking the wine. I didn’t earn it. I just take what is offered to me.
I look upon the bread and the cup, and I see the remedy for sin and for evil. There are a lot of bad things that happen in our world. You may take a look at your life and see the bad things that you have done. But I look through this window, and I know that the power of the cross goes deeper than any stain of sin. It is more powerful than the evil that is in our world. And because of what was done on the cross, God will eventually conquer all evil, sin and death.
When I look at the bread and the cup, I see hope. For in the cross, God did what needed to be done to secure our future. Life may be hard now, but there is a heaven to be gained because of the cross.
This morning I invite you to stare through that window with me as we take part in communion together.