John Wesley on Holy Communion
By Ryan Danker
February 18, 2022
I still remember the first time I realized that Wesleyans believe Holy Communion is more than an act of remembrance. Growing up, I can’t say that I thought about it – we rarely celebrated Communion in my church – I probably thought that as a Protestant, I couldn’t believe in anything other than Memorialism; that Communion is an act of remembrance, on our part, calling to mind the acts of Christ on our behalf.
But something changed during my college years as I read Ted Runyon’s book, New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today. I can’t say that I remember every new insight I glean from books, but this one hit me. It was as though I had been given permission to believe what I knew to be true; God is present to us in the means of bread and wine.
Runyon didn’t come up with this idea, of course. He was describing the Wesley brothers’ approach taken from the historic teachings of the Church. But what Runyon did was to offer permission, in a sense, to dive into the sacramental heritage of the Wesleyan revival.
What I discovered, among other things, was three insights that I want to highlight:
First, The Wesley brothers – and most of their heirs until the twentieth century – believed in the Real Presence; Christ is present in Holy Communion. This is the view presented clearly in many of Charles Wesley’s hymns:
This is the richest legacy Thou hast on man bestowed, Here chiefly, Lord, we feed on thee, And drink thy precious blood.
John called Holy Communion “the grand channel” of God’s grace to us; grace being nothing less than empowerment and pardon made possible by God’s very presence with us.
Second, revival and Holy Communion go hand in glove for Wesleyans and this is why John Wesley promoted Communion so often. He wrote that, “it is the duty of every Christian to receive the Lord’s Supper as often as he can…” precisely because he believed that when we receive Christ, our lives are transformed. Over and over again in his journal we see examples of God working mightily as the faithful gathered for Holy Communion and received Christ.
Third, the Wesleyan approach to Holy Communion is pastoral, much like the Early Church Fathers. If you want to dive into the teachings of John and Charles Wesley on this topic for yourself, you’ll find them in sermons, liturgies, and especially in hymns. We have a lived theology.
The sermons include “The Means of Grace,” and “The Duty of Constant Communion.” In the latter, Wesley responds to reservations about having the regular celebration of Communion, dealing with common questions we hear in the church today.
In Hymns on the Lord’s Supper, we have a rich resource that describes Holy Communion as a remembrance of what Christ has done, a means of grace, a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, a sacrifice once given that we can now offer together with our very selves, and as a sacrament. One of my favorite hymns within the collection makes a Wesleyan view of Holy Communion very plain; it offers us nothing less than love that offers the very life of God:
O the depth of love divine, Th’ unfathomable grace! Who shall say how bread and wine God into man 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!
We can see Wesley’s concern for the celebration of Holy Communion in the establishment of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784. What drove his otherwise “irregular” move to found a new church was a concern that a post-Revolutionary War America would be a Eucharistic desert without clergy to celebrate Communion. So using the means he had at hand and his best insights at the time, he ordained Thomas Coke as a superintendent together with Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey as presbyters.
Given the care necessary to administer Communion and the grace given in ordination to carry out the work, presbyters – or elders – were necessary to make this available to the people of North America. So Wesley not only instilled the desire for Communion in the hearts of the Methodists, but also saw to it that Communion was “duly administered.” My hope is that we, too, can learn from Wesley about the centrality of Holy Communion, to see what – or Who – it really is, and to take necessary steps for its faithful administration in the year’s ahead.
Dr. Ryan Danker is the Director of the John Wesley Institute, Washington, D.C. He is the author of Wesley and the Anglicans and he recently co-edited The Next Methodism with Dr. Kenneth J. Collins.
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