Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)
If I were to attempt to identify the single most important area of Christian Theology for my life and ministry it would have to be that of Sacramentology. That’s a great, big, jaw-breaking word, but it deals with a very simple yet important area of theological understanding: grace. What is grace? How does grace function in the Christian life? And, most critically, how is grace received? These questions are central to the field of “Sacramentology,” and since I am a Sacramental Theologian they are also central to me.
Grace is God's unearned, undeserved, and unmerited love and favor. Without grace we would be lost; without grace we would lack the fire of God's Holy Spirit; without grace we would lack any ability to serve the last, the least, and the lost of this world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Grace is the love, life, and Real Presence of Jesus moving in and through us, transforming our self-centered and spiritually dead souls and infusing us with the eternal life that God desires for us. In short, grace is fuel for Christian living.
How do we “fill up” on this grace? How do we, to quote Hebrews, “approach the throne of grace” and “find grace to help in time of need?” There are many ways for receiving grace that have been identified and practiced by Christians down through the centuries. Grace comes to us through many means, and they all should be tapped if our Christian living is to be whole and “fully powered.” Among the most-often cited means of grace are: prayer, worship, the reading and study of scripture, preaching, the fellowship of Christians together, giving, serving, fasting, and the historic sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. Through all of these instruments of grace - and, especially, through the sacraments - Christians have access to the unmerited favor of God which enables us to live according to God’s Will. This understanding of the means of grace in general, and of the sacraments in particular, is the precise focus of the theological field of Sacramentology.
My doctoral dissertation was on Sacramentology, and specifically on the United Methodist understanding and practice of Holy Communion. While we may correctly speak about this sacrament in many different ways, suffice it to say that through Holy Communion (also known as the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist) Christians receive continual infusions of the Real Presence of Jesus which enables us to walk in Christ and grow in Christian love and faith. While the sacrament of Baptism is the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace of God which both draws us to God and puts us into Christ, Holy Communion is the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace of God which empowers us to Christian living, guides us in our actions, and communicates to us the assurance of knowing that we are living in God’s Will. While Baptism is the sacramental manifestation of prevenient and justifying grace, Holy Communion is the sacramental embodiment of sanctifying grace: in and through its reception we are transformed into greater and greater likenesses of the image of Christ. We may hear about Jesus when we listen to sermons or read the scriptures, we may pray to Jesus in our prayers, sing about Jesus in our hymns, give a cup of water in Jesus’ name through our service, and praise Jesus in our worship, but it is in the sacrament of Holy Communion that we receive Jesus, anew, into our lives by faith. This makes the sacrament of the Lord's Supper critically important; if we expect to grow in grace and be the Church of Jesus Christ we must receive our Lord's Presence at the Table.
“But I’m not worthy to receive!” This objection is a common one, and one which I entirely understand. To put this simply, no one is worthy to receive. Not a single one of us. We are all unworthy, regardless of who were are or how long we have been a Christian, to receive the sacrament. Indeed, there is nothing that we can do to make ourselves worthy! The only thing that we can do, according to the Apostle Paul, is receive the sacrament with our faith focused upon the Real Presence of Jesus; if we do this, even though we ourselves are unworthy, we will be receiving the sacrament in a worthy manner. We are not, and never can be by our own efforts, worthy to receive or celebrate at the table. But, because we are unworthy we are called to approach the throne of grace with faith and Jesus makes us worthy through his precious, life transforming body and blood.
“But I can’t come forward, I can't walk, or I can't kneel!” That’s ok! In the history of the church many different methods have been used for receiving Holy Communion. In some churches people receiving the sacrament kneeling at an altar rail, while in others they approach the celebrant in a single file and receive the elements standing. Indeed, in still other traditions people receive the elements seated in their pews! Jesus calls us to receive with our faith focused upon him, his grace and his presence; the mechanics of reception are not nearly as important as our focus of faith when we receive. One should never allow difficulties with the mechanics of reception to keep one away from the offered means of grace.
“But this seems like empty ritual to me.” Yes, sometimes the means of grace can become empty for us. If we are lazy, if we are focused upon ourselves, or upon a minister we dislike, or upon church members who bug us, or upon that jerk that cut us off in traffic yesterday, the sacrament can become empty for us. In such circumstances, our faith and focus is not upon Christ but upon ourselves or upon someone or someting else. For any act of worship, for any means of grace, for any prayer or any act of service to be anything more than empty ritual or obligation it must have Christ at its center. The Holy Eucharist is always a Christ-centered event; regardless of how it is celebrated, or where, or when, or by whom, the reception of the Real Presence of Jesus should always be our focus; Jesus is always our focus of faith. If our focus is upon Christ, and not upon something else, the sacrament will not be empty to us, but alive with life-transforming, spiritual-life giving grace.
“I don’t understand how Jesus can be present in the sacrament, so I shouldn’t receive it.” Indeed? I have a doctorate in the theology of Holy Communion and I still don’t understand how Jesus is Really Present in the Eucharist; I simply accept, by faith, that he is really present and receive him anyway. This is all any of us can do. God is offering us “fuel for Christian living” in this blessed, Holy Sacrament: in faith we should prayerfully receive it and, by receiving it, receive Christ anew. I, and many other Christians, have discovered that through receiving the elements with faith, our understand can be, and frequently is, enlightened by the experience of the presence of Christ. To stay away because we do not understand is to rob ourselves of the only true source for spiritual understanding. Indeed, I would argue that it is precisely when our understanding is lacking that we must lean most especially upon our faith and trust in Jesus. It is when we doubt that we should receive the Sacrament of our Lord.
The sacrament of the Lord's Supper is one of the most fundamental means whereby we can "approach the throne of grace." When we draw near with faith and boldly receive the offered gift of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we discover God's "mercy" and truly "find grace to help" in the time of our deepest need. With a promise so powerful and compelling, how can we dare to stay away and refuse to partake of the Sacrament? No fear, no failure of understanding, can justify a refusal to act in faith and receive the gift of God's grace in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. We are called to recive this radical fuel for Christian living that Christ has appointed for our benefit, and to do so in faith that Jesus will meet us there. Quite simply, it is the Christian thing to do.
Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of St. Stephen United Methodist Church in Mesquite, Texas, and an Ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity Graduate College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Biblical Studies, Languages, Systematic Theology, Liturgy, and the Sacraments. He has taught New Testament Studies, Biblical Greek, and courses on the Theology of the Sacraments in UM Schools of Mission, Continuing Education Seminars, and in undergraduate courses across the country. As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, both of which are available from Koinonia Press through your local bookstore, on the internet at Amazon.com, and in the Grace Incarnate Store. You are invited to read Dr. Neal's academic papers and theological articles on his website at Writings, and you are encouraged to listen to Dr. Neal's Messages online in Real Player format.
© 2007, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
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