During a confirmation class, the pastor asked a group of mostly 13- and 14-year-old students to name some things Christians — and specifically United Methodists — do that most other people do not. One of the girls raised her hand and said with a smile, "We dunk our bread in grape juice."
Yes, that is different.
The sacrament of Holy Communion is such a common occurrence in the landscape of our worship that its uncommon richness sometimes gets lost.
One sacrament, several names
The Lord's Supper, Holy Communion and the Eucharist are all names for this sacrament celebrated by United Methodists. Each of these names highlights an aspect of this act of worship.
According to This Holy Mystery, The United Methodist Church's official document on communion, "The Lord's Supper reminds us that Jesus Christ is the host and that we participate at Christ's invitation." Jesus invites us to take part in the special meal he ate with his disciples the night before his crucifixion, and other meals he shared in homes and on hillsides.
"The term Holy Communion invites us to focus on the self-giving of the Holy God which makes the sacrament an occasion of grace, and on the holiness of our communion with God and one another," This Holy Mystery continues.
Finally, "Eucharist, from the Greek word for thanksgiving, reminds us that the sacrament is thanksgiving to God for the gifts of creation and salvation."
Due to a lack of ordained clergy in the early days of the church in the United States, a history of receiving the sacrament quarterly (four times per year) is the habit in some places. The vast majority of United Methodist congregations in the United States (97% in the most recent study) now celebrate the Lord's Supper at least once per month. This Holy Mystery and The United Methodist Book of Worship encourage weekly communion.
The Services of Word and Table in the front of The United Methodist Hymnal lead us in celebrating the fullness of the sacrament.
Our communion liturgy begins with words spoken on Jesus' behalf inviting "all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin, and seek to live in peace with one another."
There are no conditions for church membership or completion of a class required.
The baptized present are all invited, even if they belong to a different church. Those not baptized are not barred from receiving, but "should be counseled and nurtured toward baptism as soon as possible," This Holy Mystery advises.
In addition, there is no minimum age. Even baptized infants are invited. The Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, former director of worship resources with Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church, explains, "To whatever degree they're able to participate in the Great Thanksgiving — even if that's simply being held in their mother's arms while they sleep — they are there. They are part of what we are all doing together, so they are welcome to receive."
"Ecumenically, the term 'open communion' … means that all of the baptized are welcome to receive," explains the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources with Discipleship Ministries. This distinguishes our invitation from some other Christian denominations that may require additional rites before one is welcome to the table.
"United Methodists do not practice 'wide open communion,'" Burton-Edwards continues. "We are instructed to use the invitation as it appears in our ritual to make clear whom Christ does invite to his table. It is those who 'love him, earnestly repent of their sin, and seek to be at peace with one another.' While we serve all who present themselves, not questioning their integrity in response to the invitation, these are actual conditions."
Confession, pardon and peace
During the next part of the service, we prepare ourselves to offer a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving by repenting of sin and seeking to live in peace with one another.
After praying a prayer of confession, we share words of pardon that remind us of the grace freely available to all who repent, "In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!"
The Peace then follows, where we offer one another signs of reconciliation and love, affirming our desire to live as a reconciled community in Christ.
The Great Thanksgiving
During the next part of the service, the pastor leads the congregation in a prayer called The Great Thanksgiving.
"Our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving is The Great Thanksgiving," Burton-Edwards teaches. "That's why it's essential that the people participate actively in this."
We join in the ancient tradition of sacrifice by offering God our praise and thanksgiving for the wondrous gift of salvation (see Psalm 141).
We offer ourselves and our gifts of bread and wine to God with thanksgiving. Then we ask for the Holy Spirit to be poured upon us and these gifts, that they may become for us the body and blood of Christ, nourishing us, who have been redeemed by his blood, to be the body of Christ in the world.
We conclude praising the Triune God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — before uniting our voices in the Lord's Prayer.
Then the bread is broken, and the body and blood of Christ are given to those who come to receive.
The elements of communion
"It is appropriate that the bread eaten in Holy Communion both look and taste like bread," This Holy Mystery clarifies. "The use of a whole loaf best signifies the unity of the church as the body of Christ and, when it is broken and shared, our fellowship in that body."
"A single cup or chalice may be used for intinction — dipping the bread into the wine — or for drinking," This Holy Mystery also affirms. "The use of a common chalice best represents Christian unity, but individual cups are used in many congregations."
This story uses the word juice over wine because historically, United Methodists have been committed to use "the pure, unfermented juice of the grape."
"That came out of our involvement in the temperance movement in the 19th century and into the 20th century," Burton-Edwards explains. "It is also out of an ongoing concern for persons for whom alcohol may be a problem."
Prayer after receiving
Holy Communion brings together our worship and our work in the world.
"Communion is our meal," Burton-Edwards explains, "It is our feeding. We need that sustenance and we need it regularly."
In the prayer after receiving, we affirm this. We pray, "Grant that we may go into the world in the strength of your Spirit, to give ourselves for others, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord."
All this is God's gift to us.
Burton-Edwards continues, "We are fed with the body of Christ by the Father and empowered by the Spirit to live as Christ's body in the world."
Dipping bread into juice may seem a little odd, but it is an important sign of our life as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Burton-Edwards summarizes, "What we're doing in the Eucharist is a double thing. When we receive 'the body and blood of Christ that we may be for the world the body of Christ redeemed by his blood,' we are remembering. At the same time, we are also re-membered, put back together again. We pray that we may be 'one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.' God's work of making us one and uniting us with Christ, with each other and in our witness and life in the world — is the ordinary way by which God feeds us, sustains us, and empowers us to live as Christians in the world."
A great resource to help you understand the key elements of the theology and practice of Holy Communion in The United Methodist Church is The Meaning of Holy Communion, which can be downloaded free on the Discipleship Ministries website.
The official statement This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion can also to be downloaded free on the Discipleship Ministries website.
Learn more about World Communion Sunday.
*Joe Iovino works for UMC.org at United Methodist Communications. Contact him by email or at 615-312-3733.
This story was first published on September 23, 2015.