As early as the Emmaus experience on the day of Resurrection, recorded in Luke 24:13-35, Christians recognized the presence of Jesus Christ in the breaking of bread. The traditional Jewish practice of taking bread, blessing and thanking God, and breaking and sharing the bread took on new meaning for them. When followers of Christ gathered in Jesus’ name, the breaking of bread and sharing of the cup was a means of remembering his life, death, and resurrection and of encountering the living Christ. They experienced afresh the presence of their risen Lord and received sustenance for their lives as disciples. As the church organized itself, this custom of Eucharist became the characteristic ritual of the community and the central act of its worship.
Over the centuries, various understandings and practices of Holy Communion have developed. Roman Catholicism teaches that the substance of bread and wine are changed (although not visibly) into the actual body and blood of Christ (sometimes called transubstantiation).
Protestant Reformers in the sixteenth century rejected this teaching but had diverse ideas among themselves. Lutherans maintain that Christ’s body and blood are truly present in and with the elements of bread and wine in the celebration (sometimes erroneously called corporeal presence or consubstantiation). Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss reformer, taught that the Lord’s Supper is a memorial or reminder of Christ’s sacrifice, an affirmation of faith, and a sign of Christian fellowship. Although his name may be unfamiliar, Zwingli’s views are widely shared today, especially within evangelical churches. Denominations in the Reformed tradition, following John Calvin, maintain that although Christ’s body is in heaven, when Holy Communion is received with true faith, the power of the Holy Spirit nourishes those who partake.
The Church of England affirmed a somewhat similar view in its Catechism and Articles of Religion. These understandings (stated here very simplistically) suggest the range of ideas that were available to John and Charles Wesley and the early Methodists.
Where the UMC Stands
Like baptism, Holy Communion is regarded by Protestants as a sacrament. That is, it’s an act of worship ordained by Christ and is a means of grace. This does not mean that we become any more worthy of God’s grace by taking part in Communion. Rather, we open ourselves to the divine love that’s already there; we become more ready to receive that love and to respond to it.
As with baptism, we use common, physical gifts of the earth, bread and wine—though in United Methodist churches we prefer unfermented grape juice. All Christians are welcome at our table, whatever their denomination. Holy Communion is a family meal, and all Christians are members of Christ’s family. Therefore, in each congregation, when we receive the bread and cup, we join with millions of brothers and sisters across the ages and around the world.
Holy Communion (or the Lord’s Supper) is a mystery too deep for words. Its meaning will vary for each of us and from one time to another. But three essential meanings are caught up in this proclamation in our Communion service: “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again” (The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 14).
“Christ has died”
In part, Communion is a time to remember Jesus’ death, his self-giving sacrifice on our behalf. As he said to the disciples at their last meal together, “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24).
In remembering his passion and crucifixion, we remember our own guilt; for we know that in our sin we crucify Christ many times over from day to day. So the Lord’s Supper is a time of confession: “We confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart….We have not heard the cry of the needy” (The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 12).
“Christ is risen”
But Communion is not a memorial service for a dead Jesus. It’s not a time to wallow in our own guilt. It’s a time to celebrate the Resurrection, to recognize and give thanks for the Risen Christ. The bread and wine represent the living presence of Christ among us—though we do not claim, as some denominations do, that they become Christ’s body and blood.
In Luke’s Resurrection story, the Risen Christ broke bread with two of his followers at Emmaus, “then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (24:31). So, as we’re nourished by this meal, our eyes are opened; and we recognize Christ here in our congregation, our community, and our world. What’s our response? Thanksgiving! In fact, another of our words for Communion, the Eucharist, means thanksgiving.
“Christ will come again”
In Communion we also celebrate the final victory of Christ. We anticipate God’s coming reign, God’s future for this world and all creation. As Jesus said, “I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:29).
We believe that we’re partners with God in creating this future, but the demands of discipleship are rigorous. In the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, in the fellowship of Christian friends gathered at his table, we find the nourishment we need for the tasks of discipleship ahead.
— From The United Methodist Member’s Handbook, Revised and Expanded by George E. Koehler (Discipleship Resources, 2006).
What We’re Doing in This World
World Communion Sunday is a time to be in communion with Christians all over the world and to enable us to "press on toward the goal" of serving God in life-changing ministries. When churches take the offering for this Special Sunday, the proceeds provides ethnic scholarships for international and US racial and ethnic minority graduate students and scholarships for racial and ethnic minority persons seeking second careers in church-related vocations. [more]