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Monday, November 1, 2010

Tackling the Table with Wesley

For this post, I would like to take a look at a sermon by John Wesley entitled “The Duty of Constant Communion.” It is this sermon that lays out the foundational theology underlying the Methodist understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Wesley states the sermon has the purpose to: “First, show that it is the duty of every Christian to receive the Lord’s Supper as often as he can; and secondly, answer some objections.”[1]
Wesley had originally written “The Duty of Constant Communion” as a discourse to use with his students while teaching at Oxford. He later prepared it as a sermon because of the manner in which the Lord’s Supper was rarely attended by a good many of the Methodist society members who, following the modern tendency, felt the spoken Word was a sufficient means of grace and thus did not attend communion services held on Sundays.
Wesley argues in the first section of this sermon that it is the “plain command of Christ” to commune constantly. Communion should be done because “the benefits of doing it are so great to all that do it in obedience to him; namely, the forgiveness of our past sins and the present strengthening and refreshing of our souls.[2] Wesley felt those who denied receiving communion also denied “the dying command” of Christ, forgiveness, and “the strengthening of his soul.”[3]
Wesley appeals to tradition as he makes an example of the early Church in his sermon. He notes that the early Christians received the Lord’s Supper on almost a daily basis: “Let everyone therefore who has either any desire to please God, or any love of his own soul, obey God and consult the good of his own soul by communicating every time he can; like the first Christians, with whom the Christian sacrifice was a constant part of the Lord’s day’s service.  And for several centuries they received it almost every day.  Four times a week always, and every saint’s day beside.”[4]
Furthermore, upholding Scriptural authority, Wesley encourages the study of passages dealing with Christ’s institution of the Lord’s Supper: “In order to understand the nature of the Lord’s Supper, it would be useful carefully to read over those passages in the Gospel and in the first Epistle to the Corinthians which speak of the institution of it.”[5]
The second part of Wesley’s sermon is much longer as it deals with objections against constant communion. The first excuse Wesley tackles is the feeling among people that they are unworthy to receive the sacrament. This had become a common thought among many people due to Calvinistic doctrine. Laurence Stookey details the prevailing Calvinist mindset that had developed regarding the Lord’s Supper: “Only those who with certainty knew themselves to be among the elect of God came to be regarded as fitting communicants. Others might jeopardize their spiritual growth by partaking. Thus the Eucharist came to be preceded by a serious time of self-examination. Often services were held every evening of the week prior to communion Sunday, with the clear expectation that attendance would decrease each succeeding night as more and more realized they were not yet ready to receive.”[6]
In response to this view, Wesley writes, “Unworthy to obey God? Unworthy to do what God bids you do? Do you mean... that those who are unworthy to obey God ought not to obey him?”[7] Wesley points out, in regards to Paul’s text in Corinthians, there is a difference between being worthy and eating and drinking unworthily. As for those who did not partake in the Lord’s Supper because they had fallen into a recent state of sin, Wesley asks, “Where does the Bible teach to atone for breaking one commandment of God by breaking another?”[8]
The second objection Wesley addresses is one made by people who claim they do not have enough time to prepare for the Lord’s Supper. Wesley retorts by saying the only preparation needed is a “willingness to repent and amend your lives, and be in charity with all men...”[9] Wesley’s idea of preparation was closer to Luther’s (based upon faith) than to Calvin’s (requiring lengthy evaluation and penance). The only things able to stop someone from being prepared for communion is an unwillingness to be prepared for heaven or if they have fallen out of a state of salvation.
Though Wesley responds to other objections regarding constant communion in this sermon, the final objection he addresses deals specifically with the Church of England. Since the common practice was that, “…the Church enjoins it only three times a year,” Wesley responds by turning to the Book of Common Prayer (1662), admitting it does state, “…every parishioner shall communicate at least three times in the year.” He makes two arguments in reply. Wesley begins by turning to the authority of God over the authority of the Church: “What if the Church had not enjoined it at all?  Is it not enough that God enjoins it?  We obey the Church only for God’s sake.  And shall we not obey God himself?  If then you receive three times a year because the Church commands it, receive every time you can because God commands it.  Else your doing the one will be so far from excusing you for not doing the other that your own practice will prove your folly and sin, and leave you without excuse.”[10]
He then makes the reasonable and logical point that three times is the minimum set by the Book of Common Prayer, not the maximum.
John Wesley's sermon “The Duty of Constant Communion” rests on two points: it is a command of God; it is meant for blessing.  His conclusion is simple: “Considering this is a command of God, he that does not communicate as often as he can has no piety; consider it as a mercy, he that does not communicate as often as he can has no wisdom.”[11]
Perhaps Wesley’s words still ring true for today’s church. There needs to be a recognition of a need that can only be satisfied by constant communion, acknowledging Christ’s real presence at the table, celebrating the union of the saints in anticipation of the heavenly banquet, and actively linking the grace received at the table with acts of mercy toward others.

The full text of Wesley's original sermon can be found here:  http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umhistory/wesley/sermons/101/

[1] John Wesley, “The Duty of Constant Communion,” in John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, ed. Albert C. Outler & Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991), 501.
[2] Ibid, 502.
[3] Ibid, 502.
[4] Ibid, 503.
[5] Ibid, 504.
[6] Laurence Hull Stookey, Eucharist: Christ’s Feast With the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 86.
[7] Wesley, 507.
[8] Ibid, 509.
[9] Ibid, 509.
[10] Ibid, 510.
[11] Ibid, 510.


  1. This sermon & JW's treatise 'On Baptism' (which is an adaptation of his father's treatise on the same subject) are must reads for UM pastors and pastors-in-training. The grasp of our sacramental theology is poor not only among laity but even among clergy! Thanks for this post, Jonathan!
    -Jeff R.

  2. Thanks Jeff! Yeah, I agree - we need a better grasp on sacramental theology within our clergy and laity.

  3. Fot the month of October, we offered communion after 1st service, into 2nd and Sunday school hour. It was a come and go thing and I had the honor of serving. We had around 25 people a week come by and as far as I'm concerned 1 person would have been enough to keep it going. They are stopping it, and it saddens me. Maybe I'm related to JW?