Tony Campolo tells a classic joke that combines two of my favorite things: Communion and ecumenism. It goes something like this:
Different denominations approach Communion differently. Catholics believe that the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus; Lutherans believe that the bread stays bread and the wine stays wine but that Christ is still present in them; I’m a Baptist and we believe that the bread stays bread and the wine becomes grape juice.
Tony’s characteristic wit aside, what his jape points out is that most Christians believe something significant happens at the Lord’s Table. Various Western Christian traditions describe what actually happens at the Eucharist in different ways: Catholic transubstantiation, Lutheran real presence, and the Memorialist “real absence” (the idea that the Lord’s Supper is a simple remembrance and not a means of grace). The Wesleyan tradition does not fit neatly into any of these because John and Charles, on this score (pardon the pun), have more in common with the Eastern Christian tradition. In the Christian East, the “sacred mystery” of communion is celebrated and confessed more than it is examined under a microscope and described with scientific precision. In the East, mystery is embraced more than it is dissected. Charles Wesley expresses this Eastern sensibility in his eucharistic hymn “O the Depth of Love Divine“:
O the depth of love divine,
the unfathomable grace!
Who shall say how bread and wine
God into us conveys!
How the bread his flesh imparts,
how the wine transmits his blood,
fills his faithful people’s hearts
with all the life of God!
Let the wisest mortals show
how we the grace receive;
feeble elements bestow
a power not theirs to give.
Who explains the wondrous way,
how through these the virtue came?
These the virtue did convey,
yet still remain the same.
How can spirits heavenward rise,
by earthly matter fed,
drink herewith divine supplies
and eat immortal bread?
Ask the Father’s wisdom how:
Christ who did the means ordain;
angels round our altars bow
to search it out, in vain.
Sure and real is the grace,
the manner be unknown;
only meet us in thy ways
and perfect us in one.
Let us taste the heavenly powers,
Lord, we ask for nothing more.
Thine to bless,’ tis only ours
to wonder and adore.
Charles does not merely name the mystery but revels in it, stanza after stanza. The “unfathomable grace” is searched out by angels “in vain,” so that “’tis only ours to wonder and adore.” Charles would have us not only know but exalt that God meets us in the bread and cup in ways we cannot describe or comprehend, though the grace remains “sure and real.”
Charles’ approach here is similar to how he hymns narrates the death of Christ in his classic “And Can it Be that I Should Gain“:
Tis mystery all: th’ Immortal dies!
Who can explore his strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
to sound the depths of love divine.
‘Tis mercy all! Let earth adore;
let angel minds inquire no more.
Like the Eucharist, even the angels cannot know how it is that God in the flesh can die, nor can the seraphs intone how great a love God has shown us on Good Friday. ‘Tis mystery all – not in terms of being a cop-out or an excuse for imprecision, mind you – but simply because the reality is so wondrous that it makes us all too aware of the limits of our own imagination and cognition. Like trying to adequately describe the birth of a child or the first kiss with your true love, the beauty overwhelms our ability to describe it.
This is an aspect of the Methodist tradition I believe we should recover, not only because it is true to our Wesleyan roots and ancient Christian teaching more broadly, but because an embrace of mystery is actually quite characteristic of postmodernity. In other words, if we re-embrace the love for mystery that characterized the Wesleys themselves, we will not only be recovering the heart of our tradition but we will be better equipped to reach a generation who has rediscovered the limits of dry rationalism and the delight of embracing a God whose being and gifts are beyond our limited understanding. As our own denominational teaching on the sacrament reminds us, there is more to the mystery, and people are hungry for Jesus.
It is time that we all learn what it truly means to pray:
Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery
in which you have given yourself to us.
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. Amen.
How does your congregation embrace the Holy Mystery of Communion? How can we be better stewards of this holy gift? I’d welcome your comments and questions below!